Innovative Hits, Not Home Runs

A conversation with Joe Colopy, founder and CEO of Bronto Software
By Alice Bumgarner
To stay competitive, Joe Colopy of Bronto Software, an e-mail marketing service provider, must keep innovating – or meet the same fate as his company's namesake.

In the world of email marketing, what matters is making messages stand out, even as inboxes become more cluttered. To meet the challenge, Bronto relies on a combination of strategically targeted messages on the front end and Google-like analytics on the back end. The company's software superiority has fueled fast growth: Bronto, whose clients include Johnson & Johnson, Lake Champlain Chocolates and Lending Tree, is growing 50% to 100% every year, and the company is currently tripling its office space.

Alice Bumgarner (AB): What is the importance and the role of innovation at your company, given today's economic environment?

Joe ColopyJoe Colopy: Innovation is essential to Bronto, because we're in the business of developing and selling technology to solve business problems. In tough times like these, people are moving their marketing dollars to email or online marketing. Those with the best ideas, and those who can implement them well, will win.

AB: How is this role reflected at your workplace?

Joe Colopy: I look at innovation as being about fostering an environment of creativity and collaboration, so you can have a thousand small innovations. From the outside, it may look like something is one big innovation. But that's a 'lottery ticket' view of the world. It's really about creating an environment that allows little innovations to build upon each other and bubble up. That's why Google allows a lot of free time to come up with their own projects. It's why 3M famously has a long track record of doing that. That's what I see as the bedrock of innovation – fostering trust and flexibility and allowing hundreds of small things to happen.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

Joe Colopy: I founded the company and built the first software product, so there were thousands of small innovations that enabled it to be successful. But our current innovation is more in our unique culture than in the end product.

We keep things very focused, collaborative, democratic, unique and creative. For example, we have an extremely open, flat organization. I sit with everyone else – in a crappier seat than other people! We don't have cubes, just tables clustered in sets of two, three or four in different parts of the room, like little islands.

The downside is that you don't have privacy, and it has the potential to be distracting. But it actually ends up being more productive in a harder-to-measure way. You can easily dialogue with someone in another group. The physical organization sends an important message – people's opinions are valued.

AB: What, if any, problem solving, creativity tools or innovation software do you use or are you familiar with?

Joe Colopy: We don't use any specific tools, but we do structure the environment so that good ideas come from everywhere within the organization.

AB: How do you encourage good ideas to bubble up?

Joe Colopy: Social media tools help spark ideas. Employees use Twitter, Facebook and our internal wiki, called BrontoPedia. At the core of BrontoPedia are our weekly metrics, but it's also the place for marketing plans, YouTube videos, an RSS feed from our blog, articles that people have tagged from It's a democratic, decentralized approach, as opposed to a top-down approach.

We also set up games to help people feel part of things and collaborate. For example, once a month, we spin a big wheel with 36 spots on it. We end up with two numbers, which correspond to two employees, and those two employees swap spaces for a week to work alongside another team. Now these employees have made some connections and new relationships. So when, say, a salesperson has an idea, he can go to the product manager and talk about. Engineers can go to sales folks and say, "Would this be hard to manage?"

It's easy to get your head down in your own little world. Innovation and creativity are about connecting things that appear disparate.

AB: Do your innovations ever come from consultants or outside sources?

Joe Colopy: Generally, we don't use consultants except for some specific functional tasks. I believe that the talent is here, it's just a matter of tapping into it.

AB: What is the most difficult problem you and/or your team have solved?

Joe Colopy: The challenge has been not so much in solving discrete problems, but in the ambiguity surrounding the problem – in other words, do you even know what the problem is versus the symptoms?

AB: When faced with ambiguity surrounding a problem, how do you and your team clarify it?

Joe Colopy: You have to get people to look at the same thing, otherwise everyone is working with a different set of assumptions. When we hold regular meetings about general strategy – to talk about where we're going, where we fit into the market, what the next big ideas will be – I give everyone a common framework or a way to look at the market, so we're all talking about the same thing. Then you can talk about whether your solutions make sense.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Joe Colopy: To overcome barriers, it is usually best to involve folks in other areas that can see your problem from a different perspective. We also loop in customers quite a bit, and they offer great perspectives too. We just have to willing to ask, which is sometimes tough to do. It's easier to move forward without using anyone's opinion but your own.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Joe Colopy: You can't be too tightly measured or you'll measure yourself out of innovation. It's important to spend some part of your business experimenting. Innovative products are often found in the journey of experimentation. That's how Bronto started. If you focus too much on having ROI justified at the beginning, then you'll never go down the path. If the benefit were obvious to everyone from the outset, then it probably wouldn't be innovative.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks such as that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Joe Colopy: No, I'm not. I am interested in idea communities that companies form with their customers to drive ideas. SalesForce has one that I think is cool, and it's something that we might implement.

AB: What good books, articles, blogs or other media on the topic of innovation have you read? Are there any that you recommend to employees?

Joe Colopy: Often I get good ideas by reading books and articles about completely different industries. For example, how does Zappos approach customer service? They're a completely different product than us – shoes vs. hosted software – but we have a lot of common approaches. You can find plenty of parallels if you look around.

AB: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation?

Joe Colopy: We have a saying here at Bronto: "Hits not home runs." I see innovation as being not necessarily one big idea but rather a thousand small ones that lead to something truly great.

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