The 6 Steps to Becoming an Intrapreneur

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When you think about professionals who are driven to create and innovate, the first type of innovator that comes to mind is likely the “self-made” individual who starts their own business or enterprise. The entrepreneur.

However, there is an equally influential type of innovator whose work takes place within an existing company. The intrapreneur.

What is an Intrapreneur?

Like the entrepreneur, intrapreneurs are innovators who thrive on creation –  though they may feel more comfortable as part of a team or initiative within an environment that fosters their inspiration, or they’re happy contributing to an important cause they’ve helped to grow and develop over the years. Others may be working jobs to support themselves and are looking for outlets to stand out from the crowd.

The term intrapreneur was popularized by the 1985 book “Intrapreneuring” by Gifford Pinchot. Simply put, it refers to an in-house entrepreneur, an employee of a company who acts much like the creator of a new business or startup company. Intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs are similar in that they share a lot of the same attributes:

  • Innovative – They’re always looking for new and better ways to do things. Some might be driven to find how existing processes or products can be faster, less expensive, or more efficient. Others think outside the box entirely, searching for new approaches and validating new ideas.
  • Flexible – Complacency and rigidity are anathema to this mindset. Rather than being satisfied in doing the same things in the same way, it’s vital to have a top-down dedication to doing whatever needs to be done. Both are people who are just as comfortable thinking on their feet as they are wearing many hats.
  • Intellectually curious – All positions require continual education, but these individuals will actively seek out what they don’t know. It’s as much a never-ending quest to improve their own skills as it is a compulsion to see what everyone else is doing – in order to do something different.

Persistent – Neither intrapreneurs nor entrepreneurs will stop pushing for what they want, they both understand that setbacks and missteps are part of the discovery and development process. It’s equally important to brush off and learn from mistakes as it is to not take “no” for an answer.

Intrapreneurs vs. Entrepreneurs

For all their similarities in attitude, there are some major differences between intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs, especially relating to the environments they find themselves in.

  • As they are their own boss, entrepreneurs have complete freedom to take whatever risks and explore new options whenever they want. They don’t need to ask permission, though they do need to get buy-in from their partners and employees and, at least at some point, their board. In contrast, intrapreneurs lack full autonomy over which initiatives they pursue and the time and money they can dedicate to them. Because they’re subject to oversight, their internal initiatives may require approval.
  • Entrepreneurs assume all the risks of innovating. While that has the potential to pay off big for the individual, sometimes setbacks are too severe to fully recover from. Too many major failures can lead to ruining a brand’s name or financial hardship, resulting in the end of the company. Intrapreneurs benefit from a stronger safety net, as larger organizations should have the resources to weather a few failed initiatives.
  • Entrepreneurs have to secure funding, intrapreneurs need to request a budget. Unless they’re independently wealthy, entrepreneurs require investments and loans to raise the necessary capital to start their business. Though intrapreneurs have to work within a limited budget, they can enjoy the steady financial backing of larger organizational support plus can rely upon a steady paycheck.

How Intrapreneurs and Entrepreneurs Compare to Each Other

 Dependent on own capitalCreates new services / productsTotal freedom to explore / take risksHas organizational

 

support

Flexible to take on different rolesPersistent in the face of failureThrives on innovative thinking
Intrapreneur x xxxx
Entrepreneurxxx xxx

How Do Intrapreneurs Create Value?

So how do companies benefit from having an intrapreneur (or two) in the organization?

Rather than just checking boxes and completing tasks, intrapreneurs are interested in exploring all the different ways that a company can grow and develop. This innovation can come from anywhere, sometimes that means crossing departments or going around the usual hierarchies. Examples could include:

  • A programmer who is inspired to develop a new marketing campaign for an application the IT team is developing will be able to enhance and promote the company’s brand.
  • An administrative assistant who recognizes an untapped market, and understands how to reach out to it, can bring in more revenue through new products or new customers.
  • A salesperson who brainstorms a software app that increases operational efficiency will save the company time and money through reduced expenses and downtime.
  • A tech administrator who proposes a new line of business (LOB) and then takes a position as a product manager in order to see it come to reality.

Intrapreneurs can come from anywhere in the company, but the problem is that department divides and strict hierarchies can stifle innovation and risk taking. How can individuals stand out from the noise, and how can organizations recognize and foster the intrapreneurial spirit? Here are our top recommendations and some of the examples that inspired them.

