The best “entrepreneur” I know has never owned a company.
As I was becoming an entrepreneur and starting a business, a really good friend of mine became an intrapreneur in a startup. He offered a valuable service, was paid a great salary, got stock options, and helped the new business succeed. Once the organization went public, he made millions. After realizing this was a process he could replicate, he went and did the same thing at a different company.
He’s currently on his third business.
From a monetary perspective, he is far more successful than I am. While I don’t regret the path I took as an entrepreneur, I do think it’s important to let people know there’s another option.
If you’re someone who seeks autonomy and freedom at work, understand you don’t have to start your own company and take on burdens like payroll, overhead expenses, work stress, and full accountability for the business’s success.
There’s a lesser-known choice: becoming an intrapreneur who operates as an entrepreneur within an existing business.
For those interested in embracing an entrepreneurial drive by carving out a niche business within the safety of an existing organization, I’ll be covering what an intrapreneur is, the advantages and disadvantages of being an intrapreneur vs an entrepreneur, what you need to know to become an intrapreneur, and how to get started as one.
- Intrapreneurs do not start their own companies. They instead work within an already existing business.
- Companies like DreamWorks, Apple, and Google have all encouraged intrapreneurship in their organizations
- Things like the McDonald’s Happy Meal and Post-It notes have come from intrapreneurs
- Roughly half of new businesses with employees fail in the first five years
What Is an Intrapreneur?
Intrapreneurship is when an employee offers their skillset and talents to provide a needed service inside the business they work for. Unlike an entrepreneur, intrapreneurs do not own the organization. Yet, they also take on more responsibility than a regular team member since they are normally tasked with developing new ideas, pitching them, and spearheading greenlit projects.
The Pros and Cons of Being an Intrapreneur vs. Entrepreneur
To help you decide between being an entrepreneur vs. intrapreneur, let’s look at some of the benefits and disadvantages to pursuing each option.
- Not responsible for paying employees
- Doesn’t take on business expenses like paying for computer software, office space, company taxes, and more
- Has more freedom and autonomy than the average employee
- Doesn’t have as much pressure to drive results
- Failure doesn’t personally and professionally affect them as much
- Can replicate success more easily in this structure
- Must get permission from executives to move forward on plans
- Experiences more red tape and restraints
- Not the final decision maker for the business
- Won’t financially gain as much as the person who owns the company
- Doesn’t get to choose who they work with
- Still considered a company employee who must follow policies established for team members
- Has a boss they must answer to
- Gets to determine the vision and direction of the organization
- In complete control over what work is prioritized and completed (unless the company has a board of directors)
- Has more autonomy and freedom than anyone else in the company
- Stands to gain the most if the business is successful
- Can choose who they want to work with by hiring a strong team
- Has the most influence in the organization (if they’re a great leader)
- Must ensure employees get paid on time
- Pays all business expenses
- Legally responsible for abiding by all work laws and regulations
- Bears the brunt of risk
- Has the most to lose if the business fails
- Experiences more pressure than everyone else to succeed
- In charge of providing the team with all the resources they need
Examples of Intrapreneurship
One of the best intrapreneurship examples comes from DreamWorks. This movie studio encourages animators to become intrapreneurs. By offering them free scriptwriting classes, their team is encouraged to pitch their movie ideas directly to the company for potential development. Overall, they want to support their employees by helping them develop new skills that can elevate their careers.
Another example includes Guy Kawasaki who served as Apple’s top marketer and “chief evangelist” for several years during the 1980s and 1990s. This role led him to become a multi-millionaire intrapreneur. He now holds the same position at Canva, a unicorn company worth $40 billion.
When working on a project to develop an industrial-grade adhesive for the aerospace industry, chemist Spencer Silver accidentally created a substance he felt could be useful to the company. He held onto the idea. Five years later, he began working with another 3M scientist, Art Fry, to develop what we now know as Post-It notes. It ended up being a huge seller for the company, with over 50 billion individual notes sold every year.
After being dissatisfied with the performance of other email providers, Paul Buchheit began ideating on a web-based email service while in college. After getting a job with Google, the company approached him about possibly developing some type of email service. They gave him a general idea of what they were looking for, but for the most part, Buccheit had a lot of freedom to create what he wanted to. Today, it’s estimated there are 1.5 billion active Gmail accounts, showing how much of an impact this intrapreneur made during his time with the company. On top of this, he also created the prototype for Google AdSense, which resulted in another extremely successful product for the business.
While there’s a lot of lore behind who created the Happy Meal, Yolanda Fernandez, the president of McDonald’s Guatemala, certainly influenced the creation of one of the business’s most famous offerings. When she and her husband opened the first McDonald’s in Guatemala, people didn’t understand what the various names of the sandwiches meant. To save parents and kids trouble, she created a separate menu specifically for children. She tells the Chicago Tribune she presented executives with the idea for a smaller meal designed for kids in 1977. Her work, along with regional manager Dick Bram and marketing and advertising expert Bob Berstein, is credited for the creation of the product that sells 1 billion units per year (about $10 million in daily sales).
