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January 04, 2006

The Art of Intrapreneurship

One of the great ironies of startups is the envy entrepreneurs express for innovators in large companies—let’s use the Gifford Pinchot term: “intrapreneurs.” From the outside looking in, entrepreneurs think intrapreneurs have it made: ample capital, infrastructure (desks, chairs, Internet access, secretaries, lines of credit, etc), salespeople, support people, and an umbrella brand.

Guess again. Intrapreneurs don’t have it better—at best, they simply have it different. Indeed, they probably have it worse because they are fighting against ingrained, inbred, and inept management. There are lots of guys/gals inside established companies who are as innovative and revolutionary as their bootstrapping, soy-sauce-and-rice-subsisting counterparts. This blog is for these brave souls who must practice the art of intrapreneuring.

  • Kill the cash cows. This is the only acceptable perspective for both intrapreneurs and their upper management. Cash cows are wonderful—but they should be milked and killed, not sustained until—no pun intended—the cows come home. Truly brave companies understand that if they don’t kill their cash cows, two guys/gals in a garage will do it for them.  Macintosh killed the Apple II: Do you think Apple would be around today if it tried to “protect” the Apple II cash cow ad infinitum? The true purpose of cash cows is to fund new calves.
  • Reboot your brain. Just about everything you learn and do inside a large company is wrong for intrapreneuring. For example, in a large company, you survey customers, check with the sales force, build consensus, conduct focus groups, test, test, test, ensure backward compatibility, test, test, test, and then ship. When you ship you utilize advertising because advertising is the what’s always been used. Forget these practices. In fact, don’t worry, be crappy and ship as soon as you can. Generally, you should do everything the opposite from the tried and true existing way of large companies.
  • Find a separate building. One of the best ways to ensure that the OS that’s loaded into your brain is different after rebooting is to work in a separate building. Ideally, it’s between four hundred forty yards and one mile from the main corporate campus—that is, close enough to steal stuff but far enough so that management is seldom in your face. And this should building should be a piece of crap with crappy furniture. Intrapreneurs need to suffer to build cohesiveness, and you can’t suffer if your butt is sitting in a $700 Herman Miller chair.
  • Hire infected people. Do you know what the most important characteristic is of an intrapreneurial (and entrepreneurial team too for that matter)? It’s being infected with a love for what the team is doing. It’s not work experience or educational background. I would pick an Apple II repair department engineer over a PhD from MIT if he “gets it,” loves it, and wants to change the world with it. Of course, you understand that you’re reading the blog of a jewelry schlepper who went to work for Apple.
  • Put the company first. Here is the first dose of reality. Intrapreneurs must put the company, not themselves, first. If you want to put yourself first, then quit, raise capital, and start your own company. But as long as you’re an employee, you have to do what’s right for the company. Admittedly, many people in the company won’t think you are doing what’s right by killing their cow, but they just don’t get it. You are doing what’s right for the company, and that is to kill the cash cow. You can’t have it both ways: the security of existing employment and all the ego-boosting riches of entrepreneurship. At the end of the day, the very bozo that stood in your way may get some of the credit for what you did.
  • Stay under the radar. Speaking of bozos who got in your way, you need to stay invisible as long as practical. Your initial reaction to an innovative idea may be to seek upper level and peer buy-in (although rebooting your brain should have taken care of this problem.) Not a good idea. Seek forgiveness (if it comes to this), not permission. As soon as you appear on the radar the flak will start flying. Let the vice-presidents come to you. When they appear and start suggesting new product, that’s the time to tell then you’re already working on it. Even better: make them believe it was their idea.
  • Collect and share data. Trust me, you will get in trouble if you are a good intrapreneur. This is because the higher you go in many organizations, the thinner the air, and the thinner the air, the more difficult it is to support intelligent life. Thus, at some point some bean-counting, status-quo preserving, milk maid is going criticize you for wasting corporate assets on something that no customer is asking for. At that point, you need to already know how much it’s truly cost the organization to get this far. If you have to spend weeks retracing your steps to figure this out, you’ll be in a much weaker position. If there’s anything a bean counter hates, it’s someone who’s already counted the beans.
  • Dismantle when done. This is the second dose of reality. If your intrapreneurship is successful, then your product and team will move into the mainstream of the company. That insanely great team of pirates must integrate into the system—hopefully they will improve the system and not become the scum of a new bureaucracy—but integrate they must. I laugh about it now, but at one time those of us in the Macintosh Division thought we’d never be more than one hundred people.

