Good Thinking

Is It For You?

So how do you know whether you need an innovation program? Here are a few signs to note, says Leifer: Sales start to erode, customers start asking whether you're doing anything new, or good employees start to leave the company. "There's no cookbook approach," says Leifer. "It depends on the personalities of the company leaders, the culture of the company and the industry. But most companies we've seen have to think about reinventing themselves and [their products] . . . to stay competitive and successful. It's a big challenge."

Now There's an Idea!

If Bill Ernstrom has his way, lots of ideas will be born from his corporate entrepreneurship program.

Voyant Technologies Inc. is four years old, but the company, a provider of audio-conferencing technology, only started promoting innovation in the most cost-effective way in February--via its intranet.

Using that network, Westminster, Colorado-based Voyant's 200 employees learn about the company's history as well as the "Product Implementation Process"--rules for launching entrepreneurial ideas. "That's a really important part, because if you don't know the ground rules, then it's impossible to do it--even if you have a great idea," says CEO Bill Ernstrom, 37.

Further fueling innovation is the Bright Ideas program, which rewards both entrepreneurial successes and failures. The Best Overall Company Mind Share Contribution goes to ideas that captured the company's imagination, and the Elisha Gray Award (Elisha Gray filed for a patent for the telephone a few hours after Alexander Graham Bell did) goes to near-successes. The reward: a nice plaque and stock options. "We steer away from [money awards]," says Ernstrom. "Everyone has stock options, so we try to steer toward, 'Hey, we're all pulling the same way, and we all win if it's pulled together.'"

Mimicking the VC process, Voyant executives review new ideas--which tend to stay in the market space, although the company doesn't limit itself in that way--and supply the high-potential innovations with funding.

Ernstrom says most ideas come from tech employees, but there's no rule saying ideas can't come from anywhere in the company. New projects are still germinating, so it's too early to tell whether Bright Ideas is working, but Ernstrom says Voyant's sticking with the program for now. "We try to find things that are inexpensive but really innovative," he says. "And that's clearly what an entrepreneur does."

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Good Thinking.

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