The expert's view on becoming an intrapreneur

One of the biggest misconceptions about intrapreneurs that I’ve faced, is that an intrapreneur is the light version of an entrepreneur, suitable for those who don’t really dare to take the plunge. 

What they miss is that you need the experience of being an entrepreneur to become an intrapreneur. In other words, “intrapreneur” is not a step on the way towards becoming an entrepreneur – it’s an alternative evolution of an entrepreneur's career. This evolution comes with its own unique challenges, challenges that aren’t more or less difficult than those of an entrepreneur – they’re just different.

I don’t judge those who think that the path of an intrapreneur would be easier than that of an entrepreneur; I was quite naive about the challenges of an intrapreneur myself. In this post I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey as an intrapreneur at Pernod-Ricard.

First, a brief background: my profile is pretty typical for an entrepreneur. I'm more practical than theoretical, which, combined with my dyslexia, meant that I felt like a misfit in the Swedish school system. Instead of a traditional university degree, I chose a vocational program in advertising, and after graduation I worked for six years at an agency. Then I started my first business, a company dealing with interior design, innovation and design. I often say that I am the mother of three children and two patents, as I see many similarities between parenthood and entrepreneurship. Both roles are practical rather than theoretical. You can’t prepare for either by reading or studying, you learn them by doing.

After successfully running my own business for four years, I was offered a role at Pernod-Ricard. I said yes, and that was where my journey shifted from entrepreneur to intrapreneur. That transition took four years; first I had to invent the new company and sell it to management. Like most entrepreneurial projects with a new business model, pitched to an incumbent organisation, it was a hard sell. Each meeting led to a new set of hurdles, seemingly meant to discourage me from challenging the old order of business as usual. It took seven of those meetings to finally get a green light. Today Our/Vodka, the start-up I founded within Pernod-Ricard in 2012, is on track to open its tenth local micro distillery. During those years I learned a lot, that I would now like to pass along. 

What are the differences between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur? Many would argue that the intrapreneur enjoys more security. You have a monthly salary and the resources of a large organisation behind you. I think people see it kind of like you have a giant as your travel companion and protector on the bumpy road towards founding a company. In reality it’s not so much ‘protector and travel companion’ as ‘dance partner’. This giant partner performs their very own dance, and you can be severely bruised and even crushed if you miss a step. The complexity for the intrapreneur is performing the giant’s dance well enough while dancing their very own dance at the same time. Without getting crushed of course.

It’s true that the economic risk is lower for an intrapreneur, at the expense of lower economic reward. At the same time, you put your career and your network at stake in a corporate game where the rules are different from those that you’re used to. And in a corporation, the rules can truly change overnight. Where an entrepreneur has investors, the intrapreneur has line managers. Investors, like entrepreneurs, are willing to take greater risks for greater rewards. Line managers at corporations, on the other hand, strive to minimise risks. In my role as intrapreneur, I had to guide the organisation far outside its comfort zone regarding risk, which oftentimes has been like putting overalls on a reluctant two year old (for those of you who don’t have a frame of reference: the Swedish comedian Annika Lantz very accurately described that process as "threading a condom on a three-seater sofa").

Many would argue that the intrapreneur enjoys more security. You have a monthly salary and the resources of a large organisation behind you.

Line managers are also different from investors when it comes to endurance. An investor understands the importance of not changing the rules of the game, and giving an idea time to grow. Their agenda is aligned with yours. Investors don’t suddenly switch jobs, but it’s not unusual that a CEO stays for five years and then moves on. This means that your intrapreneurial project could become a legacy for a new CEO, a legacy that may have considerably lower priority. It could even become the subject of a reorganisation. C-level management tends to see you and your employees as pawns in a larger game. If the pawns are needed on other projects, managers will attempt to move them. 

Should the organisation be forced to downsize, there’s a risk that your team will have to take cuts even though your project is going according to plan. Success tends to have different definitions for incumbent organisations rather than for entrepreneurs. A change of the rules isn’t as bad as the worst case scenario: a whole new game. Such a drastic change isn’t done out of malice, it’s a question of perspective; if one is not familiar with sports, handball and football seem similar: both are played with a ball on a court with goals on each side. To the uninitiated, it might seem that if you can play one, you should be able to make a few adjustments and play the other. To the initiated, it means preparing for the world championships in football, only to be asked to play handball.

If you are thinking about trying on the role of intrapreneur, here are a few tips from my experience so far:

1. Accept that you’ll be a horse among dolphins

When you become an employee, you’re like a horse expected to swim with, and blend into, a pod of dolphins. Horses can swim if necessary, but the stark reality is that horses can never become as agile as dolphins in water. The dolphins will look at you and think you're weird, maybe even scary. In their eyes, you will never be as good as they are – until they understand that you have skills they lack – like the ability to run fast. In the corporate world, running fast is not a requisite for success, but in the start-up world it is. At times, being different made me doubt my abilities. I felt incompetent. Luckily, I had people who supported and understood my situation both within and – perhaps even more important – outside the organisation. 

2. Learn the organisation, the processes and the rules first

As an entrepreneur, I’m used to planning and executing simultaneously. It’s an agile process that is similar to skydiving. You jump out and know what the end goal is. You focus on what must be done at that very moment in order for you to land safely. Large organisations tend to have rules and processes, and their journey is less like skydiving and more like sailing through a series of locks. You go into one, wait for the water level to adjust, and then continue into the next. For me as an entrepreneur, sailing through locks is not only slow, and frustrating, also dangerous – a start-up needs to be able to move quick and grow fast. On the other hand, the large organisation considers skydiving terrifying and irresponsible. Pick your fights, and break the rules only when absolutely necessary to minimise the agony for both yourself and the organisation.

3. Before you sign on, ask "why?"

Many organisations want to hire entrepreneurs for the same reason many people have gym memberships: it's good for your self-image. But unless you’re willing to make sacrifices, you won’t gain much from it. In order for an intrapreneur to be successful, the entire organisation must understand that the intrapreneur needs different conditions. If you force a horse to live exactly like a dolphin, it will drown or starve. At the same time, offering different conditions to a person or a team can cause envy. Transparency and communication can help prevent this. Management has to make sure that everyone understands why you have different terms, and that "different" does not automatically mean "unfair". Make sure to get everything on paper, even that which seems trivial or obvious. Just because the current organisation understands that you’re going to play football and not some other ball game, doesn’t guarantee it will remain so. If you have everything on paper, it becomes more difficult for an uninitiated CEO to change the game.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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