TechFlash Article Of The Year: Intrapreneurs

by Kevin Nakao

DealPop Launch Team: Cindy Hewitt, Troy Morris, Melissa Brewer, Drew Hackleman, Travis Pearl, Julie PItt. Not Pictured: Liz Powell, Suryn Longbotham, David Pederson, Rebecca Caroll

The word intrapreneur was first coined by Pacific Northwesterner Gifford Pinchot III, grandson of the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, who popularized the term in his best-selling book “Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur.” According to Pinchot, Intrapreneurs are those people within a corporation who turn an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.

Seattle is home to a number of startups and corporations alike, the most successful of which leverage intrapreneurism to foster innovation and bring products to market efficiently. I have been lucky in that intrapreneurship has played a fulfilling role in my professional life at both the startups and mid and large-sized corporations that I have worked for.

The recent launch of WhitePages’ new social buying site, DealPophelped me to reflect upon the concept, and to identify some best and worst practices based on my experiences. Here’s what I have learned:

Mash-up Stars with SME’s

Build a dedicated team of both internal stars and external Subject Matter Experts with deep domain experience in the category you will be competing in. Several years ago AT&T and NTT DoCoMostarted a joint-venture in Redmond called MMS that was dedicated to the launch of new wireless services.

MMS followed the DoCoMo playbook and was staffed with wireless veterans, former entrepreneurs, and media executives. While it can be argued that AT&T popularized text messaging in the U.S. through a very integrated “American Idol” promotion led by the media expertise that was brought in-house, the internal stars were very critical for navigation and the company knowledge it took to get things done.

No Frills

Don’t spend more than ten minutes on things like thinking about code names for the project, decorating the office, or relocating to some secret hide-out. The only thing that really matters is that you hire great people, that they sit together, and that they have a good space for open communication. Intrapreneurs are assembled to move fast, not to create a new sub-culture in a hideaway fort with secret handshakes. However, you should spend time on selecting the process that meets your project needs.

When I worked at RealNetworks and we moved Rhapsody from software client to the web, we switched from Waterfall to Agile development for efficiency. Similarly, at AT&T MMS, a streamlined version of Ma Bell’s product realization process was implemented.

Skunkwork Stinks

Unless your project is a matter of national security, do not create a clandestine operation hidden from the rest of the company. Chances are, your co-workers are going to find out about it anyway and the best way to overcome internal resistance is to be open. Getting the whole company behind your effort is more powerful than a single sponsor. At WhitePages, we held several open brown bag sessions for both our launch into mobile and for DealPop as a way to share the business model and product plans.

We received valuable feedback and recruited more volunteers to help out – many of whom became critical in the final stretch. An effective intraprenuer needs to be an evangelist for the project and should articulate the value propositions first to internal constituencies – this is critical prep work that should be practiced before going to market and communicating with external audiences.

Leverage Your Assets

Another benefit of promoting your project internally is to solicit help with any cross-marketing assets you may need to help make your project a success. If executed well, this could be a critical advantage when competing with a more nimble startup. In most cases, cross-marketing will require work from other business units and therefore it’s important to share your strategy so they can fully understand the benefit to the company and prioritize the work as appropriate.

At AT&T, our MMS team worked with the device team to help pre-load our instant message clients in more phones by sharing early tests that showed the incremental revenue per user. Another critical and often-forgotten best practice for intraprenuership is to leverage the values and mission of your company to guide the project. If you have a hard time fitting your project into your company’s value and missions, then it’s probably not a strategic fit.

Build Fast, Validate Quicker

The need for speed should not be used as an excuse to skip market justification. You just need to find ways to vet quicker.

One of the first questions we had to answer for DealPop was whether or not there was a good fit with our audience at WhitePages. In two minutes we had our answer by going to Quantcast to find a strong match between the audience demographics for Groupon and WhitePages.

We also ran ads on our site to test interest and spoke to over 20 potential merchants in two days. Always take the time to assess both supply and demand. While speed is certainly key in most instances, being too focused on getting to market fast can sometimes blindside you from thinking enough about long term integration. Always build for scale and success and don’t try to hedge your bets.

Reaping the Rewards

A common misperception is that intrapreneurship is not as rewarding or fulfilling as entrepreneurship. Years back, I ran my own record label start-up called Musicblitz. Despite the fact that we were nominated for a Grammy-award in 2001, I never got to really enjoy the company I built around my passion for music because I was so overwhelmed with everything it took to keep it running.

With intrapreneurship you get to spend more time focused on the product and less time on the important administrative, IT, and back-office demands. The Seattle tech community epitomizes Pinchot’s idea that “risk-taking and innovation” can certainly take place within the walls of an established corporation.

If you are currently at a start-up, remember that there are many valuable skills you are learning that can be applied to established companies, both big and small. And, if you are at an established company, don’t forget that there are many ways that you can think and even act like an entrepreneur.

I’d be curious to hear about your tips or experiences about intrapreneurship in the comments below.


Related Links:

A related article by DealPopper Jared Hart:  The Best Darn Job I Have Ever Had

2010 TechFlash Awards: The Flashies