<rant> Aside from the similarity in spelling, the term intrapreneur and entrepreneur really have nothing in common. Intrapreneur as a title is akin to designations likes honorary chairman or social media expert – sound good but are utterly meaningless. People describe themselves as intrapreneurs for one of two reasons. The first being to feel good about the mind-numbing work and bureaucracy of big corporations and to make their work sound more more interesting, dynamic and actually interesting than it is.
The other reason people call themselves intrapreneurs is because savvy managers at big companies have picked up on the term to make employees feel less like a cog in a giant slow-turning wheel and like they are in a more interesting place than they actually are. By simply calling you an intrapreneur, they reason that you might feel more in control of your destiny than you actually are. Well played mid-level manager – well played. In no way, however, do “intrapreneurs” resemble entrepreneurs. And below are some reasons why.
But first, what is an Intrapreneur?
For the uninitiated, an intrapreneur is defined as someone who purportedly behaves like an entrepreneur but in a larger organization. This rant is the result of a friend of ours who works at a not-so-small financial services firm ($20B market capitalization) in a relatively small division for the firm (50 people) who said to us “This division is great because it’s small and hence like being an entrepreneur at a startup but at a big company.” Sure.
Here are the eight reasons why intrapreneurs are nothing like real entrepreneurs.
- Intrapreneurs take no REAL risk – For an intrapreneur, when things don’t work out, they get a smaller bonus or no promotion. When a real entrepreneur fails, they put themselves out of work and may be saddled with debt and other associated fun. This isn’t to mention the fact that for many entrepreneurs, this risk means thinking and working about work nearly all the time – bye bye work-life balance. Plus entrepreneurs get the joy of figuring out how to make payroll when things are not going well or how to deal with a threatening legal letter without the help of a “legal team”. That is risk.
- There is Little Accountability with Intrapreneurs – When things go south as an intrapreneur in Big Co, there are folks to share the blame with or if you are particularly politically astute, folks to pin the blame on. When you are entrepreneur, the buck stops with you. If you have investors, they might kick you out of the venture. Or when things go really wrong, the whole venture might end and there is often little to no safety net when that happens. No transfer to another group, no severance check, etc. In fact, there is a whole list of startup failure post-mortems that illustrates what happens when entrepreneurs fail – their companies die and they acknowledge their fault in that failure and then dust themselves off and move on.
- Intrapreneurs Have Little Upside – Let’s say your skunk works project at Big Co goes really well. Where will you spend that extra bonus $10k in bonus money? Since there is less risk (bullet 1), the reward is also less – this only makes sense. When things go well for an entrepreneur, the rewards can be big – millions or even billions of dollars. The money also often doesn’t compare to the satisfaction of having built something from scratch and making it into a business.
- Intrapreneurs Don’t Really Call the Shots - As Big Co cog-in-wheel, you can’t just do what whatever it takes to make things happen. You want to issue a press release? Corporate communications has to approve it. Want to change the design on the site to A/B test? Open a ticket for that. On the other hand, entrepreneurs have to make the call and do what it takes to make stuff happen. In fact, many entrepreneurs emerge after being at large corporates and realizing they can’t deal with the corporate rules of the road.
- Intrapreneurs Don’t Really Have a Scarcity of Resources - With an established company, there is no real scarcity of resources. Sure you might have to fight for budget dollars in theory, but if you have someone savvy doing this at most big companies where the budgeting process is hopelessly antiquated and un-meritocratic, they’ll go in with a very high ask and will then settle for something lower. But what you consider much lower in terms of “startup funding” in a big co would be an entrepreneur’s dream for funding. In most cases, what a Big Co pisses away on a “team building event” could be enough to sustain a passionate entrepreneur for months. This doesn’t even begin to address the fact that entrepreneurs don’t just fundraise once. They have to do it again.
- Intrapreneurs Get Funded for Knowing, Not Doing – If you are an intrapreneur seeking some of the abundant dollars from your Big Co’s budget, you put together a powerpoint which references a Gartner report on the size of the market and its growth rate, you throw in some Gantt charts, and some fancy bubble charts about the competitor landscape and you get your money. Intrapreneur fundraising is about knowing. That is why MBAs can be quite good at it – it’s about building a “robust” business case. For an entrepreneur (one that is not a serial entrepreneur), getting funded more often that not is about doing. How many customers do you have, how many users, how much revenue, etc. Traction in VC speak is what they look for which is about execution and not just understanding in an abstract way the market you are playing in.
- Intrapreneurs Get to be Free Riders on an Existing Brand – Intrapreneurs have access to established distribution networks, market expertise, customer relationships, and most importantly, brand equity. Basically, they leverage an already existing business and customers and partners take the call not because the idea or you the intrapreneur is amazing but because of the brand name and logo on your business card. Intrapreneurs don’t have to build credibility from nothing. They also don’t get shut down nearly as much as real entrepreneurs who don’t have a brand (yet) to fall back on. Intrapreneurs won’t have to go from a customer base of 0 to one of 1,000,000, or build up trust with customers, partners and others who they need to influence.
- Intrapreneurs Get the Luxury to Specialize – In a Big Co, you’re a marketing guy, the finance gal, the tech guy, etc and serve some specific function. As an entrepreneur, you have to be a jack of all trades. You are salesperson, payroll department, website developer and marketing department all rolled up into one. Entrepreneur – not sure how to do one of those things? You better figure it out. Intrapreneurs at Big Co still live with mom and dad while entrepreneurs have moved out and are now cleaning, cooking, taking out the trash – and also maintaining a full-time job.
If you are an intrapreneur and feel like you’re really an entrepreneur in a large organization and we’re short-changing you, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. With the exception of maybe one mega-company out there (aka Google), big cos are all-to-often the place that good ideas go to die. And this is not a bad thing. It is because of this dynamic that startup entrepreneurs exist in the first place.