Key Lessons from My Intrapreneurship Journey

Becoming an intrapreneur helped me address customer needs, grow our business, motivate my team, and more.

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MIT’s Sloan School of Business (1) defines Intrapreneurship as acting like an entrepreneur within an established company, creating a new business or venture. Sometimes that business becomes a new section, or department, or even a subsidiary spinoff. As established companies drive for new innovation, and expand their size, scope and even resources, they will need intrapreneurs to emerge rather than just cultivating managers who steer existing business.

As the Chief Product Officer for an integrated business unit within a large software company, I discovered that adopting an intrapreneurial mindset helped me address customer needs, grow the business, motivate my team, and above all, keep my sanity.

Most companies probably don’t have a formal intrapreneurship programs in place; however the encouragement for intrapreneurial efforts does emerge in various corporate innovation programs, most notably 3M’s 15% Rule (2). However, an intrapreneur realizes that innovation for the sake of innovation is never the objective – rather it is to drive impact on either revenue growth or the broader company strategy. As I look back on my journey as an intrapreneur, here are five key takeaways that stand out for me:

  • It’s critical to get early customer engagement and validation on the thinking process

This key lesson seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Well in my opinion it is not that evident, especially when you are trying to innovate within the construct of an existing large company with existing perceptions and viewpoints on what customers want or need. Always be wary of institutional groupthink, as this will bias your thinking; just because it worked for the bigger parent company in the past does not mean it’s what your customer needs. Always validate, iterate, and adjust your thought process with your key customers because they may or may not be the key customers of the bigger parent company.

Aligning and winning internal stakeholders is as important and tedious as working with a VC

Some call it, in polite terms, the big corporate overhead or alignment tax; I choose to look at this as no different than working with the demands and needs of a VC or an PE investor. Your budget is your funding –  fight for it, justify it, and prove that you are worth the investment. Why should this be any different than how an entrepreneur approaches his investors? Draw influencers maps, find the missing pieces of the portfolio that a unit wants to fill, and above all do not ignore the importance of lunch and dinner (now video) meetings.

  • Learn to pivot and recognize the path to possible success rather than pushing against the wall

Yes, we all know about being flexible, adaptable, and changing our product focus or features, but for an intrapreneur pivot can occur in other ways as well. For example, changing the way your offering is priced or monetized may help increase its attractiveness within the larger parent company’s salesforce. This does not mean changing the actual product offering or capability but rather the monetization constructs to better fit the parent structures. Similarly, do not forget the need to adhere to corporate policies – for example around branding and data protection. For these kinds of policies, instead of pushing your own approach, keep it in perspective of broader framework of achieving adoption of the service vs. fixation on getting everything in your vision.

  • After all is done, and a lot of said, all that matters is when someone says “I Do”

Successful entrepreneurs measure their success by customer adoption, revenues, and profitability, so why should an intrapreneur be any different? Often in the midst of quarterly business reviews, the usual red-yellow-green status update charts and biweekly updates, intrapreneurs may confuse these as success for their efforts. While the above-mentioned activities may be corporate requirements, the ultimate success metric for an intrapreneur should be the actual adoption and usage of the service. Along with these metrics, it is even more important to have a time bound for intrapreneurial ventures, otherwise projects may keep dangling and exist forever in the doldrums because no one either cares at the broader corporate level or there is lack of proper governance on these portfolio investments. A successful intrapreneur should always be bold enough to recognize when an effort is not going anywhere and have the courage to shut things down versus getting sucked into the void of justifying one’s existence in the parent company. Afterall, wasn’t avoiding becoming another cog in the wheel the reason one becomes an intrapreneur?

  • Apply a “ship, shipmate, self” attitude

This lesson has little to do with just intrapreneurship, it is my mantra of how I lead my corporate life. Always focus first on taking care of your ship which is your parent company, your unit, and your team. Then ensure care of your shipmates, these are the team members who make you look so good and successful – always recognize their contributions and support. Last but in no means the least, focus on yourself, taking care of your mental and physical health. These are the guideposts that help me stay focused on my true north. As an intrapreneur you will go through some tough times just like an entrepreneur – your vision and your execution will be questioned by others, and you will have self-doubt. This belief that what you are doing is right for the ship, your shipmates, and your self can help you persevere.

Please feel free to share your intrapreneurship lessons or add to those above with me. This topic is getting significant academic attention as well, including my own alma mater, University of Chicago Booth School of Business (3), that has some interesting courses that help entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike. For me, intrapreneurial mindset is a meaningful way for established companies to stay competitive and grow as they address the disruptive innovation from outside.


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