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Our new company needed a logo. Well, first, it needed a name. And since one of the key ideas behind our company is “crowdsourcing”—using a group of people to generate ideas—we decided to crowdsource ideas.

Email, however, isn’t a good tool for this sort of process. It’s very hard to get a single, cohesive picture of ideas spread out across hundreds of emails. Instead, we used a collaborative website called a “wiki,” which means “quick” in Hawaiian. The simple idea behind a wiki-based website is anyone can edit any page at any time, right from their browser. At first blush, this idea sounds like a recipe for chaos, and it can be. But it’s tremendously liberating to be able to edit things on the spot. The key is community.

You’ve probably used the most well-known wiki on the Internet, the aptly named Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), which is a wiki-based encyclopedia. Anyone can create, correct or enhance an entry. Although there were early concerns about the quality and accuracy of information generated, these concerns have largely been addressed by the community that has grown up around Wikipedia. There are people who keep an eye on what’s being changed and generally manage to make sure the information is correct. Today, when you search for a topic on Google, it’s quite likely one of the top-ranked results will be the Wikipedia entry. For example, the number one Google result for “crowdsourcing” is the Wikipedia article for crowdsourcing.

So, you can pretty clearly build an encyclopedia using a wiki. How about coming up with a name for a new company?

Wikipedia is built using a piece of software called MediaWiki, which is freely available. If there’s something you need from a wiki, you can probably do it using MediaWiki. Nevertheless, there are dozens of wiki software platforms to choose from. Some require you to have a server of your own to host the software, and some are hosted for you as turn-key solutions. There’s even a website designed to help you compare the various wiki platforms, called WikiMatrix (www.wikimatrix.org).

For our name-generation project, the key was to have something that would be easy to use for friends, family and colleagues who’d never heard of a wiki. And since we didn’t want to spend money on a one-time need, we wanted something that was free to use. Wetpaint (www.wetpaint.com) met both our requirements. So, we wrote a brief description of what our new company will be doing, offered our participants a bribe for the best name (a nice bottle of Fisher Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon), gave them a deadline (two weeks) and pointed them to http://suggestaname.wetpaint.com to contribute their ideas (you can go there to see what the final results looked like).

In the original wiki concept, every page must have an “Edit This Page” button on it, and pages on Wetpaint pages have just such a button, labeled “Easy Edit.” When you press the button, you see the contents of a Web page with a difference: you can change them, just as you would in Microsoft Word. That’s one of the reasons we chose Wetpaint: It has a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor that makes editing a familiar task. By contrast, MediaWiki requires you to add “markup” to tell the wiki how to format and arrange text. There are plug-ins for MediaWiki that attempt to provide a more WYSIWYG experience, but they have some glitches that can trip up casual users.

You’re probably wondering about two things. First, why didn’t we worry about someone accidentally (or intentionally) deleting submissions to our naming effort? Second, how could we know who submitted which names (aside from asking them to label their submissions)? The answer to both questions is the same: wiki software keeps a history of every change to every page. If something was accidentally damaged, we could restore any prior version of the page. And using the information contained with each change, we could also, if necessary, determine who was the original contributor of any particular name.

We received more than 250 suggestions, some serious, some fanciful (e.g. Mr. Healthypants) and some we really liked. In the end, our decision—Blood, Sweat & Capital—was driven by which domain names were available. We also did a quick, free trademark search at the Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov), just to make reasonably sure we were in the clear. Now all we needed was a logo.

I’ve had professional designers do very nice logos for me in the past (I can highly recommend Rod Wallace at Q Design in Santa Rosa—www.qdesignonline.com). But given our success with crowdsourcing a name, I wanted to experiment with crowdsourcing a logo. You’ve probably heard of Logoworks.com, an online outfit that offers to design your logo for $300 (or more, depending on the package you select). But it only uses two designers at that price (and never more than five). Instead, I chose to run a design contest at 99designs.com.

Basically, you fill out a creative brief and a list of “wants” and “don’t wants.” You establish a prize (that can be guaranteed, meaning someone is guaranteed to win, which increases interest), and start it running (contests run for a week). In our case, I established a guaranteed prize of $300. It costs $39 to run a contest, and guaranteeing the prize tacks on an additional 10 percent, so I knew in advance it was going to cost me $369 for a design.

Our contest received 205 submissions from 60 different designers. In my opinion, we got some very satisfactory results. You can judge for yourself by looking at our contest page: http://99designs.com/contests/17870. It also shows which design we chose (the designer, ella_z, is from Romania).

The secret to a good result with 99designs.com is you must respond to the designers every day, which means a short but thoughtful review of each submission. You should also look at contests similar to your own, and steal good directions from their creative briefs. And don’t forget that how you title and describe your contest will attract people, so write ones that are interesting.

Crowdsourcing is not a panacea to the world’s ills, but it does have its place. It takes a little more work, but it also forces you to think more clearly about what you really want in a name or a logo. And it’s good to remember that none of us is as smart (or talented) as all of us.

(P.S. Don’t forget to check out the Tech Talk blog at www.northbaybiz.com.)