How to Become an Intrapreneur at Your Company

Some employers establish a culture that encourages employees to pursue their ideas

24 November 2017

Intrapreneurs exhibit many of the same traits as entrepreneurs: They’re creative problem-solvers who take risks. That’s why some who have an entrepreneurial bent are turning to intrapreneurship, using the built-in financial resources and staff from their company to develop a new product or service without the risks of going it alone. The key difference is that their project will benefit their employer.

Some companies have established a culture in which employees are encouraged to innovate beyond their job description during the workday, but others require employees to step up and pitch their ideas to upper management to get support.

INTRAPRENEURIAL FIRMS

Companies such as Facebook, Google, and 3M encourage employees to pursue their ideas. They might offer a variety of opportunities such as letting employees devote 20 percent of work hours to side projects. Others incubate workers’ projects full time.

Barbara Marder, a senior partner at Mercer, says she believes the key ingredient in a company’s success is a culture of innovation. Mercer presented its intrapreneurship model at the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference. Marder runs the human resources consulting company’s three innovation hubs, where employees focus on developing new products and services, many of which involve technological applications.

All of Mercer’s 22,000 employees are encouraged to participate and pitch their ideas. “Innovation is everyone’s responsibility,” Marder says. “While we can’t have everyone off innovating and not doing their day jobs, we try to take risk off the table for those who want to try out an idea that would help the company.”

One product launched last year from an innovation hub is Mercer Match, powered by the startup Pymetrics. Job seekers play 12 neuroscience games that uncover their social and emotional traits. Their profile, based on those traits, is matched with appropriate job opportunities.

Software company SAP, headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, created the iO business unit to pursue breakthrough software ventures using the company’s assets—including its data and its application programming interfaces—in an open innovation model. SAP.iO’s Venture Studio allows entrepreneurial-minded employees to pursue independent startups as intrapreneurs. SAP encourages all employees from its more than 130 global offices to submit proposals for new ventures that can simplify and transform how businesses operate. The only catch is the idea must have the potential to make a huge profit.

With an annual revenue of more than US $23 billion in 2016, SAP is looking for its iO unit to generate bold ideas that can bolster its bottom line, according to Marcus Krug, head of the unit’s intrapreneurship team. The team reviews hundreds of proposals each year to find the ones that are most likely to move the needle.

SAP.iO gives selected intrapreneurs capital to pursue their venture as an internal startup. The initial seed funding that SAP.iO provides allows teams to prove that a market exists for their new venture and that they can successfully tackle it. In the process, teams take end-to-end responsibility for their project, from product design and development to sales and financials. Advisory boards composed of senior executives provide oversight and guidance.

Since its start in 2016, SAP.iO’s Venture Studio has made six seed investments, providing intrapreneurs with the money they need to get the business off the ground. The studio’s most successful venture to date is Atlas, a geospatial data analytics product that provides a simplified platform to help companies make better decisions.

“We have audacious goals for SAP.iO,” Krug says. “We understand that what we do carries high risk and that many of these new ventures will fail. That’s why we’re taking a venture capital approach.”

But if SAP.iO continues to make enough careful, small investments, Krug says, he is sure one will have unicorn potential.

TAKING INITIATIVE

Not all companies have an intrapreneurship program, but that doesn’t stop some employees from taking it upon themselves to innovate. IEEE Member Shraddha Chaplot worked for nine years as a systems engineer at a well-known technology company in Silicon Valley. She spoke about being an intrapreneur at the WIE International Leadership Conference and at IEEE N3XT, a forum for engineers who are budding entrepreneurs.

Chaplot defines intrapreneurship as employees contributing to a company beyond title, team, or budget. “I made things happen by seeking and creating my own opportunities, building them out in my spare time, and convincing those I needed to support me for help, all in addition to my regular job,” she says.

One of her biggest accomplishments happened while she was on a team working to make technology more accessible to people with disabilities. She took it upon herself to advocate for a university to receive a $100,000 research grant offered by her employer. With that grant, the university tested a videoconferencing system for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. After that success, her manager allotted time for her to create another system for the university to do further testing.

If you want to be an intrapreneur, it helps if you’re in a supportive environment, Chaplot notes. “Unless a new role is created for you, most companies are not going to let you wander off and experiment with something new,” she says. “They need measurable results.”

Although many people have nurtured her ideas over the years, others stifled them. If you have an intrapreneurial spirit and you find your ideas are being ignored or stolen, find another employer as soon as possible, she says.

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