How holding an 'internal Shark Tank' competition helps one company find its employees' best ideas

mark cuban hug shark tank

"Shark Tank"/ABC

ABC's "Shark Tank."

If you've never seen ABC's reality TV show "Shark Tank," here's how it works: Entrepreneurs pitch their idea, product, or service and make an offer to a panel of investors, also known as "Sharks," who ultimately decide to either invest, or pass on the opportunity to make a deal with each entrepreneur after explaining what they did or didn't like about the presentation.

As it turns out, this concept doesn't just make for good TV. It makes for a great business strategy. has implemented an "internal Shark Tank" competition in the office - and the company's marketing manager Ryan O'Connell says it has not only boosted company morale, but it's also brought "more impressive, out-of-the-box ideas to the table than any traditional marketing strategy we've had." is a privately funded online wine company that helps wine lovers "drink like the rich and the famous" by crowd-funding winemakers. It has over 200,000 customers, called Angels, who invest directly in winemakers by setting aside $40 per month, all of which goes towards their next purchase. The company invests these funds in top-tier winemakers around the world to make wine exclusively for

O'Connell says about two years ago, as was really beginning to grow, "it was still possible to grab a drink after work with the CEO or your manager, but not everybody was comfortable doing that."

So they knew they had to have a formal process for people to present their thoughts to the rest of the company. "And the trick was how we could do it without becoming corporate or bureaucratic," he explains. "The idea of internal Shark Tank was awesome because it kept things fun, added a bit of competition, and gave people a clear opportunity to speak to the whole company about their ideas. Even if the ideas hadn't worked out, it was already a success the minute we saw the pitches had an audience. Everybody was excited to hear each other's ideas and the pitches were plentiful."

Ryan O'Connell

Courtesy of Ryan O'Connell.

Ryan O'Connell.

O'Connell describes "internal Shark Tank" as a competition in the company where every single employee has a voice to pitch an idea that has the potential to improve the business. "We know everybody in this company can have a game-changing idea. This is our chance to hear their ideas and pair the more junior team members with folks who can bring their ideas to life."

Each presenter pitches an idea, and its effect on customers, to a voting panel which picks out the best ideas to fund and pursue.

The winning pitchers are also paired with mentors who will help them build a business plan, talk to everybody in the company that will help implement their vision, and carry out the plan, he says. "And when the plan is put in motion, we party. Most of what we do ends with a party."

He says this competition is so important because the people who spend the most time with customers often have the least input with senior management, "and that's a travesty because contact with your customer is going to be what generates your best ideas."

"Our 'customer happiness' (also known as customer service) team is in the perfect position to know what customers actually want. We try very hard to communicate across all teams," he explains. "This is a perfect example of letting everybody in your company have the ear of the CEO. And it works the other way around too. If the CEO has a big idea to change the direction of the business, he needs to get buy-in from the whole business, explaining why we're doing what we're doing. If the people actually implementing the CEO's vision don't believe in his idea, we know it won't work. So we all try to listen to each other as much as possible."

So far, O'Connell says, has seen at least a handful of game-changing ideas come out of internal Shark Tank.

For instance, after hearing a pitch for the idea, recently launched "text for wine" which allows any customer to order wine with a simple text message. "They can be as detailed as they like or just text 'favorites pls' and we'll happily put an order together based on what they've rated and bought in the past." O'Connell says the response has been overwhelmingly positive, showing that the company's team members really do know what their customers want.

"Internal Shark Tank has been a stunning success and we can't wait to see what ideas come out of the next round," he concludes.

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