How intrapreneurs can change the world

Are wannabe entrepreneurs better off trying to make their mark within a big company?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Think-tank Demos recently published a set of essays called ‘The Future Face of Enterprise’, about what the UK needs to do to raise its game. One contribution came from Microsoft UK boss Gordon Frazer, who argued that ‘intrapreneurs’ (entrepreneurial types working within big companies) were essential if businesses are ‘to deliver greater levels of meaningful innovation’. Working in a big company might seem the antithesis of most entrepreneurs’ ambitions – but he reckons it’s the easiest and quickest way to make a big splash…

Intrapreneurship is hardly a new idea, of course – the concept was first invented by US author Gifford Pinchot back in the 1970s, and it’s spawned some impressive innovations, from the Post-It note to Yahoo’s search advertising. Microsoft itself has been doing this for about 30 years: resident intrapreneur Steve Clayton thinks it comes down to the company’s willingness to let people go beyond the boundaries of their day jobs. ‘Most people here tend do their own job and then 30% of another job – which is quite often just stuff they’re interested in,’ he says.

It’s easy to see why big companies would want to encourage this kind of enterprising behaviour, but it’s easier said than done. Clayton reckons it’s partly about hiring the right people in the first place – ‘There are certain characteristics we look for: we want smart people who are prepared to challenge the norm and take smart risks’ – but it’s really a cultural issue. At Microsoft, this is done partly though new employee orientation programmes, but according to Clayton, ‘it’s more that you just get a sense of how the place works: you can very quickly identify the thought-leaders, the ones who have a history of delivering on their ideas’.

However, if you’re a wannabe entrepreneur bristling with bright ideas, the obvious question is: why do all that work for someone else’s benefit, rather than going off to do your own thing? Clayton suggests that working with other like-minded souls is one reason – and the fact that someone else covers your overheads probably helps too. 

But the most powerful factor, he says, is scale. A big company can scale an idea up very quickly and impact a huge audience – Clayton points out that the efforst of the small team that works on Microsoft’s IM product affects some 450m people worldwide. Similarly, Demos argues that there’s ‘an urgent need for big businesses to be scaling up the environmental and social ideas of entrepreneurs’; in other words, you can change the world more quickly with the resources of a big company behind you.

To be honest, we’re still not convinced that genuine entrepreneurs will ever be happy within the constraints of a huge company. But if you’re looking to make a big impact in a hurry, intrapreneurship might be your best bet...

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