When we hear “innovation,” it’s hard not to think about the classic success stories and the images of people tinkering with old-timey motherboards in the pursuit of scientific progress. That’s where so many key tech companies like Dell started, after all. But it’s important to remember that it’s not the only way it happens.
There’s a reason major players in tech can manage to stay in the game for so long: Creative and technical geniuses innovate within the structure of their large corporations. The business world has taken to calling this practice “intrapreneurship,” and it could be the way that you manage to thrive as an innovator.
What is intrapreneurship?
Intrapreneurship—in contrast with entrepreneurship—is the practice of creating, pitching, and getting funding for your own business idea or product while working as an employee within a larger corporate structure.
“It’s a new kind of product or a new kind of business,” says veteran intrapreneur and Dell Product Manager Juan Vega. “It’s about identifying new opportunities and leading from the front.”
In the same way that you would start your business on the outside, you have to build a team, invest your own time, and aggressively seek sponsorship from execs in the right department. “You can’t lead from behind,” Juan stresses. “You have to take a risk and say, ‘I really think it’s worth doing something.’ And then you have to go and create the story and the arguments and the support and everything else you need, just as if you were out solo in the business world.”
How Juan tapped into a multi-billion-dollar business.
Juan knows a thing or two about intrapreneurship. Having spent more than 20 years at Dell, Juan has worked on (and started!) countless new businesses and products for the company.
For example, in 2008 he was running the successful Optiplex team, but he wasn’t feeling inspired by his role. “They figured out the formula and it was on track. It was doing great and winning everything. It wasn’t taking a lot to improve it; it just needed someone to keep it going,” he says.
As an innovator, Juan was ready for his next challenge. “I was bored, basically. I ended up looking at the market and thinking, ‘Where are we underserved?’ I started looking for that opportunity,” he says.
He settled on the small business market. The business packages and hardware were just too expensive at that scale. However, it didn’t have to be this way, and Juan knew that. “We had a ton of pricing conflicts. We had a cost problem that wasn’t being resolved in that space,” he says. “So, I found a backfill and got out of the job I was in, once I had sponsorship to drive this new business space.”
The result? “We built a new desktop and notebook business that was specifically focused on driving down costs and meeting the needs of the small business owner. And that’s a billion-something dollar business today.”
How can you do it? It’s all about the company culture.
An intrapreneurial culture is not the only thing that makes a company successful—there are plenty of established businesses that got to where they are by moving methodically and sticking to their guns. There are also flagging industries in which companies will be much more risk-averse because they just aren’t thriving. And it’s those types of companies—whether they’re cautious or just plain old conservative—that you have to avoid if you’re trying to find a place that will let you innovate.
If you’re someone who likes the idea of contributing to a larger team, having steady pay and benefits, and getting exposure to the workings of a major corporation, but you still want to make something new, then you have to make sure you find a company with a culture of intrapreneurship.
“It’s never about asking permission,” Juan explains. “You get permission along the way. You get investment dollars. You get head count. You get project teams. [At Dell], you get whatever it is you need to create that new business.”
How does this happen at Dell? According to Juan, it’s the people. “It’s because of the kind of people who are happy at Dell. We’re a pretty type A company. It all started with Michael in his dorm room. It’s people who are in a lot of ways self-motivated—entrepreneurial-type people— who just happen to be working in a giant corporation,” he says.
“And when you mix the two together, what you get is people who tend to ask a little more forgiveness than permission, and tend to bring opportunities to light as a part of their normal roles and responsibilities.”