Local Motors' 7 Steps to Collaborative Inspiration

In this blog, I'm continuing my conversation with Jay Rogers, CEO and co-founder of Local Motors. Here, he speaks about some of the ethics behind the Local Motors process.

"My message has always been that if you think you can build a complex cyber mechanical system, you can probably do it better with a large group of people with whom you plant a flag, give a vision, organize, respect, engage… and then together, you'll chase your dreams," Jay Rogers told me about the Local Motors ethos. "So, that's what we do: massive leverage. You're doing it fast and you are engaging people in a way where not only are you leveraging distinct ideas, you're selecting people who have decided that they want to work on that."

Jay outlined how Local Motors structures contests, and some of the ideas behind its processes.

  1. Ownership of ideas is a complex issue and a necessary starting point. "When we were sitting back and theorizing about how this business would come about," Jay explained, "one of the questions that came up was: 'What if you have an idea, and he has an idea, and she has an idea, and I end up incorporating two of these three people in my design? How do the two of these three even know how to be credited, and how do you pay all those people?' We realized that there was an ethos or a moral in this community that we didn't even know about. It was: 'If I draw it and I conceive of it — even if you critique or give me ideas — the expectation is that I get the prize,'" he said.

    "In this industry, that skill of doing so for something as complex as a whole system was devolved or was recognized resident in the person who submitted the entry," he added. "We did have teams after a while. And the teams definitely all want to be paid equally together."

  2. Plan contests well ahead of time. "We definitely experiment all the time," Jay said. "But if you can announce it way far in advance, do it. And then the next thing is to stick to your guns when you're going to start something. Start it whatever the beginning is. For us, the starting gate is the release of a brief. When you release that inspirational brief and you get out there, you make a date. Then what you'll do is you typically let it ruminate for a little while, usually a week."

    "We let people know long in advance this is coming," he explained. "You announce your plan for the year. Then you announce the brief and you give people about a week, for an average brief of average complexity. Then submissions start, which means there is a date where suddenly the site opens for submission. Now, we have a collaborative site, so you can be submitting things to collaboration before that, but when there's actually a portal for you to submit, that happens a week after the brief announcement. And then typically there are about two to three weeks for entries to come in. There is no voting going on while people are submitting entries."

  3. Validate entries carefully. "We learned the hard way," Jay said. "At the beginning, we just said, 'Well, if you submitted and you took the time, you must be close.' That's not the right thing to do. What happens is that people are investing their time, and they're not getting paid for what they're doing. If they see someone else not invest as much time and not think as hard as they had done about the brief, then they get really angry if that person is being considered for winning or, worse, if that person is awarded a prize. We take about two days to do what's called 'validating entries' right now."

    There's a scorecard checklist of things that people will be judged on. "One of the reasons why we have to have checklist scorecard is because we have so many people who don't speak English as their first language," Jay said. "We had to make sure that it was really obvious, really easy for everybody who came in to understand. You have to figure out where the touchdown is."

  4. Keep voting parameters simple. "You could vote one to 10 on the range of a parameter: good design, good engineering, fit to the brief, easy to build, environmentally efficient," Jay said. "You come in with great gusto, but then no one votes on those things. They not only not vote on one piece of them — they don't vote on anything because it's way too hard, overwhelming. So we quickly got down to two parameters, tops. So you've got to figure out what you're asking for."
  5. No drive-by voting. Only members vote. "In a user-generated-content society, selection is the problem. Generating the content is not the problem anymore," Jay said. "It used to be we'd spend a lot of time learning how to build community. Actually, the more germane subject today is: 'When you have the community, how do you choose what you're going to do?' That's really the subject that keeps me busy right now."

    "We spent a lot of time thinking about that. We decided that if people were going to put a lot of work into a project, then only members vote," Jay added. "To vote today, somebody has to sign up, activate on the site, and come on and contribute. They can contribute by liking something or disliking something, commenting, adding an image. They can put up a portfolio. They can put up an entry. There's a lot of ways that you can contribute," he said. "We don't take drive-by voting. We can see it when it's happening. The bottom line is: We just say you've got to be a real voter and you've got to care about the other people who are there. That's how you win."

  6. Don't make the odds overwhelming; give people a real chance to win. "At the beginning, we only awarded one winner," Jay said. "That's a big problem because people don't compete if they know there's no chance they're going to win. Everyone knows in their heart that there's little chance they're going to win, so you open up a much greater opportunity for people to compete if you tell them there are 10 prizes, which is what we do now. And a ribbon."

    "The most important thing," Jay said, "is speed to which you got to the best idea. That's the thing that's unquantifiable right now.

  7. Be willing to share. "If you don't want to share, don't come," Jay said. "If you're a person who believes that you have what I would call inventory-itis — that what you have is worth everything and a bag of chips — then don't post it at Local Motors. It's not for you. But if you want to share an idea and get feedback and make it better, now we're talking, and it's yours: You maintain it. It's not somebody else's. We are a community that encourages sharing. We are not a private community that gives you the option to share. We're a community that starts with the notion that we share," he said.

Jay then gave me his vision for Local Motors a decade from now. "You will see the most amazing vehicular products that are going to come out of our community," he said. "And you're going to see the people who are recognized for creating those. The ecosystem will have been upended for that," he said.

"Now, that does not mean that the way in which we produce mass-market cars today is going to die," he cautioned. "But my feeling is that if you make a mass-market car that's a low-cost, broad, mass-market car, you will have a real opportunity to make that really well. But if you want to see rapid innovation and excitement and attachment to products, that's going to exist more in a community like this," he said.

And, for future innovators of the world who feel that you're stuck in a dead-end job, there's hope that you can contribute, thanks to sites like Local Motors. "Just because you didn't get a job in your passion," Jay said, "doesn't mean that your passion can't be expressed in the way you feel about it."

In my next blog, I'm going to introduce you to my friend Steve Forbes, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, who helped me launch my book Abundance, and who talks about free markets, innovation and more.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

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