Every company has the challenge of managing how to respond to customer feedback. But what if you’re managing a crowdsourcing community and actively asking people for their ideas and feedback? How do you make sure that every contributor feels seen and respected for their efforts, whether their idea becomes reality or not? These are the questions that Tim Courtney and the team behind LEGO Ideas have tackled.
On a previous episode of Community Signal, we spoke to Jake McKee, who helped build LEGO’s first community team. One of the early members of that community was Tim, who would later go on to join the LEGO Ideas team. In this episode, Tim shares a history of LEGO Ideas, a space where people passionate about LEGO can submit their own ideas for new sets. And while LEGO has many designers on payroll, Tim explains why the contributions from its community pay back (and pay forward) tenfold.
Here’s more of what Tim and Patrick discuss:
- How 16-year-old Tim first joined the LEGO community
- The strategy behind helping all LEGO Ideas contributors feel seen and rewarded
- Measuring the ROI of the LEGO Ideas community
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Respecting your community’s contributions (14:08): “At LEGO in Denmark, you’ve got dozens or hundreds of professionally trained designers. They’re used to ideating and killing ideas and not getting too emotionally attached to things. [With the LEGO Ideas community], you have people whose contributions are out of pure passion or they want to contribute something back to the brand or they want to build a name for themselves or because there was a royalty and a financial reward, maybe they want to get rewarded for it. You have got to understand what their motivations are. … Really just having to understand that and build a process where as a company we’re showing respect for the fact that they’re spending their spare time passionately ideating and championing their ideas, submitting them, going out on the internet and sharing it on social media, gaining a following; that’s commendable. We are so lucky to have a group of passionate artists who are contributing to the brand.” –@timcourtney
On lauching a crowdsourcing platform (24:00): “If someone’s out there considering a crowdsourcing platform or an open innovation or idea generation platform, don’t let the ambiguity scare you from starting as long as you’re communicative, as long as you close that loop, and as long as you strive to learn and adapt and tell your audience that you’re learning and adapting.” –@timcourtney
Why LEGO shares revenue with designers of LEGO Ideas sets that reach retail (27:23): “We succeed together. … I think what was critically important to the team … is that we reward people proportionate to their contributions, and we share in the success. If a LEGO fan designer is going to contribute something to the company that drives X amount of incremental revenue, then it’s only fair – it’s only right – that they share in that reward.” –@timcourtney
The ROI of the LEGO Ideas initiative (37:00): “99% of the smartest people in the world don’t work for us. Ideas can come from anywhere. It’s about leveraging those ideas, but it’s also it’s about building those relationships with people. … I’ve had three community members come in and get hired as LEGO designers.” –@timcourtney
About Tim Courtney
Tim Courtney helped build LEGO Ideas from 20,000 to over 1 million members between 2011 and 2018. This crowdsourcing and open innovation community generates tens of millions in consumer sales and earns consistently high satisfaction scores. He’s hosted developer conferences, meetups, VIP events, and advised dozens of entrepreneurs and professionals on developing their own communities.
Today, Tim Courtney works with brands, manufacturers, and startups to grow their business, build loyalty, and future-proof against disruption by leveraging community, crowdsourcing, and open innovation.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- Tim Courtney’s website
- LEGO Ideas
- Jake McKee, the community guy, on Community Signal
- LDraw, a tool for modeling 3D LEGO creations
- LEGO CUUSOO, started by Christian Thor Larsen and Paal Smith-Meyer
- Boaty McBoatface: What You Get When You Let the Internet Decide (New York Times)
- The “Golden Girls” LEGO Ideas set
- Past winners of LEGO Rebrick
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for making Community Signal a part of your day. On this episode, we’re talking with Tim Courtney, a veteran of the LEGO community who spent several years as the company’s experience manager for LEGO Ideas where community members can develop and submit their own ideas for new LEGO sets. This is about ideation, creating a space where people can experiment freely, or as freely as possible, and why LEGO chose to give up some control in order to tap into the power of the community.
Thank you to the listeners who support our show on Patreon, including Heather Champ, Rachel Medanic, and Jules Standen. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Tim Courtney helped build LEGO Ideas from 20,000 to over one million members between 2011 and 2018. This crowdsourcing and open innovation community generates tens of millions in consumer sales and earns consistently high satisfaction scores. He’s hosted developer conferences, meetups, VIP events, and advised dozens of entrepreneurs and professionals on developing their own communities. Today Tim works with brands, manufacturers, and startups to grow their business, build loyalty and future-proof against disruption by leveraging community, crowdsourcing, and open innovation. Tim, welcome to the show.
