TopCoder's Impressive Open Innovation

TopCoder's Impressive Open InnovationTopCoder is one of the best-kept secrets in open innovation.  I had the pleasure of spending time with them.  They are a fun bunch that is passionate about what they do.

After a full-day deep dive in their Connecticut offices, I traveled to Orlando to spend two days at their “TopCoder Open,” a competition they run each year where they invite their top contributors and clients.

I have to say, it’s all quite impressive.

They focus on a specific set of problems: design, coding/testing, and algorithmic challenges.

Their approach to open innovation is distinctive; something I have not seen elsewhere:

  • They “atomize” their challenges to make them so small that they can be solved in two weeks or less.  In some cases, challenges are solved in 24 hours.  Doing this increases the likelihood of success and reduces the impact of failures.
  • Their challenges are not an event; they are an end-to-end process.  Competitions start with strategies, wireframes, user experience design, and go through coding, testing, bug finding and more.  They take a macro challenge and deconstruct it into many smaller challenges that are later integrated back together.
  • They eat their own dog food.  Their own platform was developed by their community.  They have very few internal resources.  Anything they need to create, they use the community.  Imagine an technology company without any technology people and you have TopCoder.
  • Their community is truly a community and not a bunch of individuals.  Yes, they create competitions where contributors earn badges and reputation points.  But unlike similar platforms, the members get to know each other.  While at the TopCoder Open, it was clear that there is camaraderie amongst the community.
  • It is all about the community.  Nearly everything they do is through the community and for the community.  They have 400,000 members in 220 countries. The project managers, called co-pilots, are members of the community.   The crowd is even used to spec out the challenges; a challenge to define the challenge. The community does it all.

The results are astonishing.  Most organizations have found that they can get a better result for 1/6th the cost with much shorter development timeframes.

Because they have a wide range of challenges (design, coding, testing, etc), this allows people to specialize on what they really like.  Studies show that doing this increases effectiveness by 40%.

Open innovation in general is a great model because it allows the organization to pay for results, not hours.  And because there are so many people working simultaneously on a problem, the likelihood of finding a solution is massively increased.  TopCoder has a 90% solve rate.

Open innovation also allows organizations to try out new ideas in a safe and inexpensive way.  TopCoder is a perfect platform for doing this.  With 2 weeks and a few thousand dollars, they can run a challenge that can generate great insights quickly and cheaply.

There are many open innovation platforms.  I have seen many of them. Each has a specific purpose.  One solution does not solve all innovation challenges.

TopCoder specializes on a specific set of problems: design and development.  And they solve those challenges exceptionally well.

TopCoder's Impressive Open Innovation

TopCoder Announces Champions of 2012 TopCoder Open in Orlando

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.

Stephen Shapiro




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