Ask anyone who the world’s best entrepreneurs are and they’ll reel off a list of some of the most inspiring people behind the world’s biggest businesses. But ask them who the best intrapreneurs are and most people would struggle.
Although these are people who created products that many people use on a daily basis, history has largely forgotten them. So here’s some of the world’s greatest intrapreneurs…
Dick Drew joined 3M in 1920, back when it was a modest manufacturer of sandpaper. While testing their new ‘Wetordry’ sandpaper with mechanics, he was intrigued to find that the two-tone paint jobs that were so popular in the 1920’s were difficult to manage due to the border between the two colours. In response, Drew invented the first masking tape, a two inch wide tan paper strip backed with a light adhesive.
The invention wasn’t without its problems, of course, and the first prototype fell off the car during trials as it only had adhesive along the edges. This led a frustrated auto painter to growl at Drew, “Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!”
The nickname stuck, both to the improved masking tape that Drew developed and to his next invention in 1925, the world’s first transparent cellophane adhesive tape – known as sellotape in the UK, and Scotch tape in the US.
Drew’s invention of sellotape couldn’t have come at a better time – the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash saw people beginning to repair items rather than replace them – and the tape became increasingly popular. This was also the start of 3M’s move to diversify into numerous different marketplaces and saw them flourish in spirt of the Great Depression.
Working for WL Gore, the business that in 2004 Fast Company named as the most innovative company in America, Dave Myers was an engineer inventing new kinds of plastic heart implants. Like many other companies, Gore encourages its employees to spend some of their time – generally around 10 per cent – on new ideas.
Myers used this time to work on his mountain bike, looking for a way to make the gears change more smoothly. He coated the gear cables with a thin layer of plastic – similar to Gore-Tex – which led to Gore’s Ride-On line of bike cables.
Inspired by this success, he moved on to try to improve the cables used for controlling the movements of oversized animated puppets at places like Disney World. The cables he was working on had small diameters so he tried taking guitar strings and coating them with a similar plastic. In 1993, he realised that the coating could improve guitar strings so he worked with colleagues to try it out.
After three years, along with half a dozen of his co-workers working entirely out of their own motivation, they were in a position to seek out the support of the lager company to take their Elixir guitar strings to market. Elixir now has a 35 per cent share of that market and is the leading brand for acoustic guitar strings.
Google is well-known for its 20 per cent time, where employees are encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time at work on a side project that’s completely different to what they’re working on. While Paul Buchheit’s innovation wasn’t his side project, it is arguably one of the biggest invention’s to have come out of Google.
Launched on April 1st, 2004, with 500 times the amount of storage that Hotmail were offering, Gmail was initially dismissed by many as a really good April Fool’s joke. But it turned out to be real and revolutionary.
Although Buchheit started working on Gmail in 2001, it was more a continuation of a failed project from several years before he joined Google in 1999. “I had started to make an email programme before in, probably, 1996,” he told Time.
“I had this idea I wanted to build web-based email. I worked on it for a couple of weeks and then got bored. One of the things I learned from that was just in terms of my own psychology, that it was important that I always have a working product. The first thing I do on day one is build something useful, then just keep improving it.”
Gmail began, as many know, with a search feature that was far better than anything offered by the major email services and that profoundly shaped the product. For example, matching Hotmail’s storage capacity would have negated the need for a powerful search. It’s hard to lose things in an inbox with only a few megabytes of space.
Gmail now boasts more than a billion monthly active users, with nearly a quarter of Americans using it during their working hours.