Intrapreneur vs. Entrepreneur—Which are YOU?

Larry was smiling as we finished our walk in Central Park.  We promised to do it ever since I told him I used to do that with a good friend whenever we wanted to share stories and advice on running our companies.

While Larry was new to being an entrepreneur, he certainly was not new to business.

After 40 years, Larry just left working for General Motors, where for the last 12 years he headed the R&D and Strategic Planning divisions.  He left soon after the Obama Administration fired his boss, the CEO.

Larry and I became good friends in 2007 after I read The New York Times’ article Mr. Environment for General Motors, explaining Larry’s never-ending commitment to bringing green to GM.

Larry was the innovation behind GM’s green push in the ‘90’s and again in the 21st century with their now being released electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt.

On our walk, Larry was concerned about being a successful entrepreneur after being in corporate life his entire professional life.  I had no doubt he would be enormously successful.

Simply because he was already a very successful intrapreneur.

The concept of intrapreneurs has been around for decades.  But only in the past few years, around the time I started teaching Environmental Intrapreneurism at Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, did it start catching on.

Innovative corporations like Google, 3M, and Proctor & Gamble to name a few are now actively promoting and encouraging intrapreneurs to innovate and create products and services for the company to integrate.

Although quite similar to entrepreneurs, there are several distinctions that make intrapreneurs successful:

  • Great Jugglers—most intrapreneurs must create their innovations on their own time.  That means at home, after hours or before the regular job begins.  Knowing how to juggle and keep both lives moving successfully is crucial.
  • Excellent Navigators—once you have created your business idea, done your due diligence, worked out the details of making it work for the company, intrapreneurs must find an internal sponsor.  This is someone who knows how to get you and your idea in front of the right decision maker(s) and can vouch for you.
  • Good Stealth Runners—often times intrapreneurs get excited and/or proud of their innovations and let the cat out of the bag before it is properly developed.  This may attract naysayers and rumors may get to the decision makers before you are ready.  Successful Intrapreneurs keep it on the QT until they are ready to present it.
  • Passionate Curiosity— never satisfied with what they already know.  Want to dig further into their innovation.  Yet intrapreneurs are smart enough to know when they have enough to go forward.  Balancing these two components is quite powerful.

The cool thing about being an intrapreneur is you still get a paycheck as you build your innovation.  When set up properly, you have the resources of the corporation to back you:  their reputation, expertise, finances, and access to employees and customers.

Yet it is interesting to note that many intrapreneurs that become successful convert to entrepreneurs.  Mainly because they then can do it all for themselves.

Just like Mr. Environment for GM.

Just recently I caught up with Larry who had just signed on his seven major client.  He is now busier than when he had well over 20,000 people reporting to him at GM.

He said, “Stefan, at GM I only had one boss.  And now I have seven! But man, this is fun!”

Action Steps for the Week:

Working for the man?  Want to create your own gig but want to keep in within the corporate structure?

First, make sure you understand your corporate culture.  Are they conducive to intrapreneurial activities?  If not, tread carefully and in stealth mode.

Quietly determine your product or service you feel is in alignment with your company’s vision.  Run the concept for viability.  What is the customer’s pain your product / service is solving?  What is the competition looking like?  Barriers to entry?  What are the numbers to launch and get it to break even?

Who will sponsor your product/service and vouch for you to the decision maker in your company?  How do you get that person on board?

Assuming you have powerful answers to all these questions, you very well might have a winner.