A guide to intrapreneurship

A guide to intrapreneurship
Photo by Mario Calvo / Unsplash

Intrapreneurship transforms established organizations from within, demanding groundbreaking contributions. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, offers the freedom to chart an unbounded path outside the confines of convention. It's a choice between reshaping the familiar or forging your own limitless path.

What is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship have first been defined by Elizabeth & Gifford Pinchot in an essay called "Intra-Corporate Entrepreneurship" published in 1978 (!).

When you study successful innovation, you find at the root of it passionate champions and small teams taking on the entrepreneurial function inside the organization and carrying things on beyond their assigned responsibilities.

Becoming an intrapreneur requires a willingness to go beyond typical tasks within a culture of innovation. Intrapreneurship is a distinct form of innovation, driven by a specific mindset and an understanding of how top management supports progress. Fostering innovation unleashes teams from rigid boundaries and encourages ideation to thrive.

Intrapreneurship is like building a company inside the company. It takes a few people to do that; it can't work with large groups of people because at the very beginning a company is built by a few until it expands.

As an intrapreneur, you will have the opportunity to take initiatives as well as embrace the responsabilities that come with it. So as an intrapreneur, you won't wait for a roadmap to be made or for an emerging idea to be spoken. You will think about something innovative that could have an impact for the company and go chase it.

Back in 1995, Steve Jobs described intrapreneurship to Newsweek as is:

The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as intrapreneurship ... a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage, but in a large company.

It means that an intrapreneur is ready to work with a small group of people, to handle different tasks and responsibilities, to work fast and smart with MVPs (Minimum Viable Product).

Let's finish this section with an example that will speak to everyone: coffee! Nestlé has created the Nestlé’s InGenius Intrapreneurs program in order to unleash the creativity of its employees. Thanks to this program, Davide Costello became an intrapreneur. He noted that most of Nespresso consumers were running out of pods before buying their next stock. So he decided to develop a new offer to give consumers the opportunity to receive their refill within two hours. Above all, he developed a green way to do so by deciding that deliveries should happen via bicycle. In eight weeks, he developed the Nestlé’s Fast & Green service.

The intrapreneur mindset

Intrapreneurship is not a specific position inside a company; it's a state of mind. Still, you won't become an intrapreneur all by yourself. You need support from the top management. You need managers who understand what intrapreneurship is and get the big picture of how the company can benefit from it.

Building an intrapreneurial culture is not about "creating" intrapreneurs - they already exist within organizations, they just need to be discovered and encouraged.

Pinchot wrote ten commandments for intrapreneurs:

  1. Work underground as long as you can - publicity triggers the corporate immune system.
  2. Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
  3. Do any job needed to make your project work, regardless of your job description.
  4. Follow your intuition about the people you choose, and work only with the best.
  5. Circumvent any orders aimed at stopping your dream.
  6. Find people to help you.
  7. Never bet on a race unless you are running it.
  8. Be true to your goals, but realistic about the way to achieve them.
  9. Honor your sponsors.
  10. Come to work every day willing to be fired.

How to become an intrapreneur

1. Pushing the boundaries

The aim of intrapreneurs is to constantly innovate and get out of their comfort zone. You need to love working with uncertainty and sometimes not knowing what you do. Actually, you are like an entrepreneur but with the luck to already have the fundings and the job security that comes with it. It means that you need to take responsibility for your actions as well as to learn how to pitch your ideas. You're not raising money, you're raising engagement and willingness for innovation and new projects. In the end, you raise confidence from the top tier of the company for off-the-road topics.

2. Building an intrapreneurship culture

You can't become an intrapreneur if your company doesn't understand it, doesn't support it and doesn't empower it. You need to work with a top management that do not satisfy with good results but want to go the extra mile. That's how innovation is empowered and thus, intrapreneurship. The culture needs to put the innovation first and not the egos. It's okay if one of the biggest contribution comes from an intrapreneur. The entrepreneur can't do everything, neither nurture all the ideas. That's why he / she hired in the first place. So intrapreneurship should be the normal path to the company's growth.