[00:01:33] Tim Courtney: Thanks Patrick. How are you?
[00:01:35] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m good. How are you doing?
[00:01:37] Tim Courtney: I’m doing wonderful.
[00:01:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Jake McKee is a past guest on the show who work at LEGO and who we both know. Jake and I were talking recently in a sense about the contributions being made to society by teenagers. I started moderating communities when I was 13 and Jake said that you were, I’ll say “kicking butt at 16” what were you doing at 16?
[00:01:58] Tim Courtney: That’s quite generous of Jake to say that. At 16 I was in the early LEGO community. That was probably before what a lot of people perceive as community online today. I believe at the time we were on Usenet Use Groups. There was one called Rec Toys LEGO and it was the only place that I know of where really robust discussion was happening around adults being LEGO fans, and as a teenager who never really grew out of building with LEGO, finding other people who loved LEGO too, it just opened the world to me. At 16 I was there participating in that community and I was really getting involved in some of the open source software around build your virtual LEGO model in a CAD tool that another fan created.
We would use that tool, called LDraw, we would use that to send files of our models back and forth to each other all around the world. If you think about it, so at 16 that was like maybe 1998 or so for me. Digital cameras were just coming online. I remember borrowing a digital camera from my dad’s work. It took a three and a half floppy drive and they could hold about 10 pictures on a 1.4 megabyte disk. Am I remembering this correctly?
[00:03:19] Patrick O’Keefe: I didn’t have a digital camera yet. Your guess is as good as mine here. So let’s go with that.
[00:03:23] Tim Courtney: 1024 by 768 right? At the time we really didn’t have digital cameras or good ones and not a lot of people had access to them and they were expensive. A gentleman by the name of James Jessiman who was in that community at the time, he unfortunately passed in 1997 so right in the middle of all that, created some software that with a really small file size, you could send a 3D depiction of a LEGO model. You could build it virtually and send that around the world.
What I was doing was I was just really getting involved as a power user and there are a lot of open source developers who really focused on the code and the utility and I was focused on learning how to use it and helping other people learn how to use it and helping people find the links to download it and help grow that user base because I thought, “Oh this is cool, I love using it.” The more people would use it, the better it is for everyone. I’m going to build a community and I guess now I’ll describe like build the community around it. At the time it was just like, “Oh I think this is cool. I’m going to step up and contribute to this.”
[00:04:26] Patrick O’Keefe: Because of that interests in a way you probably draw it to us talking today. That’s what leads you down this career path into LEGO, into community experience, and to this podcast. It’s funny because I could draw back like I wanted to be a rocket scientist when I was small. I didn’t know what that was and then I wanted to be a baseball player. Then one point I thought I wanted to manage mutual funds, but then I found online communities one day and I started just launching online forums and communities. I could draw so much of what happened in my life after that to that event, because like I do that, I write a book, my career starts, I get jobs, I meet my now fiance, we got engaged in December because of online community work because one of her closest friends worked in online communities and heard this podcast. It’s so much of my life is tied to that decision to moderate communities in 1998.
[00:05:18] Tim Courtney: Wow, that’s incredible. Absolutely. Probably a very similar path. I was in obviously 16 so I would’ve been in high school at the time and I was spending hours through high school and college. I would do some a little bit of light coding and web design out of necessity, taught myself that in order to contribute. Really that exposed me to really some senior really technical minds and people who became my friends. It also directed what I eventually decided to major in in college, which was organizational communication. It’s a business degree and a communication theory degree merged together, without the quant side of things which now I’ve got to go make up for, right. At the time it was like, “Oh, I’m already doing these things and I’m not getting paid to do them.”
The logic would dictate that, “Oh, I enjoy doing this. I’ll probably enjoy getting paid for it.” I chose that major. That really positioned me really, really well to help out with some small boutique like PR firms around like systems integrators, IT technology. From there I moved on to data centers and web hosting, marketing, customer service, and I would build community around those brands. I started building cocktail parties and industry mixers, moved onto a web development agency that was about 30 people and they hired me to head marketing and brand because we were also advising clients on their digital presence.
Out of that I was already with a friend of mine running like social media and developer conferences in Chicago. We did those for four years in a row. It was called Social Dev Camp Chicago. Dev as in development camp and that grew to several hundred attendees and that grew to getting sponsorships and speakers from Google and Facebook and PayPal, Oracle, Sun, these really big companies and people flying in from Silicon Valley. We were in Chicago. It led to that. All the while I had put the LEGO hobby on the shelf as it was like time to go into the workforce and do that thing, but I kept in touch with my friends because as you know with community you become really, really close to these people.