How to Become a Successful Intrapreneur

  1. Establish good relationships. Even the most driven entrepreneur needs a team to accomplish anything, and this goes double for intrapreneurs. You’ll need to make sure your bosses are happy, so be sure to establish a good rapport with managers to build trust – it’ll give you more leeway. You’ll have to rely on your coworkers to see things through, so having a good understanding of organizational structure will allow you to gather allies who can support your ideas. An excellent team can be a game-changer for a company, like it was for Frito-Lay and the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  For years the story was that the break-out brand was the work of a single innovator – Richard Montañez. However, it turns out that the true history was a little more complicated, and the brand was brought to life by Frito-Lay salesman Fred Lindsay and product developer Lynne Greenfield.As a salesman in the Great Lakes region, Lindsay regularly saw spicy products from smaller regional brands “just blow off the shelf” and so fought like mad to “get hot stuff in the market.” When the initiative started under Greenfield, she’d go on marketing tours with her team to sample multiple brands of products for inspiration and then collaborate with packaging and product design to refine the flavor and branding. Ultimately it was a team effort that was able to make that product idea into a household name.
  2. Be a problem solver. There’s a lot to this, because problems often require multiple angles of attack before they’re able to be solved. You’ll need to be familiar with the resources and procedures inside and outside your department to know what you have available. You have to promote your critical thinking skills so that others will look to you as a leader to find solutions. You need to be committed to success, and you need to look for inspiration wherever you can find it. The development of silicon germanium semiconductor technology was a breakthrough that enabled modern advances in cell phones, WiFi internet, and GPS devices – it came about through the determination of Dr. Bernard Meyerson and a fortunate observation. Tasked by IBM with solving the problem of how to heat silicon to 1,000°C to remove contaminating oxide, Meyerson eventually thought back to a small lab accident he had experienced as a doctoral student. Having accidentally dropped a piece of silicon into hydrofluoric acid, Meyerson had been surprised to discover that the wafer had become water resistant when he went to wash it off.  Now, in repeating the experiment, Meyerson realized that the acid had formed a protective layer of hydrogen that would protect the silicon up to 600°C, only after which the oxide would form.“That was the epiphany,” Meyerson explained. “The layer that everybody thought you had to remove didn’t exist until you actually formed it on your way up to 1,000°C. Simply growing materials below 600°C avoided the whole problem. It was the most bizarre finding I’ve ever had, but it also gave us a 10-year head start on the rest of the world because nobody understood the effect, so away we went.”However, while there was initial excitement about this breakthrough, investment in other semiconductor technologies took precedence, and Meyerson eventually found his 100-person research and development team cut down to just two people. Rather than accept the situation, Meyerson worked aggressively to market the SiGe technology with outside communications firms that would pay IBM to develop and then manufacture the new chips. Encouraged by the funding and support, IBM committed to the development, eventually making it the standard for reliable and lower-cost network technology.
  3. See the bigger picture. A development that improves a single department or day-to-day operation can be considered a “hack” or an improvement. It’s not really innovation, as it’s everyone’s job within an organization to develop their own department. For something to be truly an innovation it needs to be pitched as to how the company as a whole will benefit. Breaking new ground or expanding into new areas is what will make you really stand out. That’s the vision that Ken Kutaragi had when he first pitched the idea of the Playstation to Sony CEO Norio Ohga. In the early 1990s Sony was looking into getting into the video game console industry, which at the time had been dominated by Nintendo’s Super NES and Sega’s Genesis systems. After attempted collaborations with both Nintendo and Sega fell through, Kuturagi had the idea that beyond making a single console, Sony should establish an entire division dedicated to video games. Former VP of product acquisition, Shuji Utsumi, recalls that Kutaragi “had a vision for not just making a game console, but putting an OS on top of it, building libraries, etc. He wanted it to feel like we were a computer entertainment company, not just a game company. He would say, ‘Hey Shuji, my computer is not just Nintendo or Sega. My computer is Microsoft.’” Impressed by the scope and details of Kutaragi’s pitch, Norio Ohga greenlighted the project, which eventually would result in the establishment of Sony Interactive Entertainment, one of Sony Corporation’s major businesses.
  4. Keep experimenting. Gathering additional information and research is only the first step in the process of educating yourself. You don’t have to be assigned to the R&D team to find the time to play around with new angles of approach, try out new workflows, or prototype new features. Oftentimes different departments will approach situations in completely different ways, which can lead to new takes and novel ideas that seem almost too obvious in hindsight. During Facebook’s early days, many of the programmers would stay after hours to build out new prototype programs or try new functionalities that they were interested in. Over time, more people collaborated on setting up time to work together on experimenting with new features. These “hackathons” became more and more popular across the company, moving from different programming teams to collaborations between entirely different departments – including UX researchers, lawyers, and engineers. While many of the employees who participate use that time mainly to hone their new skills or learn more about unfamiliar technologies, real product development has come out of the hackathons. Features such as the Like button, Chat, and Timeline came out of hackathon experimentation and collaboration. One particularly simple functionality, the “tagging in comments” feature, was built by an intern at a hackathon and within two weeks was made an official part of the entire platform.
  5. Be a self-promoter. It’s important to keep track of your accomplishments and brandish your achievements so that others can see them. You are your own proof of concept for success. Being able to sell your triumphs, as well as how you’ve grown from failures, will buy you the authority to lead a team, the clout to earn respect, and the leeway to make risky decisions. Arguably nobody’s self-promotion had a greater impact on the world than Kelly Johnson and his establishment of the Lockheed Skunk Works. Brash and confident, Johnson first made his name by ignoring office decorum to directly inform chief engineer Hall Hibbard that their new plane design was dangerously unstable. Tasked with solving the stability problem, Johnson successfully redesigned the plane, earning the young apprentice a spot as one of Lockheed’s six aeronautical engineers.Johnson grew his reputation by being as much a confident salesman as an engineer, and he would enthusiastically promote himself (and his ideas) to both industry veterans and military personnel. That confidence provided Johnson with the clout to go to Lockheed president Robert Gross, during the height of World War II, in order to request his own special team of designers and engineers. The jet planes produced by the Skunk Works, such as the F-90 and U-2, would change the world of aviation.
  6. Be proactive. Every single element of being an intrapreneur requires taking action. Promoting yourself, experimenting, team building, problem solving and envisioning new approaches means that you’ll need to explore opportunities on your own time and find ways to take initiative. When Dr. Spencer Silver discovered a new light adhesive that didn’t form strong bonds, he wasn’t initially sure about what to do with it. “[At 3M] we wanted to develop bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives … this was none of those.” Despite the uncertainty, Silver was persistent in promoting the unique qualities of the adhesive to others in the company. He notes, “I came to be known as Mr. Persistent because I wouldn’t give up.” Silver finally found his partner when fellow 3M scientist Art Fry saw the technology and realized that it could serve as a bookmark that could stick to paper without damaging it. Deciding to market their innovation internally, Fry and Silver supplied the entire company with their new style of notation. It’s immediate popularity eventually resulted in the creation of the Post-it® Note.

