The “I”s Have It! : How to Spot a True Intrapreneur

Dr. Liz Alexander, Author, FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business

The “I”s Have It! : How to Spot a True Intrapreneur

In April 2015, Nina Mufleh crafted a well-researched and thoughtful whitepaper outlining why Airbnb should consider expanding into the Middle East. She wasn’t yet part of their marketing team, but wanted to be. This was her audacious attempt to attract a job offer from the company. Within minutes of posting the link on Twitter, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and CMO Jonathan Mildenhall invited her in for a chat.

          Although Ms. Mufleh didn’t end up working for Airbnb, companies including LinkedIn, Uber, Dropbox, as well as a few VC firms sought to interview her. How about yours? Would you have opened the door to someone who isn’t going to wait for a job opening to send in a traditional resume, like thousands of others? Someone whose attitude and behavior suggests they broadly fit the description of an “intrapreneur,” coined in 1978 by BGI’s (now Pinchot University) president & co-founder, Gifford Pinchot?

          The reason to attract this kind of differentiated thinking is compelling:

“In a world filled with fast-moving change, a large organization that becomes complacent and loses sight of the benefits of having an entrepreneurial streak
built into their massive global systems
can find themselves disrupted
in short order.”
~ David Armano, Executive VP, Global Innovation & Integration, Edelman.

          Plus, not everyone wants to or is cut out for the life of an entrepreneur. Many prefer to apply those talents within a well-funded corporate environment.

          Yet here’s the risk. And it’s something I’ve seen happen with the concept of thought leadership over time. The more popular the term intrapreneur becomes, the greater the likelihood people will adopt it regardless of whether they have any real talent for doing so. How are you going to know which self-proclaimed innovators to support? After all, according to Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, only “about five percent are born with the instinct…” to be innovative. Whereas “about 40 percent of people are not going to be good at innovating regardless of what they do.” (That still leaves 55 percent that could be trained and guided to develop a more entrepreneurial mindset, but that’s a topic for another article.)

          While writing FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business with Naveen Lakkur, director of the Founder Institute in  Bangalore, India, we uncovered a number of insights about the entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial mindset. These came from analyzing the case studies that supported my co-author’s framework and methodologies for developing, categorizing, and validating “winning” ideas.

          Here are three of those insights:

1: Intrapreneurs focus on problems, rather than ideas.

Sadly, few start-up founders achieve global impact. (In the Foreword to FOUND, Adeo Ressi, founder and CEO of international organization the Founder Institute, estimates this figure to be around 0.4%.) That’s probably because so many aspiring entrepreneurs are more obsessed with their ideas than the market’s need for them. Put another way, they develop solutions looking for problems to solve.

          But that wasn’t how Harry Scrope of Brompton Bike Hire in the U.K. went about introducing Brompton’s uniquely hinged bicycles to a broader audience. “Green” long before the concept became fashionable, the company decided to set up docking stations on university campuses and at train stations to give students and commuters a fresh option for getting from A to B in a cheap, convenient, environmentally friendly (and fitness-focused) way. The idea came about only after determining there was a suitable challenge that needed to be met.

2: Intrapreneurs are motivated by bigger, potentially world-changing ideas.

Few people are short of ideas. After all, ingenuity is how the human race progresses over time. But the entrepreneurs we interviewed (in line with their corporate counterparts, intrapreneurs), had ideas that moved way beyond the norm.

          Janardan Prasad and Mukesh Jha, co-founders of Autowale in Pune, India wanted to solve a major problem dogging the Indian commute: How to increase the efficiency of the country’s five million auto rickshaw drivers, while at the same time serving customers better. Both men share a passion for technology, which is how they came to develop the proprietary software that connects vacant auto rickshaws with ready customers. But they’re also fascinated by the challenges posed by traffic. Neither knew precisely how they would solve this particular issue, starting out. Just that they were passionately committed to doing so. 

          Like so many other entrepreneurial thinkers who act on an emotional itch—be it curiosity or passion or anger—it was the chance to make a difference that inspired Janardan and Mukesh to get up in the morning. Not small stuff. 

3: Intrapreneurs’ winning ideas take time to emerge.

“Speed to market, probability of quick return, and profitability mindset have to take a backseat to truly delivering a product that delights the consumer in every aspect.”

~ Michelle Stacy, former president of coffee company, Keurig

Generating winning ideas is an iterative process.

          For example, when ‘funtoot’ inventor, Rajeev Pathak, determined “to put a ding in the universe” of K-12 education, he first considered building a new learning tool, producing ebooks, or possibly creating an educational marketplace to help distribute relevant content. After taking time to talk and listen to his market—teachers, school administrators, parents, and students—he realized the problem was one of ratios. There weren’t enough teachers or sufficient funding for children to get the personalized attention they needed to bring out their full potential. That led to Pathak’s company, eDream Edusoft inventing the world’s first intelligent and adaptive computerized tutor. A product that is positively impacting tens of thousands of children’s (and their teachers’) lives around the world.

          As the title of Michelle Stacy’s 2014 Harvard Business Review article states: For breakthrough innovation, focus on possibility, not profitability. That means modifying your own mindset, before you can hope to take advantage of true intrapreneurial genius.

          As for the enterprising Ms. Mufleh, she now works for online freelancer platform, Upwork, a company presumably putting her intrapreneurial thinking to good use.

About the Author

Dr. Liz Alexander is a globally experienced ideation specialist who works with individuals and organizations to discover and develop “white space” opportunities that establish their competitive differentiation. These are then communicated through business books and thought leadership initiatives.

          She is the multiple awards-winning author of 18 nonfiction titles whose sales exceed one million copies in over 20 countries worldwide. FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business, is her 17th book.