I think I met my first internet contact, I want to say 1998, like we picked him up from where we were staying near the airport. He was in from the UK, my dad and I, and like he came over to the house for pizza or something like that, and then we drove him back. That was the first time I met someone from the internet and since then it’s been probably hundreds if not thousands, if you want to count conferences and conventions, right. Not just one-on-one meetups or travel or when you share a passion, people come together in community over and over again because they share something of interest, right? These people really, they get you and you get them they become your friends.
[00:08:05] Patrick O’Keefe: LEGO Ideas as it is now known, started off in innovation lab where the team was tasked with generating new business models for the existing assortment of LEGO bricks. It’s now 12 years old and has this great history but way back when, what do you think were the biggest impediments to getting that initiative approved?
[00:08:22] Tim Courtney: Wow, that’s a big question and I’ll tie it to where we left off was right around that time with the conferences, I kept in touch with my friends in the LEGO community and that led me to the innovation lab group, called New Business Group at LEGO. A gentleman by the name of Paal Smith-Meyer and Christian Thor Larson, and they had just completed the Japanese pilot. They started, it was called LEGO CUUSOO at the time. It had a different name.
They started that in Japan. The reason they did that in Japan was because this business partner of theirs with the crowdsourcing platform called LEGO CUUSOO, they were Japanese company, but also Japan is a pretty small market for LEGO and there’s a language barrier so they could really afford to do something experimental in that market where if it really succeeded or if it just crashed and burned, it wouldn’t affect the global brand. They could contain it. To get back to your question about what the impediments were to getting a project like that approved, transparently, I wasn’t there in 2007 when they were doing the initial pitch. I’ve seen the initial pitch deck. I’ve had plenty of conversations with them going through that history.
I think for a brand like LEGO, and at the time you had Jake on the show, you’ve probably talked through how LEGO had systematically started to open up and listen to their adult consumers, adult fans. Again, it’s the challenge of losing control. When you have a community and when you ask a community for input, you don’t control the response. I think we all are familiar with Boaty McBoatface the internet poll, naming the ship. If you’re not familiar Google Boaty McBoatface.
It’s that people are going to, by way of sharing their ideas with us, make a commentary on our brand and associate ideas with our brand. We’ve got a part of out in the lesson space for that. Another thing would be from that inside perspective was the business processes is, can we do this? We have a palate of the numbers vary, but it’s 5, 8, 10,000 unique shapes in the library at any given time. The shape would be like a LEGO part of a certain color with a decoration on it. Decoration meaning like printing or a sticker, right? You imagine those combinations about a hundred colors, several thousand shapes. Whatever’s in the assortment at the time. That’s what we have in the warehouse. The public doesn’t know what parts are available. The public doesn’t know what they can submit and it really is up to the designers in the company and people in supply chain to say like, is this thing that people submitted and voted on, is it feasible to actually release to the market as a product?
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You told me before the show that once LEGO Ideas proved itself, it was moved into the community engagement team responsible for engaging adult LEGO fans around the world. What was that moment where it proved itself?
[00:11:35] Tim Courtney: I’m trying to think back to when that was. That was 2014. We had for several months prior been working on the rebrand and a new platform. It was clear at the time that in order to grow the program, every so often platforms need updating and migration, right. As a platform migration, we want to elevate this brand, we want to give it a more lasting brand with LEGO, but the moment to me I believe was when we saw that this could be repeatable and when we saw that it was a sustainable business, that individual products that are coming out of this are successful business case, now we want to continue to expand on that. We want to lift the beta label off of it. We’ve kicked the tires, we know what processes work and we know which ones need improving and we know that we want to create the tools and we want to create the team and create the environment where that can flourish, that can really take root as stepping into more of a core line in the company. I think it was just that inflection point of a need for a new platform. We had proved out on the audience, we had proved out people are submitting ideas to us. We know generally what we can commercialize, what we can’t commercialize, and now it’s just time to step it up.
[00:12:45] Patrick O’Keefe: When I look at something like LEGO Ideas, in fact, any ideation platform, one of the first things that comes to mind is the importance of closing the loop. Most ideas that members propose, you’ll never act on. Even a majority of the popular ones won’t be turned into LEGO sets or other examples like giffgaff’s community won’t be adopted by that service provider and offered by that mobile phone company. There’s a lot of ideas, there’s a lot of popular ideas and then there’s a small percent that actually get made or get implemented into the product. It’s important to define that process, communicate expectations and follow through. You told me before this show that it’s important to explicitly outline these things so the business acts respectfully and transparently toward community members. Talk about setting those guard rails.