Master’s Degree Programs That Grow Intrapreneurship Skills

If you’re interested in pursuing a degree that gives you the skills to thrive as an intrapreneur, consider programs that offer entrepreneurship tracks, as the skills and knowledge are directly transferable.

Look for programs that offer curriculum in:

  • Establishing startups – the steps needed to get a start-up company successfully off the ground are directly transferable to starting new initiatives within a larger corporation. Courses that offer instruction on basic principles of finance, risk and return, how to create a business plan, and how to hold discussions with both customers and stakeholders will provide you with knowledge of important best-practices.
  • Skills for c-suite leadership – anyone can manage a team, but true leadership is needed to build trust and inspire others. Courses that offer training in skills and strategies, especially for specific fields like the tech industry, can help prepare you for higher level positions within a company.
  • New areas of innovation – being an innovator means being able to see around the corner and conceptualize what new developments might be possible. Look for programs that study emerging technology, the underlying elements that make that technology possible, and the principles of connectivity that drive future development.
  • Putting principles into practice – learning about how to establish a new venture is good, but the experience of actually launching one is better. Programs that offer multiple capstone experience courses provide an unmatched opportunity to develop and pitch a start-up and receive invaluable feedback.

USD MITE’s curriculum is built upon cross-functional leadership training that applies what you learn to solve both day-to-day and strategic challenges with an entrepreneurial and innovation-minded approach.

If you want to further develop the inner, entrepreneurial restlessness that drives you to excel, then consider USD MITE.

Intrapreneurship FAQs

Q: How can I encourage intrapreneurship within my business?

A: Generally a business will want to find ways to promote the six recommended habits within their environment. This can be an implicit culture where employees are allowed more freedom to “play” with their approaches to projects. Or, it could be a more explicit and controlled environment where they’re actively encouraged to innovate:

  • Idea fairs where concepts or designs are pitched
  • Hackathon-style rapid design problem-solving sprints
  • Sandbox fund account to buy time or hire partners to develop prototypes
  • Designated innovation time to spend on side projects

Q: How can I be an Intrapreneur if my company isn’t directly supporting me?

A: It is sometimes said it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. If you’re determined to find new ways to innovate and develop new initiatives at work, then you’ll need to find the time and resources on your own to demonstrate your concept. Don’t neglect your regular responsibilities though! Intrapreneurs are allowed more leeway because they can prove they’re an asset to the company, so don’t assume you can jump right out the gate and start doing your own thing.

Q: Is it better to be an Intrapreneur or an Entrepreneur?

A: It depends! Are you able to support yourself by supplying and raising capital and feel the need to call all the shots? Then you should explore the possibility of creating a startup as an entrepreneur.  Do you feel you work better with others and don’t mind taking your time getting started? You might be better off as an intrapreneur, especially if you’re unable to dedicate your full time to a venture that might not be immediately profitable.

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Portrait of Jeff Teza