How Constant Contact Blends Lean Startup & Design Thinking

By Scott Kirsner |  June 18, 2014

Constant Contact is not a very old company. Founded in 1998, the Boston-area business became one of the early leaders in e-mail marketing for small businesses. Constant Contact went public in 2007, and since then been diversifying into other digital marketing offerings, like helping small businesses manage their communications on social networks or run loyalty programs.


Andy Miller heads the 14-person innovation team at Constant Contact; his mobile startup, CardStar, was acquired by the company in 2012. Miller’s team both supports innovation within other parts of the 1,200-person company with training, events, and consulting services, and also cultivates projects of its own. (Miller is one of the speakers at the opening day of our Field Study gathering in Boston tomorrow.)

Miller and CEO Gail Goodman are big advocates for tapping innovation throughout the company — they organize quarterly “Innovation Jams” to give employees time to flesh out new ideas. But they also put pressure on teams to prototype the best ideas from those Innovation Jams quickly; gather feedback about those prototypes from customers; and regularly prove that there’s enough data to justify moving them forward toward the market. Constant Contact is also on the verge of opening an “Innovation Loft” at its headquarters that will be home to Miller’s team, an event space, as well as a handful of tech startups developing new products for small businesses that will rotate through every four months.

Several slides below provide insight into how Constant Contact blends approaches like design thinking and the lean startup methodology, and how it uses tools like validation boards and an executive review process to give ideas the “green light” to go to the next stage. There’s also 15-minutes of audio below from our conversation with Miller.

A few bullets from our conversation:

  • “We have Innovation Jams quarterly. In theory, the whole company gets to shut down for two days. We had about one-third of the company participate last year. You start on a Thursday, put your project together, and it culminates Friday with a ‘science fair.’ We judge, we have beers, and the next week, the three winners get to present to the executive team. We pick a grand prize winner, and they get an adventure they get to choose. Two jams ago, the mobile team won. They were in San Francisco, and they chose a Napa Valley wine tour. We said, we’ll let you bring a +1. They said no. They went as a team. It was this awesome bonding exercise. Their team went from three people to ten people at the next Innovation Jam, and they were dead set on winning again. And they did — they won again. It’s getting great traction.”
  • “We have something called the Green Light Committee, which is [several members] of the executive team and a few other folks. We look at ideas, and if we think it’s a revolutionary idea, we say, ‘Go build something.’ Often, before we build, we want to get more clarity, so we do a design sprint, which gets you to the Minimum Viable Concept — what is it you’re trying to build? One of the learnings over the last 12 months is that it’s hard to go from MVC to Minimum Viable Product. There’s usually some testing that has to go in between the two. How do you bridge that gap? That’s what we’re focusing on this year. How do we codify the process, so that in a 10-week period we can go from MVC to MVP?”
  • At every meeting of the Green Light Committee, anyone presenting an idea needs to bring at least one validation board. That serves as the basis for whether the project will continue — or get shelved. Miller’s innovation team also holds Monday meetings that he says are similar to those at a venture capital firm. If a project isn’t gaining traction, that’s another way it can get axed.
  • Miller says the company previously used to test and validate its ideas only with the small business owner, who is the person who pays for Constant Contact’s products. But now the company also tests how well the end customer responds to an idea.
  • Constant Contact is creating a Test Drive Team of its merchant customers who opt in to participate. (Several thousand have so far.) That gives them the ability to try out the latest “beta” products from the company, or the other startups it hosts at its headquarters. Miller says a next step could be to allow test drive companies to “post pain points, and let others vote on whether they have the same problem.” That could provide useful insight for both Constant Contact and the startups that operate out of its Innovation Loft.
  • One path supports revolutionary ideas that don’t fit with an existing product group; the other supports evolutionary ideas. MVC is “minimum viable concept,” a description of what a team is trying to build. MVP is “minimum viable product,” a prototype that is good enough to be tested with customers. Design sprints at the company can take place in an afternoon, or stretch over several weeks, depending on the objective.
  • DIFM stands for a “do-it-for-me” service. SMM is social media marketing. SMB is small business.
  • V:P stands for “visitor:paid” ratio. NPS is Net Promoter Score, a measure of how likely someone is to recommend a product or service. 

Here’s a short video overview that describes Constant Contact’s design sprint methodology.

Listen to the interview with Andy Miller.