[00:13:29] Tim Courtney: Yes. At the time, there was no roadmap for what we were doing. If you think about the time period, we were among the first, if not one of the first brand product crowdsourcing platforms out there. In the very beginning, I think it’s a testament to the team. It’s testament to the culture that had been built both in the new business group engaging with that community of super users as well as the community engagement team, really knowing these fans around the world and how they attach to the brand. Then the elements of the team that they assembled, myself and some peers to say, in order for this to succeed, this is a different idea intake than it is when you’re in the product development lab.
At LEGO in Denmark, you’ve got dozens or hundreds of professionally trained designers. They’re used to ideating and killing ideas and not getting too emotionally attached to things. In this situation, you have people whose contributions are out of pure passion or they want to contribute something back to the brand or they want to build a name for themselves or because there was a royalty and a financial reward, maybe they want to get rewarded for it. You have got to understand what their motivations are.
They’re going to go off and we know about communities. People are going to say what they want to say. That’s going to reflect on the reputation. Really just having to understand that and build a process where as a company we’re showing respect for the fact that they’re spending their spare time passionately ideating and championing their ideas, submitting them, going out on the internet and sharing it in social media, gaining a following, that’s commendable. We are so lucky to have a group of, I don’t want to say consumers, but that’s industry lingo, but it’s more like passionate artists, bands who are contributing to the brand, and so with that understanding in mind, these are not professionals. These are lay people. They’re doing on a pure passion. That means that we need to treat them differently. We need to as things bubble up and as things qualify, they get the required number of votes. They go into a design review process. We’ve got to handle that a bit with care. We’ve got to tell them when something isn’t selected, maybe we offer some consolation, some thank you note, but at the time we were offering some gifts, some LEGO product. We started to celebrate them in our blog, in our content strategy, where we would do what we call the 10K club.
People on LEGO Ideas need to reach 10,000 votes to qualify for this review period. There’s a several months about almost a quiet period where the cross functional team that reviews the ideas that decides what could we get made. They sit in and they’re doing their deliberations, right? Well, the community is waiting with bated breath for like who’s going to get made and like have you eliminated anyone, and so what we would do is we would actually start. Maybe there’s about 10 people in a period. We did that three times a year there’s about 10 give or take. That’s plenty of content for say like a weekly blog interview where we take the time to do a profile.
We let them send their photos in of them with their model. Tell us your LEGO story, tell us the story about how this idea came to be because you’re successful on the platform, share your advice. Let them use that as an opportunity to teach others. That was something that we did to celebrate them. I think really it’s just building the case internally that, hey, it’s worth committing the time and the resources to do things that create this content, but also just the way you treat the person, the way you celebrate them as being a part of that journey. Whether or not we select that product to go on the shelves.
Another way we close the loop with the ones that we did select was we started doing these signing events at LEGO stores around the world. Another element of LEGO is a lot of people have probably been into a LEGO store in a mall or on a high street somewhere and you see what bright brand store and that’s a perfect venue for us to say bring in the fan designer, the LEGO Ideas member who released that product and myself or someone from the team would fly out, work with the store management. We would set up the table with the banner and the poster of them signing it. We promote it online through our social media. You get several hundred people would show up because the LEGO Facebook page would promote it. The LEGO Ideas Facebook page would promote it and they would be a celebrity for the day. They would get to sit there and sign boxes and take photos with people and do like an almost an early release. That would usually happen a week or two before the product went on the market. There’s another way we were closing the loop with people at the end of that.
[00:17:52] Patrick O’Keefe: I think the really big thing there for me is that I love that assigning and in person signing, I have someone who has written a book and signed books and had one person show up. It’s still fun. It’s still a great thing, it means something and so that’s awesome. That’s such a great idea. It’s also in a way for me the easy part, because the hard part I think the real risk is the no, is in turning away the people that you, as you just described, the people who are doing this, they’re all passionate. They’re all doing this because they want to, they don’t work for LEGO and you really need to say no to most people.
Getting real comfortable with that is important to this effort and what I found really great about LEGO Ideas is I went there and I spent some time on the website, and within probably 15 minutes I felt like I understood the process and that I could submit an idea, not that I could submit it in a technical sense, not that I knew the LEGO pieces or the software or could use that, those tools to make something, but just that if I did put it in that time, I understood how this worked and I grasp it very quickly. I understood if I can get to 10,000 people, then it goes into this process and then it goes to this process and it’s not likely you’ll be accepted even then, but that’s how you advance. There was a really good simple set of documentation.