Questions About Intrapreneurship
How do you become an intrapreneur?
Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs both look to solve problems. As an intrapreneur, start by looking at problems and opportunities within the business you work for. If there’s an organization you feel called to work at, you can also look for what’s missing in the company and find a way to join them.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Where is there room for innovation?
- What new product or services would add value to the company?
- What is something the business is not capitalizing on?
- How does this idea work from conception to implementation?
- How much of a budget is needed?
- What kind of resources will help get the job done?
Before presenting new ideas to the executive leadership team, make sure you’ve taken the time to do your research and present a well-formulated pitch. This might look like building out a business plan ahead of time to show the CEO or vice president what your idea looks like in operation and how it will positively affect the company.
Learn more about how to write a business plan.
How can employers support intrapreneurs?
High-performing employees usually have an entrepreneurial spirit and want increased responsibilities so they can drive impact through their work. As a leader, recognize leadership traits and skills in your team members. Be a mentor and speak to the greatness and ability you see within those who demonstrate a knack for intrapreneurship. For instance, invite someone who is hungry to develop a new product or ask them to help you solve one of the organization’s biggest challenges.
Additionally, make ideation and innovation a part of the company culture. Many businesses like Facebook, Dropbox, and Capital One run internal “hackathons” to generate new ideas and find ways to innovate existing products and services. Not only is this a team-building exercise, but it also encourages innovation and produces quality ideas that can be put into implementation. For example, an employee created the “like” button for Facebook during a hackathon.
To organize a hackathon:
- Identify a problem the company needs to solve from within.
- Gather ideas from other successful hackathons.
- Choose a theme for the event.
- Select a committee to plan the hackathon.
- Determine prizes for winners. Working with sponsors can help offset costs.
- Announce the event and get the team excited about attending it.
- Arrange a few days for employees to take a day or two off so they can participate in the event.
What type of mindset and attitude do you need to succeed as an intrapreneur?
If you’re an intrapreneur, you’re not just a great team player—you’re someone the CEO would trust to run a business for them. Ultimately, that’s what your role is. So, what makes a person capable of being the CEO of a business inside a business?
The qualities and skills of successful intrapreneurs include:
- Having the experience and know-how to run a successful venture.
- Displaying little need to be micromanaged and directed by a superior.
- Communicating and demonstrating the desire to fulfill the CEO’s vision.
- Tying your work to the leader’s purpose and “why” for the business.
- Being solutions- and results-driven.
- Ideating and executing upon the concepts you develop.
- Exhibiting a knack for creativity, innovation, resourcefulness, and thinking outside the box.
- Showing a growth mindset and the ability to quickly recover from setbacks.
- Wanting to serve others and generate transformation in people’s lives.
- Feeling personally invested in the success of the business.
- Going above and beyond to prove your value and worth to the company.
Can you make just as much money being an intrapreneur?
Normally, the title “entrepreneur” conjures images of freedom, success, and wealth. However, running a profitable organization can be painstaking, exhausting, and financially risky, especially when you’re just starting out. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found only 50 percent of companies with employees survive to see year five of business.
Becoming an intrapreneur minimizes your responsibility and risk while also providing financial opportunities regular employees don’t receive. For example, a sales intrapreneur might get an increased amount of stock options or receive a percentage of sales from a new product they’re helping the company develop.
The bottom line is: How much money you make depends on the company, how successful it becomes, and how many businesses you work for. Intrapreneurs like my friend that I described earlier have made millions by replicating their wins across various organizations throughout their career.
As you step into intrapreneurship, track how you achieved big goals and generated success. Also, make note of things to avoid. This way, if you do get involved with another company, you’ll have a playbook that gets proven results.
How to Get Started as an Intrapreneur
With intrapreneurship, you really want to think like you’re already a business owner. If you were organizing a startup, where would you begin? One of the best things you can work on is your vision. This will be your greatest asset as you pitch your idea to leaders within a company.
Your vision also keeps you motivated. It’s your “why,” or your reason for becoming an intrapreneur and not just settling for being an average employee. Acting as a business owner within a pre-existing organization requires a lot more passion, responsibility, and hard work than being assigned jobs and completing pre-determined goals. Your vision is what keeps pushing you forward to create monumental growth and transformation, even when the going gets tough.
To begin developing a vision:
- Start asking deep internal questions such as “What problem in the world do I want to solve?”
- Visualize what the world is like without this problem. Describe the impact of your solution on the business, customers, and society.
- Hyper-focus on details. The more detailed you are, the more likely it is that executives buy into the vision you have. For example, if you’re pitching a new product, use language that helps those you’re pitching to visualize what you’re describing.
- Develop an action plan. It’s not enough to have a vision. As an intrapreneur, you also need to reverse engineer the end goal so you can describe exactly how you’ll achieve it. It’s easier for leaders to say “yes” to what you’re pitching when you have a great idea partnered with a strong strategy to make it a reality,
Interested in learning more about crafting a vision? Check out this article next:
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