December 29, 2011, 3:17 PM

How an e-retailer nurtures the big ideas

Art e-retailer DNA 11 relies on its employees for business ideas. 

Lead Photo

As part of its Idea Generator program, personalized art maker and e-retailer DNA 11 Inc. asks that all employees keep a Google document open on their computer screens at all times. The document is divided into three parts: new product ideas, process improvement ideas and free brainstorm. The e-retailer encourages employees in all departments to enter into the document any ideas that could grow the business. And throughout the day, employees and management can see everything that’s been added.

The Idea Generator is one of many structures DNA 11, No. 776 in Internet Retailer’s Second 500 Guide, has in place to encourage innovation among employees. The retailer consciously works to foster creativity, rather than simply hoping an employee will be struck by a brilliant idea, says director of marketing Spencer Callaghan.

Additionally, the e-retailer has a process it calls Green Hat that brings employees together to brainstorm about ideas for new technologies, marketing strategies or new products. “You throw out ideas and nobody is allowed to talk negatively about anything, even if it breaks the laws of physics,” he says. “Everything that gets said is thrown up on the board. Some ideas may go nowhere, but others end up being something great. A lot of the product development process here begins with Green Hat.”

Some ideas thrown out lately include a new filter, or image design effect, the company could use in Adobe Photoshop that is now one of the most popular filters the retailer uses when designing art; a different way of wiring canvases that cuts production time 30 seconds per canvas; or a crowdsourcing area of the site called DNA 11 Labs where shoppers can recommend and vote on new product ideas.

Acknowledgement is important at DNA 11, so employees are rewarded for their Green Hat or Idea Generator suggestions with free canvas prints, and the best ideas even draw quarterly bonuses. The retailer would not disclose the bonus amounts.

Some of the most innovative ideas the company has implemented in recent years have come from this type of internal brainstorming, Callaghan says. DNA 11’s encouragement of throwing out ideas is not only a way of growing the business through innovative strategies, he adds, but also a way to encourage employees to feel more connected to the enterprise, as though they have a real stake in its long-term success. This feeling, in turn, leads to more and better ideas.

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