There was a really good I don’t know, sign posting system of past examples to say, okay, this is exactly how it works. Even though I played with LEGOs as a kid, and I liked LEGOs a lot, they’re not an adult hobby that I have. If I picked it back up, I felt super confident not being a part of LEGO community, just in reading it in 10-15 minutes and say, “Okay, I understand what this looks like. I understand how this works. I understand how things will be considered,” because even in those quiet periods, that’s really when it’s most important that people understand what’s going on, is those periods where they have to wait and be patient and not have ambiguity, because the only thing that comes from ambiguity is negativity.
When people have a blank, they fill it with bad thoughts and so if you can cut through that, then you’re more likely to maintain that relationship no matter what happens and so what you just described to me was almost celebrating the no, in a sense, like even though you don’t get this, the big prize or you don’t get to sign boxes at the LEGO store, you still get recognized in the community. Even though we couldn’t use this idea, we still take care of you in some way. We recognize that, “Hey, the community wanted this, we just couldn’t do it.” Ain’t that’s both the simplest thing in the world? Because it’s just how you’d want your friend to treat you. Really, it’s just how you’d want any acquaintance in your life, from your landlord to your spouse. You just want them to treat you in a way that they’re talking to you, they’re communicating, you know where things stand. It also can be the hardest thing in the world because people don’t want to tell customers, consumers, fans, no sometimes and don’t want to risk damaging that relationship. To me, that’s really just the most beautiful, powerful thing is that not only is the yes defined, but the no is so clearly defined.
[00:20:42] Tim Courtney: That’s a really good way of framing it. I think it never gets any easier. I remember, I’ve been out of the role for a little over a year now, but during that time, we grew the team. Toward the end of my, I want to say seven-year tenure, I wasn’t doing a lot of the day-to-day moderation or action. I was more working on the digital product and some of the program and some of the strategy around the customer’s experience throughout.
Prior to that, I’ll just rewind to when we were getting started and jump ahead from there, there were, I think when we were doing the beta in Japan, I came into play late 2011. We switched on this really rough beta site that was in Japanese and English. I think the guidelines, the submission guidelines, at the time were five or six bullet points, two or three sentences. Not very clear. I don’t think there were moderation, like house rules, at the time either. It was kind of the wild west, in terms of what people were submitting, the comments people were making. There wasn’t pre-moderation at the time.
[00:21:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Wow, that’s a big deal for LEGO.
[00:21:45] Tim Courtney: Yes. Launch, what is it like you should be embarrassed by your first product? What do they say? I didn’t get a lot of sleep during that time. What we learned was we learned by what people submitted. LEGO, I think was fortunate because you have this passionate base of consumers around the world, fans around the world. You get that user-generated content. What we were able to do was systematically by seeing what people submitted and by evaluating that against what, as I covered earlier, was feasible to commercialize. Now, we can start thinking about how do we frame those guidelines that you just mentioned? How do you frame the process? When we started, it was like that LEGO review was just an individual thing. If you get 10K, we’ll review it. That’s all it was. That was when LEGO Minecraft popped up in late 2011. Oh, yes. Like, “Well, now we’ve got something to review. Let’s go review it.” Within a year, “Oh, we’ve got three things that are coming up. We really need to make this a process,” where they’re reviewed in a batch because we’re not going to duplicate our efforts. We’re just going to review them side by side. That evolved. As people would submit, some people would submit entire play themes, some people would submit new LEGO parts, some people would submit extended line items like backpacks or flashlights or you name it, software games.
We would start to look at those things and you see those repeat submissions and trends and themes and you’d say, “Really? Is it something that we’re able to do, something within the frames that we’ve been given? Oh, if it’s not, let’s start to think about writing those guidelines to exclude those things. Let’s think about how we handle the existing content, that we create a new rule and now there’s existing content that breaks the rule.”
I think in different cases, we did different things with it. We would archive some stuff, if we knew we couldn’t make it and say, “Hey, we changed the rules. We’re sorry, we’ve got to archive this. Thank you, but unfortunately, we’re not able to do anything with it.” There was this systematic as we learn what people would submit and as we learned what the organization’s capabilities were. We would systematically narrow that scope so that even though there’s some ambiguity in the beginning, we’re striving toward clarity. I would say don’t let that prevent you.
If someone’s out there considering a crowdsourcing platform or an open innovation or idea generation platform, don’t let the ambiguity scare you from starting as long as you’re communicative and as long as you close that loop and as long as you strive to learn and adapt and tell your audience that you’re learning and adapting. Because we would get feedback, like, “Well, why did you change the rules on us?” It’s like, “Well, we’re learning just as you’re learning. We’re really, really happy to be able to provide this opportunity to you, but you’ve got to understand that we’re a company, we’ve got some constraints. We’ve got to learn from this process too. It’s for the greater good. It’s so that we can do more of the stuff that more people want so this program can live on.”
