An entrepreneur is defined as “an individual who creates a new business, bearing most of the risks and enjoying most of the rewards…an innovator, a source of new ideas.” In comparison, an intrapreneur is a leader who promotes innovative product development and marketing within the domain of a larger company.
Both terms elicit a profile of a person who is willing to take risks to promote ground-breaking product development. Their motivations vary, but both typically possess deep insights into emerging domains and a passion for their vision of the future. Our culture reveres such visionaries, and for good reason.
Think how a venture capitalist’s intuitive understanding of recombinant DNA technology drove him to found Genentech. Though less flashy, intrapreneurs make waves, too, as we saw with Paul Buchheit starting Gmail at Google viaits famous 20% project.
Intrapreneurs receive a little less limelight in the press, and for that reason, guidance and best practices for those on this path are limited. Here are five lessons from my career, spent working from the inside of several of the world’s most innovative tech companies.
1. Choose your own adventure
Whether you start a company or join one depends in large part on how much you believe in the founders’ vision versus how much you’re driven to champion your own. Both choices have pros and cons, but neither is for the faint of heart.
Recognize your own flashes of insight and explore synergies with people already in the domain. Has anyone put forth a compelling vision? Have these organizations received promising funding, or are they on a path towards it?
If someone else’s idea has momentum and their vision is aligned with yours, intrapreneurship may be the way. People underestimate the power of teams — whether you are a founder or not is immaterial if the journey is strengthened for all.
Early in my career, I had a vision that computer animation would be the way movies would get made in the future. I was fortunate to find a burgeoning organization of people who shared that vision at Pixar. I joined the company when the team was just 50 people, and I got to ride its momentum.
In my early days, we worked on short films and commercials but soon landed a deal with Disney, where we got funded to work on the world’s first full-length CG film. That film was Toy Story, and it became a stellar hit.
The innovation it landed was such that today, all animated movies are now CG-driven.I chose to join a team that shared my passion, and as a result, I made a higher contribution than I ever could’ve had I started my own animation studio.
2. Look beyond the status quo
Intrapreneurs are always challenging the this-is-how-it’s-done thinking. However, they do so in a manner that is more acceptable within an existing company culture. Throughout your career, you will encounter organizations with entrenched processes and politics. Most people want to play it safe and will pressure you to do the same.
Remember that your disruptor mindset is your greatest asset — but how you apply it needs to respect existing paradigms. Choose an approach that will expand and enhance existing structures as opposed to competing with them.
My disruptor mindset led me to join YouTube. The company had started to showcase a way of distributing videos that was catching on with a younger demographic, but it had plenty of challenges to get beyond Nyan Cat.
Having worked in media production at Pixar, I had a strong instinct that creators of all sizes would embrace the democratic nature of distribution via the web as opposed to waiting for gatekeepers. I joined the team in charge of helping creators distribute and get mindshare for their videos — a team of just three people at that time!
We worked closely with our engineering counterparts, constantly pushing the boundaries of what we could deliver to serve our customers best. We used techniques and processes that were well ingrained within the company, such as Objectives and Key Results and a user-focused mindset. Also, we worked to ensure that the business models we doubled-down on were in line with the company’s larger plans.
YouTube has changed the way we interact with video forever. Remember that saying “we can do better” is often the first step in unlocking pivotal career opportunities and business success.
3. Cultivate breadth and depth of knowledge
Deep expertise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it enables you to delve into a specific field and affect substantive change, such as what we saw with Genentech. On the other, we become so narrowly focused on our experiences that we often fail to see the broader trends.
Disney was slow to adopt computer graphics because they were so focused on creating traditional animations — a field in which they had deep expertise. Meanwhile, the Pixar team observed that the CG animation behind short films like Tin Toy made amazingly immersive full-length films. Several decades later, Disney would acquire Pixar.
As an intrapreneur, the company relies on you to understand your domain deeply. But it’s also up to you to keep the rest of the team aware of trends and to anticipate how those trends could impact the company’s business down the line.
4. Be your own best advocate
Intrapreneurs are not exempt from the task of selling their vision and getting internal support. It’s your job to lead your team, do your research, and advocate for your ideas.
When I first started working on the TV team at Google, TV was viewed as an antiquated concept. The model had existed for nearly 100 years, and we had to figure out how to embrace the future.
Our team created a vision and knew we needed to bring around our internal stakeholders to succeed. We did this by showing them how TV was changing, identifying the key trends of streaming media and home-based viewership, and showing how we could adapt to address these shifts.
We were thoughtful in our approach and provided context and ample research that would resonate. At every step of the way, our team executed key milestones that helped garner confidence in our vision and enabled the team to get to the next level. Today, our Google TV product is recognized as a leading streaming platform.
Never fear the road of advocacy. Your role is to help showcase the path within your domain. An intrapreneur usually starts with very few resources, no matter how big the company is. You work as a team, gain support from your stakeholders, and showcase proof points to unlock every funding round — just like an entrepreneur has to do with VCs.
5. Reframe conventional success
Intrapreneurs tend to thrive in environments that demand abstract creative thinking. Testing ideas and taking risks are part of the game. Of course, that mindset has trade-offs: success is neither linear nor guaranteed. It’s important to realize that sometimes you will experience setbacks and even failure.
Meanwhile, you may see colleagues making more conventional choices climb the corporate ladder. Similar success may take longer for you, in part because resources will not always be at your disposal or because your market doesn’t grow as you expect.
In my career, I’ve had many moments when initiatives failed due to a lack of resources and support, making me feel the path was hopeless. But solving complex problems and creating something new excites me. These became my metrics of success.
Intrapreneurship is an opportunity to shape history, and that’s its own reward. And having the safety net of a larger company can help mitigate some (but not all) risks.
Remember: there will be times when intrapreneurship feels lonely, but it’s also incredibly gratifying! In my opinion, a career spent challenging the status quo, contributing your perspective, and creating something new out of nothing is infinitely rewarding. If you have a similar mindset — just DO IT!