An entrepreneur is defined as “An individual who starts a new business, bearing most of the risk and receiving most of the rewards… an innovator, a source of new ideas.” In comparison, an intrapreneur is a leader who promotes innovative product development and marketing in the area of a large corporation.
Both terms portray a person willing to take risks to promote the development of breakthrough products. Their motivations vary, but both typically have in-depth knowledge in emerging areas and a passion for their vision for the future. Our culture revere these visionaries, and for good reason.
Think a venture capitalist’s intuitive understanding of recombinant DNA technology pushed him to found Genentech. Although less conspicuous, intrapreneurs are also making waves, as we have seen with Paul Buchheit starting Gmail at Google via his famous project 20%.
Intrapreneurs are somewhat less in the spotlight in the press, and for this reason advice and best practices for those taking this route are limited. Here are five lessons from my career, spent working inside many of the world’s most innovative technology companies.
1. Choose your own adventure
Whether you start or join a business depends in large part on your belief in the vision of the founders versus your willingness to defend your own. Both choices have pros and cons, but they’re not for the faint of heart either.
Recognize your own insights and explore synergies with people already in the field. Did anyone come up with a compelling vision? Have these organizations received promising funding or are they on track to get there?
If someone else’s idea is gaining momentum and their vision is aligned with yours, intrapreneurship may be the solution. People underestimate the power of teams – whether you are a founder or not doesn’t matter if the journey is empowered for everyone.
Early in my career, I had a vision that computer animation would be the way movies would be made in the future. I was fortunate to find a thriving organization of people who shared this vision at Pixar. I joined the company when the team was only 50 people and I was able to keep up with its momentum.
When I started out we worked on shorts and commercials, but we quickly made a deal with Disney, where we were funded to work on the world’s first CG feature film. This movie was Toy story, and it became a stellar success.
The resulting innovation was such that today all animated films are now CG driven. I chose to join a team that shared my passion and as a result made a bigger contribution than I could ever have created my own animation studio.
2. Look beyond the status quo
Intrapreneurs always question the “it’s like that” thinking. However, they do it in a way that is more acceptable in an existing corporate culture. Throughout your career you will come across organizations with entrenched processes and politics. Most people want to play it safe and will encourage you to do the same.
Remember, your disruptive mindset is your greatest asset – but the way you apply it must respect existing paradigms. Choose an approach that will expand and improve existing structures rather than compete with them.
My disruptive state of mind led me to join YouTube. The company had started to showcase a way of distributing videos that appealed to a younger demographic, but it had many challenges to overcome. Nyan cat.
Having worked in media production at Pixar, I had a strong instinct that creators of all sizes would accept the democratic nature of web distribution rather than wait for gatekeepers. I joined the team responsible for helping creators stream and share their videos – a team of only three people at that time!
We have worked closely with our engineering counterparts, constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can offer to better serve our customers. We have used techniques and processes that are well established in the company, such as Key objectives and results and a user-centric mindset. In addition, we went to great lengths to ensure that the business models we doubled down on were in line with the larger plans of the company.
YouTube has forever changed the way we interact with video. Remember that saying “we can do better” is often the first step in unlocking critical career opportunities and business success.
3. Cultivate the breadth and depth of knowledge
Deep expertise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows you to dive into a specific area and influence substantive changes, like what we’ve seen with Genentech. On the other hand, we focus so tightly on our experiences that we often fail to see the larger trends.
Disney was slow to embrace computer graphics because they were so focused on creating traditional animation – an area in which they had deep expertise. Meanwhile, the Pixar team observed that the CG animation behind shorts like Pewter toy makes incredibly immersive feature films. Several decades later, Disney acquired Pixar.
As an intrapreneur, the company relies on you to understand your field in depth. But it’s also up to you to keep the rest of the team up to date with trends and anticipate how those trends might impact the business of the business down the line.
4. Be your best advocate
Intrapreneurs are not exempt from the task of selling their vision and gaining internal support. It’s your job to lead your team, do your research, and champion your ideas.
When I started working on the Google TV team, television was considered an outdated concept. The model had been around for almost 100 years and we had to figure out how to embrace the future.
Our team created a vision and knew we had to bring our internal stakeholders together to be successful. We did this by showing them how television was evolving, identifying key trends in media streaming and home audiences, and showing how we might adapt to deal with those changes.
We were thoughtful in our approach and provided context and plenty of research that would resonate. Every step of the way, our team executed key steps that helped build confidence in our vision and took the team to the next level. Today our Google tv The product is recognized as a leading streaming platform.
Never fear the path of advocacy. Your role is to help lead the way within your field. An intrapreneur typically starts out with very few resources, regardless of the size of the business. You work as a team, gain the support of your stakeholders, and present evidence points to unlock each funding round – just like an entrepreneur has to do with VCs.
5. Reframing conventional success
Intrapreneurs tend to thrive in environments that demand abstract creative thinking. Testing ideas and taking risks are part of the game. Of course, this mindset comes with trade-offs: saccess is neither linear nor guaranteed. It is important to realize that sometimes you will encounter setbacks and even failures.
During this time, you might see coworkers making more conventional choices climbing the corporate ladder. Similar success may take longer for you, in part because resources won’t always be available to you or your market isn’t growing as expected.
During my career, I have had many times when initiatives have failed due to a lack of resources and support, which made me feel the path was hopeless. But solving complex problems and creating something new excites me. These have become my indicators of success.
Intrapreneurship is an opportunity to shape history, and it’s its own reward. And having the safety net of a large business can help mitigate some (but not all) risks.
Remember: there will be times when intrapreneurship feels lonely, but it’s also incredibly rewarding! In my opinion, a career spent challenging the status quo, contributing your perspective, and creating something new out of thin air is endlessly rewarding. If you have a similar mindset, do it!
Published March 24, 2021 – 10:00 UTC