[00:24:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Another thing that I love about LEGO Ideas is that if a submission is chosen by the company to become an official product, the person who submitted it receives 1% of the total net sales of the product. I love that and I think it’s important. Were you a part of the conversations around what should happen when LEGO profits off of an idea that the community contributes?
[00:25:03] Tim Courtney: I’ve been a part of conversations throughout that process, the 1% net sales prize or royalty that was in place before my time. I can’t get into too much detail but there have been conversations about how do you expand the pool of rewards? For me, the mantra was always expanding the number of positive outcomes. You alluded to earlier that there’s a lot we’re going to say no to, and there’s some that are going to reach that 10K, and they’re not going to get made, and there’s a few that are going to get made. It’s fun. It’s fun to talk about and write about the people who succeed. They’re truly remarkable people and it’s amazing to get to celebrate them.
Most of the day-to-day work is moderating and engaging with the many ideas. The several thousand there live on the site at any given time of varying levels of quality and completeness and feasibility and setting those expectations with them. Sometimes that interaction happens when you’re premoderating and you’re saying, “Hey, the photo quality isn’t good enough” or “hey, you’re you didn’t catch this guideline.”
Other times, it’s as we learn something along the way, and maybe we learn that we have a conflict with a certain IP license and we can’t commercialize this. There’s a couple dozen ideas on the site at various levels of votes, where we’ve got to say, “Well, now we know. Now it’s our responsibility to tell you.” How do you handle that communication. Most of it was, I think everyone sees the positive outcomes, and to walk back because you asked really specifically about the royalty.
[00:26:28] Patrick O’Keefe: The reason I draw that out really is because LEGO could have just said, “We’ll make your idea. We’ll send you five of it.” A lot of people would have participated and been fine with that and the company could have pocketed more of that revenue. I see that and I am like, that’s actually maybe not the right and wrong thing to do but that’s a great thing to do to say, like, “We’re taking this product from the community. We’re going to sell it. We’re going to make money and we’re going to give you some of that money.”
It seems for me, I think the net on that, I’m sure there’s negatives to that. If I sat here and thought about them, like people’s motivations, I don’t know what they would be. The positive is that we’re not just making money off of your back. You don’t just buy our products in mass and give us tons of money because the adult fans do, and then give us that because if we sell them and make more money. We actually cut you into that because it was your creative idea. I don’t know. There’s just something really good there. There’s something really beautiful about that.
[00:27:23] Tim Courtney: We succeed together. We’ve had conversations about that and expanding the pool of positive outcomes. I think what was critically important to the team throughout that entire process that we’ve discussed, whatever current or rewards that were implemented is that we reward people proportionate to their contributions and we share in the success. If a LEGO fan designer is going to contribute something to the company that drives X amount of incremental revenue, incremental business to the company, then it’s only fair – it’s only right – that they share in that reward.
[00:27:58] Patrick O’Keefe: For sure.
[00:27:58] Tim Courtney: What we found was money was never the primary driver for most people, the overwhelming majority of people. It was that people are just passionate about LEGO. People either want to realize a dream of having an idea, realizes a LEGO set. A lot of people grow up wanting to be a LEGO designer, or they wanted to give back or they wanted the peer recognition, or they wanted the recognition from the LEGO company. Strictly my opinion, but I would think that in a lot of the cases, that royalty while definitely appreciated, it was the icing on the cake for a lot of people in terms of their motivation.
[00:28:36] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense. You’ve mentioned a couple times here, what can be commercialized, giving up control. Another thing that’s amazing to me along those lines is that ideas that can be selected can include third party IP, like a game or a TV show or a movie. If an idea gets that momentum and it passes the review, LEGO will actually try to secure the license to make it happen. You mentioned that specific licenses are excluded but LEGO really does a good job of listing out which ones aren’t and appears to keep the list very updated between active licenses and ones that have been retired or no longer represent a conflict.
You know, that list isn’t I looked at it today, and I looked at it yesterday in prep for this conversation. It’s really not that exhaustive. It has the appearance of, “Okay. These are people we work with. These are ideas that we’ve already done.” Beyond that, pretty much greenfield it. You can bring in other ideas. I have to imagine whoever fought that battle or had that conversation once upon a time, it was probably an interesting conversation with LEGO about simply accepting ideas and allowing people to submit an idea using third party IP. The result is that I love looking at LEGO Ideas and oftentimes I’ve heard of LEGO Ideas, just because someone wrote an article about a cool set that was never made. I can remember the “Golden Girls” one specifically, the “Golden Girls” sets, and seeing an article about those even though they were never made. I looked at the page today on who they were ever made, but just the price it generated. I know it’s not fully obviously your purview or your decision, but why is third party IP allowed on LEGO Ideas?
