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