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Leadership

The Intrapreneur's Playbook

Startups get all the glory when it comes to innovation, but intrapreneurship—or, creating from within an established company—is much trickier. Here's the 4-step playbook for making it work.

The Intrapreneur's Playbook

What would you add to this playbook? Tell us in the comments section below.

When it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship gets a lot of attention. But every day, people are generating new products and business models within established companies as well. This so-called intrapreneurship may seem cushier—after all, a corporate parent eliminates some risks of a startup—but it’s often a challenging and delicate proposition.

The corporate environment can be complicated; as a result, the intrapreneur’s playbook is just as attuned to balancing interests as it is to disruptive innovation. Here are some tips for making your big ideas a reality, without rocking the corporate boat (too much).

Good intrapreneurs manage expectations—downward.
Entrepreneurs get nothing but upside from widespread buzz about their hot new ventures; but for an intrapreneur, too much hype, too soon, can be detrimental.

Within a corporation, big promises often attract the attention of higher-ups, and it’s a lot harder to innovate freely when the guy who signs your checks is breathing down your neck.

In early stages, always drive home that your new product, service, or business line is a pilot. Be clear that your work is preliminary, experimental and focused on assessing opportunities, traction, and risk. Set clear parameters—a prototype, test engagements with customers, etc.—and keep everyone focused on evaluating that near-term goal. "Pilot" is code for "this may not work," and you need that out; without that disclaimer, pressure may not only build on you, but other parts of your organization can also get ahead of themselves. You don’t want your sales team selling customers on a product that may not work, or your GM expecting revenue from an unproven concept. Don’t promise the moon too early.

Good intrapreneurs are systematic and stage the risk.
The value of pilots is tied to the broader importance of staging a venture systematically. Entrepreneurs sometimes have the freedom to cobble together something cool, roll it out, and see what happens; but intrapreneurs’ actions have implications on an established business, and can’t put that business at risk without a sufficiently large pay-off.

Explicit roadmaps with clear checkpoints are important indications that you understand this risk/reward trade-off. Make clear that you’ll constantly re-evaluate your venture and adapt; you want to build in milestones that provide multiple opportunities to expand investment, course correct, or abandon ship as things evolve. You may build a great prototype, but if research finds that customers have a low willingness to pay for your new product, then it’s back to the drawing board. Your roadmap should account for this possibility and others like it. Be a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

Good intrapreneurs bootstrap for as long as possible.
Ironically, while corporate start-ups have company resources available to them, intrapreneurs would do well to think like entrepreneurs and bootstrap for as long as possible. Asking for (or getting) corporate funds is the quickest way to put an iterative, experimental approach in danger. When people give you money, they expect results; that rigidness can be harmful to early stage ventures still experimenting with success.

Bootstrapping has another benefit as well: the more concrete your business case when requesting capital, the more promising the perceived return on investment. Product specs, working prototypes, commitments from customers, MOUs with strategic partners—all minimize the risk of investment by fleshing out the path to success. This makes your organization feel more confident about dedicating funds that could have otherwise been used elsewhere in the business, to you.

Good intrapreneurs explain the four "whys"—to everyone.
The four "whys" speak to the strategic rationale behind your venture. Think through these questions and recite your answers dutifully to stakeholders across the organization, from the lowliest analysts to C-Suite officers:

  • Why this? How does your new venture connect to customer needs, industry structure, technological advancements, growth strategies, or other market forces?
  • Why now? This is about timing, obviously. Is there a new gap in the market? A competitive shift? A first-mover advantage to be had? A new corporate strategy into which your idea plays?
  • Why us? Why should your company be the one to act on your big idea? What competitive advantage or key assets does your company have that make your venture a good fit? How does your vision complement the existing business or strategy?
  • Why me? As you approach individuals and teams about your venture, make clear why their involvement is important, and make involvement rewarding for them. Most truly innovative ventures will start skunkworks style, loosely organized and cross-functional; but your collaborators already have full-time jobs that are their primary responsibilities. Make them care. Sometimes that means doing the not-so-fun things—PowerPoints and spreadsheets, admin work, and scheduling—yourself. Doing so minimizes the burden on your teammates so they can engage with the substance of your vision, particularly in sensitive early stages.

More often than not, intrapreneurship is about balancing innovation with other organizational priorities. To some, that may sound a bit less sexy than all-out entrepreneurship—but speaking as someone who’s done both, the fact that intrapreneurship is nuanced means it presents a possibly even greater challenge—and reward.

What would you add to this playbook? Tell us in the comments section below.

—Niko Karvounis is the cofounder of Quovo, an investment management platform.

[Image: Flickr user Dov Harrington]

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