[00:30:11] Tim Courtney: If you look back LEGO, throughout the entire history of LEGO Ideas, LEGO CUUSOO it was during a time in the company’s history where I think in 1999 was when LEGO licensed the first Star Wars set. Prior to that, there were very few licensed sets. If you wanted to get really esoteric in LEGO family there were a few cross-promotion sets with a lot of Scandinavian [crosstalk] Right, of course.
[00:30:32] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re right. As a kid I don’t remember having these cool sets. I don’t remember it. Let me take that back. I don’t want to get messages. I’m not saying the old sets weren’t cool. I loved my LEGO set. I had multiple LEGO sets. This is probably early ’90s. I loved all that stuff but I didn’t have the Ghostbusters firehouse. Let’s just say it that way.
[00:30:48] Tim Courtney: The wonderful thing about LEGO fans, they’re just incredibly passionate and so you will get messages about that. That’s just wonderful. Everybody’s got an opinion. Original ideas, license ideas.
[00:30:59] Patrick O’Keefe: I didn’t mean to cut you off there. IP license ideas.
[00:31:01] Tim Courtney: License ideas. Looking back and it took a long time, I think for the company to get to the point where they would openly publish the ones that they wouldn’t accept. I implemented an earlier phase of what they’ve since implemented since I left the role. In the beginning, it was like, “Well, why not?” Just if you were open with the scope and with the guidelines, we were also open with, “Well, what if somebody submits it?” I think the conversation went, “Well, what if somebody submits it, I guess we can ask that company, and just give it a chance.”
Of course, over time, as the volume increased as the range of IPs, and like the alignment with the brands, family friendly values, and stuff, as those sort of things cropped up, we did have to have a lot of internal conversations about what’s appropriate, or what aligns with the values? The other thing about the industry is that different companies can lock down different exclusives and things like that.
Obviously, that’s something that on a case basis, nobody at LEGO or formerly of LEGO would be able to discuss but that’s just a factor in the toy in the entertainment, the gaming industry is that sometimes you’re going to be able to do something because the license is clear, sometimes there’s another player in the market that has an exclusive that’s sufficiently narrow or sufficiently broad that may or may not exclude any other company from doing that. The reasons for doing a license or not doing license or being able to commercialize a fan idea on a license would vary.
While we wouldn’t be able to talk about those reasons, what we could say is, as long as you’re fitting the brand values, as long as we haven’t made a ruling that like, “Hey, that brand doesn’t really align with us,” then we’ll consider it. That’s all we can say. We can’t really say why it did or didn’t pass. We can’t least say we’re going to give this an honest look. That was another message that we reinforced throughout when being the liaison between the community and the company, it’s we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, if we say we’re going to give something in honest look, we’re going to give it an honest look.
If we get to the point where it’s like this keeps on coming up again and again and again and the answer is no, well, then let’s look into that. Is it worth creating rule around that? If so, how does we communicate that rule? Do we grandfather stuff let it play its way through? Do we archive it? How do you manage that? Doing the IPs was never easy, but I think it was right. It was right for a couple of reasons. It was right because it allowed, and this is really key actually. It allowed for the virality and for the organic growth of the platform. By the fact that you saw that “Golden Girls” idea, yes, were there people whose desires for that set were unmet? Absolutely.
At the same time, we still have the opportunity to celebrate that someone submitted that and designed that, and if someone really wanted to, they can go off and build something similar. Then you also have that lift that it gives to the entire community. Now a whole new cohort of people know about this LEGO Ideas program. There was a big hook into the obviously you see a recurring theme on LEGO Ideas of space exploration. NASA, there’s been several models that have come out in that theme, the Mars rover, or the women of NASA, the Saturn V rocket.
Yesterday it was funny, I was on a call. My slides when I give talks, I say LEGO + blank = awesome. It’s that activity to another interest community that’s really passionate. I guess if you were to talk about that today, you might want to use the word intersectionality, that comes up in social movements and things. I think it’s also apt to say, “Here is that intersection of a passion for LEGO, and a passion for another idea.” That’s just the essence of what LEGO Ideas is. Going through what it took to be able to accept third party IPs, and go through that process of this legal department or whether that’s with the IP partner, whether that’s communicating to the public, the gain from that was so much more, so much greater for the community, for the program, and for the brand, the overhead of handling those different requests and edge cases ever would be.
