Last year, we sat down and attempted to plan out a company-wide hackathon during the week all our remote employees were in town. We’d get everyone in a room, tell them to go ahead and build the next Postlight Labs project—and just go. We were excited about the idea of everyone building something together.
But then we realized something: We skipped a step!
Typically in our client work, the prep-work that defines what we should build is informed by the sales process, usually in a big room with all the stakeholders and a pile of research from both them and us.
In order to build the next big Postlight Labs product, we needed everyone in the company — engineers, designers and product managers — to be involved in the genesis of a product: The pitch.
So instead of a traditional hackday, focused on shipping a rough product, Postlight shut down the whole studio for two days to have a ideation and design marathon that we dubbed “Ideajam.”
The rules were simple: build the best elevator pitch for a product to convince the rest of the team of its purpose and viability. In this case, we asked everyone to “define the future of chat.”
We broke up into teams, and armed with markers, whiteboards, notepads, Post-Its, and coffee, we settled in for some rapid-fire ideation sessions. And since the pitch was for Postlight Labs, we needed to sell the six-week version of a product, specifically with an eye toward how to actually shipping an MVP on time that could continue to grow in the future.
We worked fast and hard. Our hackathons are like us: Not so much with the Red Bull all-nighters. We each went home at a reasonable hour, got a full night’s sleep, and came in the next morning ready to pitch.
Each of the five teams took a different approach to solving our prompt, and we all agreed any of the pitches could be a full-fledged product. Some teams are still working on their products off the side of their desks, but some of the products didn’t get built at all. And that’s totally okay! Even when we ultimately don’t produce a product, we still learn something valuable about working together and what makes a successful product pitch.
Here’s what we learned from the process, though: It’s incredibly useful to get your team—engineers, designers, product managers, and staff too—in a room, set a deadline, and make them pitch their big idea. It’s fast, everyone is engaged, and it breaks down hierarchies. We didn’t find a killer product, but we found a killer process that increased conversation across disciplines, and left everyone enthusiastic about working together.
Remixing the IdeaJam
Since then, Postlight has remixed our version of Ideajam in various forms with companies looking to kickstart their own idea from start to finish. It’s an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds across an organization to be comfortable with addressing real-world products and learn how to get there collaboratively. And last month, we opened our doors to 40 designers and product thinkers attending The 99U Conference in New York City to experience a Postlight Ideajam.
The only wrinkle? We only had two hours to do it.
So we built Ideajam Mini to fit within the limits of the conference schedule while keeping the end goal of going from concept to an elevator pitch. Each team had roughly an hour to get their team to pitch a concept product using whatever process worked best. The pitch needed to involve design and maybe some engineering, but at its core the pitch needed to solve a real problem for a real audience. And the teams had never worked together before.
I’ll be honest: I was nervous about what might happen, but despite the tight timeline the pitches turned out great.
We prompted the team with the following: design and create a service where users can communicate with other users using video. The idea of “video” was as intentionally broad for the exercise. Video didnt need to mean real-time nor face-to-face. It had to use technology that either exists today or could be feasible in the next six months. The product didn’t have to be super-practical, but we wanted it to solve a real use case.
Why video? Postlight as a company is always interested in the intersection of design and engineering and how people use products to better their lives. Video is a special medium that we’re all familiar with to varying degrees. Given how many devices in our lives have cameras in them, it’s an area that’s ripe for innovation. There are real-world concerns around video, too: potential for abuse, privacy issues, and bandwidth and network limitations, for starters. These aren’t barriers but rather starting points to think about how to solve for them. The prompt was really asking: What values of video can you tap into that make your product unique and empowering for users?
With their own stacks of Post-Its and Sharpies, each team tackled the problem in their own way. Some were practical, others aspirational, some had giant wireframes on posters, one team even had a video presentation — but they all were real ideas with big implications for their intended audiences. We can’t take credit for their ideas or spill the beans about their products, especially since some teams joked about seeking funding. Trust me, though: we were sold on all of these pitches.
One big limitation of the Mini part of the Ideajam Mini did force us to edit out a critical part: the Plan. Great ideas can happen at any time, but they’re famously cheap and easy to come up with. To ship a great idea, you need a plan. The elevator pitch is the fun half of a product strategy. The rest is all in the details: what technology choices need to be made, what’s in the roadmap of a shippable product, how many resources do we need, and so on. For Postlight Labs, we always aim for the six-week version of a product. For our clients, we build an aggressive but feasible timetable for our collective teams. I’m positive if we had had the whole day with the incredible 99U attendees, we would have gotten some fantastic plans out of them as well.
The best part of any Ideajam, though, is the moment right after the pitches. It’s amazing to watch teams come together to go through the somewhat-stressful presentation part and then talk amongst themselves as a whole group. That’s when someone comes up to ask you the follow-up question your team didn’t think to ask or tosses out a “yes-and” comment that pushes a good idea into greatness. The “competition” is over, but because everyone is still in ideation-overdrive, the conversations are about making the best collective product decision together as a team.
That’s the real magic of an Ideajam: bringing people together across different disciplines to get inspired about what they can build together. Watching it all come together with the talented 99U attendees was just as exciting as our first Ideajam, and we can’t wait to do it again.
Ready for your own Ideajam Mini?
There’s nothing that special or new about them, but there are some ground rules. Here’s a crash course in how to do an Ideajam Mini:
- Create a prompt that’s both open ended but focused enough to keep everyone in the same lane. “Make a cool app” is too broad, but don’t make it too paint-by-numbers.
- Get everyone in the same room and reassure them: you can do this! Everyone can pitch. We’re all here to support each other and let the best ideas bubble up. Make teams of people who don’t normally work together.
- Spread out into rooms and write down individual ideas described in a few words on a Post-It. You’re not selling the group on it yet, just throwing out ideas. Once an idea is on the board, move on to making new ideas or building on top others. Make sure everyone gets a chance to make an idea.
- Quickly and quietly vote individually. Everyone gets stickers to place on what they think can work for a pitch. (Or totally throw this out if your team gets excited about something early on! The process is very fluid, mostly because you don’t have a lot of time.) Also: Name your product! Very important, but only spend 3 minutes on it.
- Start sketching two things: what the product should have in it, and what the pitch will look like. Both things will inform each other, particularly because you can’t show everything in a pitch. You need the other teams to get the problem the product is solving and understand the value to its intended audience.
- Pitch! 5 minutes max per team, but seriously: no pressure.
- Talk amongst yourselves. What did you learn about from the other ideas? How did they decide on their path? Did they think about this specific use case? (Remember: This is where the magic happens.)
What you do with your ideas is up to you. They’re important and will probably be pretty decent to really good, but oddly enough they aren’t the goal. Ideajams help teams understand that everyone can pitch, and that’s a huge first step for thinking big about your team’s next product. Jam on!