As told to Leigh Buchanan

Industry: Advertising and Marketing

2006 Inc. 500 Ranking: 185

Three-Year Growth: 638%

“Fat and happy” is no one’s description of an ideal warrior. EPrize, which develops and manages interactive promotions for the likes of General Motors, Target, and HBO, is more than twice the size of its closest competitor, a situation that Josh Linkner finds both gratifying and nervous-making. So he has designed a culture that keeps his people sharp, hungry, and focused–as witnessed by 2005 sales of $26.4 million and three-year growth of 638.1 percent. His secret weapons? A strong sense of whimsy and a marketer’s appreciation for storytelling.

We work with 62 of the top 100 large-brand advertisers, developing and managing interactive promotions. We do a lot of online instant-win games. And instead of a simple game metaphor like a scratch-off ticket, these are often brand-immersive experiences. So you’re skiing down a mountain somewhere and it’s almost like a mini-videogame. We do a lot of programs that drive frequency, such as collect-and-win programs or trivia games. And we do loyalty programs, or points-based reward programs.

I was reflecting on greatness, and it occurred to me that many times when people achieve greatness it’s in the face of adversity. Superman conquering Lex Luther. Muhammad Ali taking on Sonny Liston. Our competition is actually very light. We don’t have that big enemy, that arch-nemesis we can rally against.

I decided if a nemesis doesn’t exist, let’s create one. I made up a company called Slither. Slither is our head-to-head arch-evil enemy; its CEO is Gordon Gekko. They never have a down quarter. They have better clients and margins and employee retention than we do. They’re more efficient and are growing faster.

I launched Slither at an executive offsite. We’d been enjoying a lot of success and so my team was feeling a little cocky. I said, “OK, guys, I want you to close your eyes and imagine this.” And I started to describe this company that was beating our pants off. As I looked around the room I saw the color melt out of everybody’s face. And I said, “If this were real, how would you feel?” I introduced it to the rest of the company at a staff huddle. I’d had one of our artists draw a logo for Slither. It looks very Enron-esque.

A month later I sent out Slither’s first press release announcing their quarterly numbers. Some people had forgotten about it and were taking it all very seriously: “Who are these guys? I checked out their website and couldn’t find it.”

Now and then I’ll make up a press release or a press article and send it to the team. In June I made up a fake Wall Street Journal article reporting that Slither was so confident that they were announcing they’d beat their quarterly numbers before the quarter was even over.

We have Slither Challenges: We’ll form groups and each one gets 30 minutes to figure out how Slither would approach a particular business problem.

Introducing Slither has done three things. First, it’s helped us avoid complacency and maintain urgency. Second, it has given us something better than reality to benchmark against. Third, and most important, it engenders free thinking. When you ask a question that requires innovative thinking, people’s natural filters come into play. If I say, “What product should we launch?” they immediately think, what products do we have and whose pet project is this and what’s our software engineering availability? But when I say, “What products do you think Slither is going to launch?” suddenly it’s a blank slate. People will say, “Oh, I bet Slither is going to do this!”

It’s not just my little fun thing and everybody else is rolling their eyes. It’s become part of the culture. People use it as a verb. They say, “You don’t want to be slithered.”