According to Alon Harris and Timo Werneke (Bayer AG):

This requires time, resources, and patience, and there are no shortcuts. Yet as our experience over the years has shown us: when done properly, cultivating this spirit internally has the potential to bear amazing results—for the business, for the organizational culture, and for all the individuals who have grown into innovation leaders in the process.

3. Going out of your comfort zone

As an intrapreneur you won't focus on traditional topics. That's mainly why you will be working outside of your comfort zone. You will need to learn about how a startup works in order to see the big picture. Then, you will try a ton of ideas and fail as many times. And that's fine, because you will make your company learn a lot and innovate (even if it means failing). Communication will be your key to success; either talking to external people to the company or internally: finance, sales and/or partnerships, support, product, tech, marketing, etc.

4. Challenge the status quo

Don't settle for mere satisfaction with good results. Beyond the realm of the ordinary lies untapped potential and innovative approaches that can catapult you to even greater heights. You may have achieved a 175% ROI but envision the possibility of soaring to 190%. This journey demands innovation, a willingness to revolutionize, to ruthlessly trim the excesses from your processes and testing timelines. Embrace radical changes in your roadmap; break free from the shackles of conformity to the company's established processes.

Intrapreneurs are driven by an intrinsic motivation to change the status quo, be it of a specific, process, product or routine. This intrinsic motivation sets them apart rom other employees in the corporation. Being motivated to achieve a self-set goal, intrapreneurs not only generate an idea but develop a long-term vision and plan to implement the idea in order to see it blossom.

5. Take a seat at the table

Communication is key, we covered that already. You will first convince your manager to launch a new idea, and then you will meet both allies and barriers. Keep in mind that - in most cases - anything is personal. You will have to figure out how to engage and keep engaged your allies, as well as learn how to convince people who didn't engage in the first place. And that's the best situation you can be in because you're already part of an organisation and you already have existing relationships!

6. Working smart and fast

Often, innovation means working fast. You will start working smart and fast with MVP (Minimum Viable Product), radicality in your priorities and roadmap and by making an habit to challenge yourself.

The fail fast, fail cheap approach
Sharing my personal experience as an intrapreneur & introducing the fail fast, fail cheap approach.

Does entrepreneurship comes after intrapreneurship?

Being an intrapreneur doesn't mean you will finally land with an idea of your own to start a business. Maybe it's the company you work for that nurture your ideas and once you quit, your ability for innovation doesn't apply anymore. On the contrary, intrapreneurship could be what's help you get the foot on the ladder.

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and has an idea for a startup. Aspiring to be the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Richard Branson, but you may make a bigger difference as an intrapreneur.

There is a cognitive bias called Availability heuristic that led us to think about events depending on their frequency and the easiness that comes with it when thinking about example. That's why we tend to think more about entrepreneurs than intrapreneurs. And maybe also because intrapreneurship is far from being talked about that much so we know a lot less intrapreneurs, to not say we don't know them at all when they are not part of our organizations. For instance, have you heard about Paul Buchheit (he created Gmail while working at Google), Art Fry (he created post-it notes while revisiting an abandoned adhesive project) and Ken Kutaragi (he created the Playstation while working at Sony to improve his daughter’s Nintendo)?

This then leads us to mistakenly over-estimate how much entrepreneurs really contribute to society. This is not to say that the contributions of entrepreneurs to business and culture are not important. It is to simply recognize that the role of entrepreneurs in creating transformative innovations may not be as large as we think.

Yet, the best comparison between an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur is the one by Kara Wenger, Head of Work Sustainability at Zurich Insurance Group:

While both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs are innovators with a passion for building something new, intrapreneurs can benefit from greater job security, lower risk and ready access to the resources of their large organization. Being an intrapreneur, while it has its challenges, is sometimes more accessible to people who value that balance between stability and change. And if you get it right, the potential impact of scaling your solution across a global organization is significant.

As Tony Fadell stated in Build:

The world is full of people who have an idea and want to start a company. [...] The answer if that you'll never know (ndlr.if you're ready to start a company) until you take the leap and try. [...] Work at a startup. Work at a big company. Get a mentor to help you navigate it all. Find a cofounder to balance you out and share the load. Convince people to join you.

So being an intrapreneur doesn't mean you will end up being an entrepreneur but intrapeneurship is the best university you can go to.