As founder and CEO of Intelius (and its parent company inome) Naveen Jain presides over a successful information commerce company with about $150 million in revenues. Over one million people land on its site to search through some 20 billion records daily. (You know it if you’ve ever tried a Google search on a person’s name and out pops a "Find People Named..." result.) Despite the comfy market position, Jain’s eager to keep iterating and improving technology in order to remain a leader.
From his seat on the X Prize Foundation’s board of directors, Jain saw that incentivized prizes have played a significant role in the annals of history (think the Longitude Act of 1714 and the Orteig Prize of 1919 for a nonstop flight between New York and Paris). He launched the inome iPrize Challenge last year to spur more breakthrough ideas.
"We know that innovation indeed drives growth," Jain tells Fast Company. "If you look at successful technology companies over time, the common denominator between them all is they continually innovate."
But unlike recent efforts at AT&T that bring new products to market through company seed money, Intelius employees with winning ideas pocket cash while the company develops the technology.
Jain says he knew the quality of the submissions would be "significant" so he wanted to make sure the cash prizes measured up. That’s how he came up with a total $100,000 jackpot which he divvies up like so: the first place winner receives $50,000, the second receives $20,000, the third place $10,000 and the remaining $20,000 is split equally among ten other prize recipients.
Jain’s not losing any sleep over parting with the stash. Indeed, he says Intelius has already realized a tenfold return on the $50,000 investment from last year’s grand prize winner. Dubbed rEngine, an idea submitted by Ji Kim, its real-time decision engine for detecting usage patterns is already running on www.ussearch.com to offer extra help with searches, via expert assistance or a direct call.
Before rEngine, each test would take at least 100 person hours a week to incorporate changes, says Jain. Now it only takes a couple of hours to conduct these tests and use the results to improve the customer experience. Jain says the savings is about 4,500 hours a year while revenue per visitor has improved by more than 10 percent compared to the same period last year.
Though the return has been significant on rEngine, Jain insists they don’t pick winning ideas based on ROI calculations. "Rather, winning ideas are selected because we believe they either will help us do current business better or to accelerate our company’s strategic vision," he says.
This year’s grand-prize winner (selected from among 137 hopefuls) is marketing communications manager Elisabeth DeVos. She envisioned a gaming and networking application based on the popular "six degrees of separation" principle which suggests that any two people in the world can be connected through six other individuals.
When it's built out in the coming year, the gaming app, based on parent company inome’s platform, will enable users to look up a name and then determine the chain of connections they share using different search paths. Are you listening Kevin Bacon?
DeVos says the iPrize Challenge gave her an opportunity to show peers, supervisors and now the world, "that innovation can be found in all walks of life, and with any person within a company."
Jain’s been vocal about his approach to hiring entrepreneurs rather than employees, so he says there should be no surprise that innovators exist at every level of inome’s companies. "Employees are the eyes and ears of the customer and are exceptionally understanding of the market and competitive landscape. The trick is to identify ways to find these employees and unleash their innovative spirits, to create the disruptive ideas that will bring their companies to the next level."
Though he admits some of these ideas will work much better than others when put to the test, Jain’s goal for the iPrize competition is to get everyone to continue to think like entrepreneurs. This, in turn, will help inome’s evolving platform allow developers to build applications for searching, connecting, and accessing public databases, as well as verifying and matching data on individuals.
Big data has make it extremely difficult to organize the world in a person-centric way, Jain says. Ultimately, inome’s platform has a Zuckerberg-esque objective to make the world a more connected place. "It is our goal with inome to create a single database where all this information can be accessed," he says.
[Image: Flickr user Nasa]