Have you heard about the silent threat that companies are facing? In today’s fast-paced, ever-advancing world, one of the main challenges to companies’ survivability is their ability to innovate. At some stage in the growth process companies tend to get too comfortable, gradually losing the risk-taking mentality and entrepreneurial spirit that initially brought them success. This spirit trickles down to the company’s employees, who then think it’s okay to work “inside the box” and not come up with new ideas and inventions. Examples of leading companies that vanished because they stopped innovating are Blockbuster, Borders, American Motors, and others. On the other hand, it is clear that some of the world’s leading companies are those who keep innovating and disrupting their markets—Such as Google, M3, and Intel.
So what is this practice that keeps companies relevant? It’s “Intra-prenuership”: where employees act as entrepreneurs within their organizations, promoting new ideas, creating innovative tools, improving internal processes, and turning them into profitable new external products and services. One of the leading players in intrapreneurship is eBay. I was privileged to take part in their annual intrapreneurship festival called “Hack Week,” which is one of the components that makes the world’s largest online marketplaces as successful as it is. Hack Week happens simultaneously in all of eBay’s offices around the world, and each office selects its winner that will fly to the Innovation Expo in their San Jose headquarters in September. As you can imagine, awesome prizes are involved: the winning team gets full support to develop their idea until it goes live, including financial rewards.
Innovation lies at eBay’s core and the company emphasizes it in all levels, activities, and forms. It’s embedded in their spirit from top to bottom and bottom to top as part of their values of being Inventive, Courageous, Diverse, and Driven. The company manages various innovation programs that include eBay’s Internship programs where students get to experience working on various cutting-edge projects. Another successful initiative is “Friends of eBay,” an incubator program for early stage tech startups where eBay provides access to office space, eBay leaders and networking opportunities.
eBay’s smart approach
As part of the intrapreneurial training leading up to Hack Week, I was invited to eBay New York to speak to their teams to inject intrapreneurial leadership skills and provide relationship-building practices. I also visited their Israel office, and I must admit that eBay really excites me as an organization. It was clear that what this huge company’s secret ingredient is - what actually makes it innovative, successful, and ever-changing - is their connectedness. eBay as an organization connects to its employees, and connects them to one another, crossing offices and hierarchy in a way that harnesses employees’ strengths to give back to the organization.
Therefore, the essence of what makes eBay so innovative and a leading global player lies in its organization-employee relationships, which is beautifully reflected in the way they manage Hack Week through the following components:
A “making it possible” approach
eBay allows for the openness to innovate, think outside the box, and come up with new solutions and ideas. This encourages employees to act on their instincts and know they can do something great, even if they are in an entry-level role! The ideas presented in the Israeli local contest reflect that, as they were unique and demonstrated integrative and critical thinking, combining new platforms with existing ones, looking at competitors and coming up with better solutions, and so on. Yotam Sharan, Quality Engineering Manager at the New York office and previous winner in the company’s innovation program, shared: “In order to develop and test my ideas during Hack Week, I found creative and unconventional ways to use eBay’s resources, and it paid off – professionally-wise by bringing my idea to Production, and personally-wise as I have gained new skills from this journey.” Following his winning, Yotam was named as eBay’s Regional Innovation Leader, organizing Hack Weeks in the NY office and applying from his experience and track record to mentor other teams - Two of which won the annual innovation program.
This open organizational approach allows for groundbreaking ideas in many fields such as marketing, UX, seller platforms, the buying experience, accessibility for different types of customers, community-oriented ideas, and more. Ultimately, each idea has the potential to improve eBay’s services.
Creating a unique experience around innovation
There was something special in the air at eBay offices. I experienced it in both their New York and Israel offices: I could feel it when I saw their promotional signs while walking down the hallways, watched their office screens, and overheard conversations… Hack Week’s excitement was everywhere! Each team branded their working area with signs displaying their initiative’s name and slogans, along with related items like shoes, souvenirs, and flags. They even created branded items such as pens, cups, and kits as giveaways. eBay wisely crafted a whole content world around Hack Week, months in advance, that fueled its employees’ inventiveness and creativity – it’s hard to escape it because it’s prestigious, lucrative, and encouraging to become a part of it!
“An army marches on its stomach”
I think I heard variations of the words “food” and “catering” as much as I heard the word “innovation.” Seriously, this company loves to feed its employees all year long with the best food: Mexican, Mediterranean, Oriental, desserts, coffee, and more. They acknowledge that food is a legitimate part of the celebration and generally, an employee with a full stomach is a happier and more productive one! It’s part of what makes the employees feel cared for and appreciated by the company, and in a way, providing food supports the thinking process of innovation. This is most likely a key ingredient in eBay’s secret sauce!
Investing time and resources in their employees
A main part of eBay’s innovation program that allows for new ideas is providing full access to eBay’s resources, data and information, one on one with the company’s Vice Presidents (VP), and more. This is extremely valuable. In addition, eBay created a “Hackathon” atmosphere since it clears a whole week from routine work, and allows the teams to enthusiastically develop their product from scratch. “We let our employees in all of our offices put their obligations and work aside for one week, so they can focus only on developing their Hack Week ideas into a mockup they can present,” Natali Ziv, eBay Israel Head of PR & Communications, said. eBay puts no boundaries in its employees’ way to innovation; the company generously offers its employees all it can give so that they can successfully deliver - which benefits everyone.
Room to form new relationships
Hack Week has an enormous effect on the relationships people form within the company. eBay encourage all its employees to innovate, the contest is open for engineers same as any employee, intern and outsource workers. It gives them a reason to look away from their immediate team and even their geographic office, and get to know colleagues who have the right skillset to partner with as they develop their idea together. It was wonderful to see how Liliana Shapiz and Mina Shapira from the Israel’s Finance department joined forces with a developer colleague: “It was important for us to challenge ourselves, get out of our comfort zone, and show that we can do anything! That’s what drove us to cooperate with employees we don’t get to engage with on a daily basis, and we gained new friends thanks to that.”
This process also allows employees to get mentored and supported by the company’s leaders and VPs. That, in turn, encourages relationships and trust between the different levels of employees and deepens the influence and familiarity each has in the company. The relationships that eBay-ers create during this week are a great asset for their career, internal access, and personal growth, knowing they have a supportive social network within the company.
Harnessing new skill sets
Participating in Hack Week is a journey that forces employees to get to know the company better, get out of their comfort zone, think differently, and create something they most likely haven’t created before. They also get to develop additional skill sets they may not use on a daily basis such as persuasion, speaking and presenting skills, relationship building, creative thinking, and more. Honghao Wang, a senior software engineer at the New York office and 2015 Innovation Expo winner, openly shared: “I really feel I’ve made a breakthrough for myself during that short period – I started thinking differently on a professional level. Also, I noticed a personal evolution. Previously, I was pretty shy, hesitant about talking to unfamiliar people and anxious about speaking in public, but now I feel I’ve become much more confident and bold.” Ultimately, this innovation process creates more skillful, poised, and loyal employees for the long term (and for next years’ Hack Week!).
This equation is easier said than done - when companies invest in their employees in the right way, both groups stand to benefit. The challenge for companies is how to do it in a way that will cultivate a unique culture that cherishes an innovative approach, encourages action-taking, and socially embraces its values.
Based on eBay, intrapreneurship and innovation is about creating a workspace that is supportive, open, creative, and allows for self-expression and friendships that benefit everyone, ultimately creating top-notch disrupting companies that are here to stay for the long run.