How Spredfast’s Hackweek Fosters Innovation
A lot of tech companies host hackathons. Not that many host hack weeks.
But that’s exactly what Austin-based social marketing company Spredfast did earlier this month, and I was lucky enough to be there to witness what happens when you tell your entire company to stop what they’re doing, you yank them out of their routines, give them a simple mission — create something amazing — with absolutely no limits, restrictions, or guidelines, and you set them loose.
Teams self-formed. A unique blend of functions worked together. And just five days later, #Hackweek had generated 42 projects that perfectly reflected the diverse array of talent and unique culture that truly sets Spredfast apart.
“It’s not about creating some sort of transformative technology,” says Spredfast VP of Engineering Brian Dainton, who co-founded Mass Relevance before the company merged with Spredfast earlier this year. “That definitely happens, and some of the stuff that comes out of this week blows my mind. But, ultimately, it’s more about taking time to step back, remove yourself from the daily grind, and really focus on finding a new or better way to creatively solve problems.”
Those “problems” could be anything — from tackling inefficiencies in customer onboarding to boosting team productivity and morale.
A perfect example is the project that revolved entirely around Spredfast’s “keezer” (kegerator + freezer, pictured right). Five Spredfast employees spent the entire week building a brilliant inventory management and analytics system that now gauges which beer is flowing from the company’s taps and how much of it is left (in case you’re interested, the keezer even has its own Twitter account).
While that might sound like typical startup shenanigans, I can assure you the Spredfast team doesn’t view it that way. In fact, what really stood out about #Hackweek (keezer aside) was the creative atmosphere and cross-team collaboration it inspired. Product developers hunkered down with business development reps. Marketers built things with UX and customer success. And everyone voluntarily logged 14+ hour days, largely fueled by coffee, food trucks, and big ideas.
Even better, all of that happened very organically.
“I spent two days locked in a room with people from biz dev talking about things I never would have talked about otherwise,” Spredfast Product Architect Brian Carr said. “And that was something we chose to do. There are a lot of companies that really struggle to create that kind of collaboration.”
Ultimately, the project that Carr and his team (nicknamed Team Omniscience) worked on took home one of five #Hackweek prizes. It might — like previous #Hackweek projects — eventually find its way into Spredfast’s platform. But, while all of that is obviously exciting, Carr and Spredfast Director of Architecture Lee Parker (another member of Team Omniscience) insist that kind of product innovation isn’t the explicit goal of #Hackweek.
“It’s incredibly exciting to see projects that could turn into product,” Parker says. “But I think it’s just as exciting to see someone fix an internal inefficiency, or work on a project that improves teamwork and company culture. If that’s a product feature, fantastic. If it’s fixing some sort of glitch in your daily workflow or improving company culture, then that’s incredibly valuable, too.”
4 Keys to Unleashing Creativity and Fostering a Culture of Innovation
“We stay longer, work harder, and create some really badass things in the end.”— Elizabeth Winkler, Product Manager
So, what were the secrets behind #Hackweek’s success?
Spredfast’s team —from CEO Rod Favaron on down — believes that mindset (and the innovation that comes from it) are the result of four key pillars:
- The Right People: Since day one, Dainton says Spredfast (and, formerly, Mass Relevance) has made a concerted effort to hire only competitive, creative, innovative people who are passionate about creating great things. That hiring approach allows a massive project like #Hackweek to work at scale without any loss in productivity. “Because people have the freedom to do whatever they want, you might expect to see some people watching TV or spending less time at the office,” says Product Manager Elizabeth Winkler. “But nobody does that. Instead, we stay longer, work harder, and create some really badass things in the end.”
- Trust & Autonomy: Any company can hire a food truck to feed its team for a full week, or host a bourbon tasting at the end of a hackathon (Spredfast did both). But for this type of company-wide event to really deliver, Parker says businesses must have a highly-collaborative, autonomous environment that squashes any fear of taking risks. “Mandating projects or placing parameters around what people should work on just doesn’t work,” Dainton says. “Two of our core values are ‘Transopency’ and ‘Freesponsibility,’ and both revolve around the belief that trust, freedom, flexibility, and great talent will organically create great outcomes.”
- A Creative Culture: If you want to blow 10 minutes, check out the twitter handle@SpredfastGIFs. What is it? A Twitter account for Spredfast’s newly created GIF photo booth —the #Hackweek brainchild of Tom Grochowicz, Claire Jordan, Glynn Kaplan, and Jeffrey Humble. Will it eventually become a major product feature? Probably not. But the #Hackweek project was a massive cultural hit and it was the result of some serious cross-functional collaboration —two digital producers, one UX designer, and one product engineer. “It’s kind of goofy, but i think our project really reflects the culture of the company,” Grochowicz says. “The ‘work hard, play hard’mentality is really a critical piece of fostering innovation and creativity.”
- Executive Involvement: When a business grows like Spredfast has, one of the most typical byproducts is employee and executive separation. CEOs spend less time with employees. Management layers are put in place. And functional silos begin to form. At Spredfast, that hasn’t happened. In fact, the entire management team — from CEO Rod Favaron to CMO Jim Rudden — is heavily involved and invested in making #Hackweek successful. “It’s not just executive support,” says Senior Director of Business Development Zaz Floreani. “It’s executive involvement and evangelism. The management team gets just as geeked out about everything as we do, and that’s incredibly energizing for employees.”
Investing in the Intangible and Getting Real Results
“I spent two days locked in a room with people from biz dev talking about things I never would have talked about otherwise. And that was something we chose to do.”— Brian Carr, Product Architect
Of course, while the Spredfast team views #Hackweek as something vital to who they are and what they do, there are probably many people who might question whether the trade-off of one full week of normal productivity is really worth it.
Dainton doesn’t skip a beat.
“I can’t even begin to describe the intangible benefits we derive from #Hackweek,” Dainton says. “It’s really a perfect medium for identifying the edges of something — technology, marketing practices, customer service, corporate processes, culture, etc. — and exploring how to improve it. That’s very liberating and inspiring.”
That also probably explains why, at 10:30pm on Thursday night (well after #Hackweek projects had been submitted for voting and the company-wide bourbon tasting had ended), Dainton saw dozens of Spredfast employees hanging out around a long, wood kitchen table at the company’s Brazos office. Still sipping bourbon. Still talking about their projects. And blatantly ignoring their bodies’very obvious need for sleep.
“These were all people who had put in 16-hour days for four days straight,” Dainton says. “Maybe I should have told them all to shut it down and go home. But it was pretty obvious that, even after a long week of grinding through some pretty complex projects, they still genuinely wanted to be around each other.”
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