[00:34:45] Patrick O’Keefe: If you’re listening I want to provide some substance to this behind the sets that have been created, just look at the Wikipedia page for LEGO Ideas and ideas that have been accepted and ideas that are based on existing IP. I didn’t just pull “Ghostbusters” out of my hat, “Ghostbusters” were actually one of the IPs that someone did make a creation based upon. “Back to the Future,” “Minecraft,” “Doctor Who.” TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Friends.” Disney IP like “Steamboat Willie,” “The Flintstones.” There’s just so many things that are just amazing. There’s so much out there and it’s such a creative group that like you said, the life and attention. LEGO Ideas is going to exist without that IP, but just the level of attention those ideas get that then give attention to other ideas that are great but original, hard to measure, but obviously extremely present.
[00:35:32] Tim Courtney: Yes, absolutely. I can’t really get into the financial side of things, but you can imagine creating that brand awareness, that energy around the program. If you have a portfolio of products now, and whatever mix that is, I don’t know how many a year come out that are original, how many come out that have IPs on them, you create this mix. You say LEGO Ideas is about all kinds of new and interesting ideas around the LEGO brick. Some of those are going to be completely out of people’s imagination, or they might be hommages to classic LEGO, like the Exosuit with the green space guy. When others will celebrate other fandoms, other IPs that people really like. The rising tide raises all ships. Everybody benefits from that mix.
[00:36:17] Patrick O’Keefe: I think a question you’ve probably been asked a lot, but I’m going to ask it anyway is what’s the ROI of LEGO Ideas, because, on one hand, we see new sets get created, new sets get sold, revenue gets generated, there’s that, but LEGO’s a creative talented company. LEGO has designers, they can pay creative people to come up with ideas and fool around with licenses and pitch sets. That can be an internal process. Why open it up to the community? What’s the ROI for LEGO?
[00:36:42] Tim Courtney: Absolutely, you touched on one very obvious, and that was the revenue. I don’t think that any company would continue doing something like LEGO Ideas if it didn’t have a strong business case to it purely on the financials, but also there’s another mantra that the community team has for years, for a decade or more preceding my tenue there. 99% of the smartest people in the world don’t work for us. Ideas can come from anywhere. It’s about leveraging those ideas, but it’s also it’s about building those relationships with people. I think, at least three in my memory, I don’t know if anyone else since, I’ve had three community members come in and get hired as LEGO designers.
I’ve had internal email comes up, “Hey, Tim, how’s it going? I work here now.” I look and it’s the name of one of the community members. I’m like, “Oh, great, let’s go grab coffee.”
There’s that and then the authentic marketing stories that come out of it. As you see LEGO Ideas also now that’s the contests that was in other community that was called LEGO Rebrick prior where it was doing with challenges for design challenges say, design a scene around the Voltron set. There’s a partnership I think with Volvo like design your technic, like front end loader of the future.
That kind of content, it’s also another area that connects other business units. They’re able to drive a marketing initiative and source creative content for much greater return than if you were to commission a creative agency to do something similar. The diversity of ideas, and also the engagement. In fact, these community members, they feel a sense of ownership and they’re going to promote it when we promote it. “Hey, look my thing was featured on LEGO.” That spreads more organically.
The marketing stories behind the products, t he marketing stories behind the crowdsourced user-generated content, those are immensely more valuable than the company could have done on a traditional paid marketing advertising budget. This is another point of ROI. You’ve got purely on the business case, the financials of a program like this. You’ve got the relationship building with the community itself. Then you’ve got the authentic marketing stories that really outperform online, outperform from a content strategy perspective. I’m sure there’s others, but that’s enough.
[00:38:55] Patrick O’Keefe: No, it is.
[00:38:56] Tim Courtney: You know what, it’s really frickin awesome to do. I’ve always said LEGO is an open-source platform. It’s an open medium. The producer of the bricks, they assemble these models with a consistent quality building experience. It’s always challenging for the age mark. They put a story wrapper around it, but it’s an open medium. Like who’s to say that this group of rarefied knighted designers over here in this lab are the only people who can make really, really awesome consumer products that other people are going to love with this raw material.
[00:39:26] Patrick O’Keefe: Tim, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed the conversation.
[00:39:30] Tim Courtney: Yes, same here, really enjoyed it, Patrick. You did your research. It’s been great reminiscing about how we got to where we are. Really, I think it’s just been such a special community and program to be a part of. A really good example of how a brand, how a company can engage with its core fans, core consumers, and I would say create value and create meaning together.
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