About twenty years ago, before I ran two startups as CEO and served as product-line general manager, I went through an intrapreneurship phase, where I was convinced that big companies should try to act like startups. It was a fairly popular concept at the time.
- I got all excited by Gary Hamel’s writings on the subject, such as Leading the Revolution.
- I learned about the Dunbar number, which suggested that people worked best in group of 100-200, a principle which Richard Branson embraced in building Virgin.
- I had grown up trained in product portfolio theory, like the BCG matrix, which suggested that companies should have portfolios of products in different phases of evolution.
Heck, we even decided to try the idea at Business Objects, launching a new analytical applications division called Ithena, with a mission to build CRM analytical applications on top of our platform. We made a lot of mistakes with Ithena, which was the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the concept:
- We staffed it with the wrong people. Instead of hiring experts in CRM, we staffed it largely with experts in BI platforms. Applications businesses are first and foremost about domain expertise.
- They built the wrong thing. Lacking CRM knowledge, they invested in building platform extensions that would be useful if one day you wanted to build a CRM analytical app. From a procrastination viewpoint, it felt like a middle school dance. Later, in Ithena’s wreckage, I found one of the prouder moments of my marketing career — when I simply repositioned the product to what it was (versus what we wanted it to be), sales took off.
- We blew the model. They were both too close and too far. They were in the same building, staffed largely with former parent-company employees, and they kept stock options in both the parent the spin-out. It didn’t end up a new, different company. It ended up a cool kids area within the existing one.
- We created channel conflict with ourselves. Exacerbated by the the thinness of the app, customers had trouble telling the app from the platform. We’d have platform salesreps saying “just build the app yourself” and apps salesreps saying that you couldn’t.
- They didn’t act like entrepreneurs. They ran the place like big-company, process-oriented people, not scrappy entrepreneurs fighting for food to get through the week. Favorite example: they had hired a full-time director of salesops before they had any customers. Great from an MBO achievement perspective (“check”). But a full-time employee without any orders to book or sales to analyze? Say what you will, but that would never happen at a startup.
As somebody who started out pretty enthralled with intrapreneurship, I ended up pretty jaded on it.
I was talking to a vendor about these topics the other day, and all these memories came back. So I did quick bit of Googling to find out what happened to that intrapreneurship wave. The answer is not much.
Entrepreneurship crushes intrapreneurship in Google Trends. Just for fun, I added SPACs to see their relatively popularity.
Here’s my brief epitaph for intrapreneurship. It didn’t work because:
- Intrapreneurs are basically entrepreneurs without commitment. And commitment, that burn the ships attitude, is key part of willing a startup into success.
- The entry barriers to entrepreneurship, particularly in technology, are low. It’s not that hard (provided you can dodge Silicon Valley’s sexism, ageism, and other undesirable -isms) for someone in love with an idea to quit their job, raise capital, and start a company.
- The intrapreneurial venture is unable to prioritize its needs over those of the parent. “As long as you’re living in my house, you’ll do things my way,” might work for parenting (and it doesn’t) but it definitely does not work for startup businesses.
- With entrepreneurship one “yes” enables an idea, with intrapreneurship, one “no” can kill it. What’s more, the sheer inertia in moving a decision through the hierarchy could kill an idea or cause a missed opportunity.
- In terms of the ability to attract talent and raise capital, entrepreneurship beats intrapreneurship hands down. Particularly today, where the IPO class of 2020 raised a mean of $350M prior to going public.
As one friend put it, it’s easy with intrapreneurship to end up with all the downsides of both models. Better to be “all in” and redefine the new initiative into your corporate self image, or “all out” and spin it out as an independent entity.
I’m all for general mangers (GMs) acting as mini-CEOs, running products as a portfolio of businesses. But that job, and it’s a hard one, is simply not the same as what entrepreneurs do in creating new ventures. It’s not even close.
The intrapreneur is dead, long live the GM.