The Art of Leading

Some aspiring entrepreneurs are already working for a big company. Like external entrepreneurs, they dream of creating innovative products. They, too, must prototype, position, pitch, bootstrap, recruit, fund, partner, sell, and support. The purpose of this minichapter is to explain how to do all this when you’re employed by a large business.

Ironically, many entrepreneurs envy the employees of major companies—they think that these lucky souls have humongous financial resources, large sales forces, fully equipped labs, scalable factories, and established brands, plus medical and dental benefits, at their disposal. How wonderful it would be, guys and gals in garages muse, to invent a new product with the luxury of such an infrastructure already in place.

Guess again. Creating a new product within such a beast is not easier, just different. I collaborated on this post with Bill Meade, director of data science at Neal Analytics. We came up with this list of recommendations for internal entrepreneurs.

  • Put the company first. The intrapreneur’s primary, if not sole, motivation should remain the betterment of the company that employs her. Intrapreneurship isn’t about grabbing attention, building an empire, or setting up a way to catapult out of the company. When you have a good idea for a product, it will attract a large number of your fellow employees, from the bottom up. They will support you if you’re doing it for the company, but not if it’s for your personal gain.
  • Kill the cash cows. Don’t make enemies by telling the whole company, but your charter is often to create a product that will kill an existing product. For example, Macintosh killed Apple II. Would it have been better for Apple if a competitor had created Macintosh? Or that it never created a Macintosh and rode it to the end of the line? No way.
  • Stay under the radar. Two guys in a garage should try to get as much attention as they can. Awareness of their efforts makes it easier to raise money, establish partnerships, close sales, and recruit employees. However, the opposite is true for intrapreneurs. You want management to leave you alone until your project is too far along to ignore or the rest of the company realizes that it’s needed.
  • Find a godfather. In many companies there are godfather figures. These are people who have paid their dues and are safe from everyday petty politics. They are relatively untouchable and have the attention and respect of top management. Internal entrepreneurs should find a godfather to support their projects by providing advice, technical and marketing insights, and, if it comes to the point where you need it, protection.
  • Get a separate building. An intrapreneur, sitting in the main flow of a big company, will die by a thousand cuts as each department manager explains why this new project is a bad idea. According to Peter Drucker, “The new always looks so puny—so unpromising—next to the reality of the massive, ongoing business.”
  • Give hope to the hopeful. Inside every corporate cynic who thinks that “this company is too big and dumb to innovate” is an idealist who would like to see it happen. Good people in big companies are tired of being ignored, forgotten, humiliated, and forced into submission. They may be trampled, but they are not dead. When you show them that you’re driving a stake into the heart of the status quo, you will attract support and resources. Then your goal is to advance these people from wanting to see innovation happen to helping you make it happen.
  • Anticipate, then jump on, the tectonic shifts. Deformations in a company are a good thing for intrapreneurs. Whether caused by external factors such as changes in the marketplace or internal factors such as a new CEO, tectonic shifts may create an opportunity for your efforts. Effective intrapreneurs anticipate these shifts and are ready to unveil new products when they occur: “Look what we’ve been working on.” By contrast corporate pukes say, “Now I see the shift. If you give me permission, six months, and a team of analysts, I can come up with a new product strategy.”
  • Build on what exists. The downside of trying to innovate within a big company is clear and well documented, but there are also benefits. Don’t hesitate to utilize the existing infrastructure to make innovation easier. You’ll not only garner resources, but also make friends as other employees begin to feel as if they are part of your team.
  • Collect and share data. The day will arrive when a bean counter or lawyer is going to notice you and question the reasons for your project’s existence. If you’re lucky, this will happen later rather than sooner, but it will happen. Prepare for that day by (1) collecting data about how much you’ve spent and how much you’ve accomplished and (2) then sharing it openly. In big companies, data suppresses antibodies, but it might be too late to get the data once the antibodies appear.
  • Let the vice-presidents come to you. Do you think that your first step should be to get your vice-president to approve your project? It isn’t. This is one of the last steps. A vice-president will “own” your idea and support it more if he “discovers” it and then approaches you about sponsoring it. You may have to ensure that a vice president “accidentally” makes that discovery when the time is right, but this is not the same as seeking permission to get started.
  • Dismantle when done. The beauty of intrapreneurship is that it can develop new products in less time than mainstream engineering. Unfortunately, the cohesiveness that makes an entrepreneurial group so effective can lead to the group’s downfall if the group remains separate and aloof.
  • Reboot your brain. Many intrapreneurs will find that the rest of this book prescribes actions that are contrary to what they’ve experienced, learned, and maybe even taught in big companies. The reality is that starting something within an existing company requires adopting new patterns of behavior—essentially, rebooting your brain.

This post is a tiny part of Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, The Art of the Start 2.0. Read it and reap…

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