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The “Intrapreneur” – Real Deal or Wannabee?

As the founder of a small recruitment boutique in the digital space, I consider myself to have some of the qualities of an Entrepreneur, but wouldn’t necessarily call myself one.

Whilst not wishing to put the title ‘Entrepreneur’ on a pedestal and make myself sound like a hero worshipper of these folk, I must say that in general, most of the Entrepreneurs I have come across – whether in person or through reading – have been really quite impressive.

Some of the Founders and Co-Founders I have met over the years who have started their own businesses in the true entrepreneurial sense (i.e. on their own without being an employee of a large enterprise or incubator) have blown my mind with the level of faith in their product, commitment to their cause and sheer belief that they will succeed.

Another thing that really impresses me is their seeming ability to work solid 16 hour days on a constant basis and still have the energy of a Duracell bunny every morning. I WISH I had that level of stamina!

Entrepreneurs are rightly lauded as the ones who ‘make things happen’; they come up with new ideas (or make old ideas work by evolving them), take risks where most people won’t, have incredible focus and create new businesses, jobs, and wealth – and inspire other people to do the same.

The rise of the ‘Inside Entrepreneur’

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed the increasing numbers of Inside Entrepreneur (aka Intrapreneur) that I come across. It’s a concept (or at least, job title) that I have struggled to get my head around, not least because in my view it is a very different world to operate in than that of an Entrepreneur.

Coined in the 1980s by management consultant Gifford Pinchot, Intrapreneurs are used by companies that are in great need of new, innovative ideas.

According to Investopia, the definition of an Intrapreneur is an “An inside entrepreneur, or an entrepreneur within a large firm, who uses entrepreneurial skills without incurring the risks associated with those activities. Intrapreneurs are usually employees within a company who are assigned a special idea or project, and are instructed to develop the project like an entrepreneur would. Intrapreneurs usually have the resources and capabilities of the firm at their disposal. The intrapreneur’s main job is to turn that special idea or project into a profitable venture for the company.”

Entrepreneur vs Intrapreneur

When assessing suitability for C-level or Director level roles, I tend to view the skills and attributes from people who have run their own start-ups quite differently to someone from an intrapreneurial background. They may both say very similar things or use the same words in a CV, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. It’s not that one has more value than the other, but in my opinion (whilst not in every case) we are talking about two very different kinds of person.

Entrepreneurs sometimes do not make great employees because they just don’t ‘fit’ into corporate structures, whereas the Intrapreneur may struggle in a start-up environment where there is little or no support (and sometimes chaos ensues)!

Now, if you happen to be an Intrapreneur reading this, I hope you can forgive my slightly cynical tone about the concept. It’s not that I believe the job is easy and I don’t wish to be disrespectful, but it seems to me that in some ways, the role of Intrapreneur is not particularly entrepreneurial.

One of the most significant differences is that a typical entrepreneur is very much open to risk, whereas an Intrapreneur is not so.

Another interesting factor is that it’s not unusual for the entrepreneur to either have dropped out of college, or at least not pursued higher education in the same way that the Intrapreneur does, who usually has a more measured approach and comes armed with an array of top college degrees and MBAs. There’s a different mentality.

Whereas the budding entrepreneur is battling on all fronts, often trying to do the job of CEO, COO, CMO, CPO and HR Director rolled into one, working insane hours and trying not to think when they’re next getting paid (and still managing to enjoy it!), the employed Intrapreneur gets a guaranteed pay check every month and has the financial and operational backing of an employer. In comparison, it all seems rather safe.

Ask any small business owner – starting a business is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. The Entrepreneur develops a business plan, acquires the human, financial and other required resources, and is ultimately responsible for its success or failure to the point where there’s usually no ‘plan B’ if it fails or if funding dries up.

The experience derived from being an Entrepreneur and starting/running your business, cannot be replicated by doing an intraprenuerial role within the context of a full time job and a regular wage.

The role of the Intrapreneur

Despite the title of this blog and my somewhat unflattering tone so far, I realise that the role of the Intrapreneur IS a very important one in today’s market and in fact, the Intrapreneur is a relatively rare breed. Furthermore, organisations need people like this, who not only have the desire to innovate, but who also have the tools in the cupboard to do so. The role requires a certain combination of skills and qualities:

  • They have to be very creative (both in the design/ideas sense, but also in terms of how they manage stakeholder relationships)
  • They need sound project management skills with the ability to multi-task
  • A high level of integrity that builds confidence in those around them
  • A ‘visionary’ quality, whereby they can ‘sell’ a vision and get everyone on board
  • A good Intrapreneur understands (and appreciates) the economics of the new venture that they are leading. Whilst their main motivation might be to ‘make things better’, they still appreciate that essentially it comes down to the bottom line – is the new product or service viable from a monetary perspective?
  • An ability to learn from mistakes and ‘get back up’ quickly after a failure
  • Intrapreneurs are often easy to recognise because they are natural incubators of ideas and can’t help but try to make some of these become a reality

The role is certainly not without its challenges. Unless the company has some kind of internal incubator, it can be difficult to create an agile environment and operate a model of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Therefore, a steadfast willingness to persevere and change attitudes might be required in order to get anything off the ground.

Conclusion

Whilst I’m sure some will disagree, I see the role of Intrapreneur as a type of innovative Product Manager….. someone who combines product management (and project management) skills, with a design thinking approach, excellent relationship management and the ability to envision others.

I don’t believe that a good Intrapreneur would typically make a good Entrepreneur (or vice versa).

However, the Intrapreneur is someone who could potentially come up with that ‘game changing’ idea or solution and develop it, ultimately taking a business to the next level. Therefore, every effort should be made to identify these people within the business and to nurture them. They may not have the charisma or risk taking qualities of the Entrepreneur, but if given the right environment and resources they might just be one of the most important people in your organisation.

What do you think? Are you an Intrapreneur and if so, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

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