Knock yourself out!

Written at Ilikai Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii


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Hello my dear friends! I am glad all to welcome. A lot of good it would be desirable to tell, but time does not allow. I shall simply thank all for your statements, and I wish successes in private life, not be sick and be close attentive to myself and friends. Up to a meeting.

Dear founders of this fine site. Big to you thanks for such fine opportunity to express the opinion at you on a site.

'Preciate the insights, Guy. I wrote up some of my own:

How not to be a successful intrapreneur:


Having gone through this process myself, I couldn't agree more. This is dead-on.

hoo boy, can i give you tales of intrapreneurship! been doing it for a few years in a megacorp.

if some day you are blessed with meeting me face to face, you can buy me a beer and i can spill my heart.


Kill the cash cow ? ( and I do understand the usage above)
Move to spare building ?
Release without test ?

Sounds like delusional ravings by frustrated employees with no skin in the game...


couldn't find a contact link, so doing it as a comment (sorry). Your NetNewsWire subscription link doesn't seem to work. I guess the popup containing NNW's name that comes up after clicking #1 "Subscribe to RSS feed" uses JavaScript? Because at least NNW 2.0.1 doesn't do JavaScript, so nothing happens after choosing the menu item.

I myself managed to extract the feed URL from looking at the other URLs, but you may wanna fix that. NNW is big in the Mac world, after all.

Oh, and the text in your captcha when posting comments says "enter the number in the image below" ... but it's actually a set of alphabetic characters.

This ties in nicely with the 'Free Agent Nation' ideas of Dan Pink. If companies no longer provide job security, we should be looking for ways to create our own job security - work on cool projects, make things happen, don't wait to be chopped.

I wonder if there is a certain company size where intrapreneurs are most successful? Big enough to be able to hide when necessary, small enough to make big changes to?

Great advice for all the Inhouse web designers (designersinhouse.com) working in companies that don't quite *get* the web.

So dead-on, it's uncanny.


Saying the Mac killed the Apple II is a bit of a stretch. The Apple II was killed by the IBM PC, and the passage of time. (The Apple III helped too, come to think of it.)


I guess the grass always does seem greener on the other side. Sony, IBM, even $M where once great innovative companies but now have divisions that have lost their spark. I think it starts when companies loose their founders and/or the entrepreneur get distracted by their financial rewards well deserved.

Just because somebody is a good manager doesn't mean they make a great CEO, this is a huge mistake constantly being repeated. A CEO must have a clear vision to succeed, otherwise the company last only as long as their warchest.

Founder of myfoodcount.com
Free, Anonymous & Secure online health monitoring

Another suggestion if you are in stealth mode or have a lack of resources: focus on the goal when enlisting resources from others who are doing you a favor. This helps your allies reduce their investment to the bare minimum for your beta test. Build a track record of success and the size of the investments you can “unofficially” enlist will grow.

I've personally developed innovations at my company by pushing for a quick proof of concept instead of trying to build out v2.0, which then requires approvals, etc. Once you have proof of the numbers you can generate tons of goodwill with all your allies, vs. sucking up excess resources on something that might fail.

Great suggestions which I think are very possible in receptive organizations where top leadership is not ego-centric and doesn't mis-manage the business units to quarrel amongst themselves.

I've had more success doing "black projects" and getting forgiveness. I went up the food chain one time and waited 2 months to get something of a go ahead, then it got micro-managed by the "too many chiefs" syndrome, only to return to its originating state....

What a waste of time...when this happens. Word to the wise -- MOVE -- especially when it happens time and time again...

> you can’t suffer if your
> butt is sitting in a $700
> Herman Miller chair.

My butt is sitting in one of them fancy Herman Miller Chairs and I can assure you its suffering!

That said, good point. My best work was done working on furniture that was purchased for $100 down at Radio Shack!

Oh an one more, expect to go, because once you've set them on their way, they'll wonder what it is you actually do...

Can I add another item?

Make no enemies, always clear the air. In a large business quarrels that you had four years ago can come back to bite you if you don't sort them out...

(speaking totally from personal experience)

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