Intrapreneurship: Lessons from B School and Experience

When I was taking classes at Syracuse, Professor Mike Haynie introduced me to the concept of intrapreneuship. I had no clue such roles existed but I reflected back on the job I was working at the time and realized that I was an intrepreneur.

That was revolutionary.

I learned an intrepreneur behaves like an entrepreneur within a large organization. Famous examples might include the Skunk Works operation at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. Their job was to come up with new ideas in aerospace, whereas mine was to develop a magazine from the ground up in a digital-only fashion.

In hindsight I can tell you that intrapreneurship is much more challenging that it’s more famous counterpart.

Having studied under Guy Kawasaki a bit at school and having read his books, I can tell you that when he says from the outside it looks like intrapreneurs have it made because they have pre-existing infrastructure, sales teams, technology, and really, they don’t have to worry about writing a business plan or raising capital—it seems like a cakewalk.

But it’s not.

One of the most challenging aspects of intrepreneurship is that you have to assume the risks of the endeavor but relinquish control of the success. For example, I personally won an award, I didn’t win it, the company did. But if I failed in some endeavor, or if anyone failed for that matter, I had to assume responsibility for it. It’s maddening at times but it also serves as entrepreneurship with training wheels.

It teaches you balance: can you balance the demands of the customers with the demands of the company? Can you balance the wants of the stakeholders knowing that it’s not going to work with the technology? Can you tell someone why an idea isn’t going to work because you have become a specialist in your field and still have them listen even when you’re not the ultimate decision-maker?

It’s maddening at times. I remember as the project reached year three, having won awards, grown readership and figured out how to parlay blogging techniques into a medium where those strategies weren’t previously done, it seemed like everything changed. I felt like I was a blind dog walking around in a house where the furniture kept changing. I’m not saying anything disparaging about the company where I was working nor is it a comment on the stakeholders. Rather, I think it was growing pains for the publication. We reached a crux where we weren’t sure where we were going: turnover, lack of sales goals met, management structure changing and more. About two years before the magazine ultimately ended, I realized that the magazine wouldn’t survive because I had learned a critical concept in business school that I didn’t know before: brands and companies exist to solve problems. This concept I was working on created more problems than it solved and the pain point that it aimed to solve wasn’t pressing enough to overlook the other details. Had I have known that concept before I started the magazine I don’t know if I would have taken on the project. Yes, I would have worked for the company. Yes, I would have continued in journalism and yes, I loved figuring out problems that didn’t have a solution before but if it doesn’t solve a problem it’s all ultimately futile.

If I were to do a post mortem on the project, I could dissect it and see all the instances where I went wrong.

First, I would have looked at the project and asked myself seriously: does this project solve any pressing problems? If not, it’s going to fail.

Everything that works for a large company will be the antithesis of what works for an intrapreneur. If everyone is going in one direction, you have to stop and go the other way. It’s painful. It’s embarrassing to present ideas that no one else supports, but because they’re not operating from a start-up perspective, they won’t see the problem until it impacts them and their cash cow.

I wish, in hindsight, all of my meetings with the team were in a separate environment. It sounds silly but you’d be amazed at how many times we’d pull off an idea only to get in trouble for it first and then have it succeed later. Getting in trouble used to mean that I was on the wrong path, but with intrapreneurship it meant I was doing something that was getting attention and therefore it was frightening to the stakeholders. If we could have operated in a silo and presented to the company what we were learning from first-hand experience developing something from the ground up, I think it would have made the team more cohesive and we could have celebrated our accomplishments without being fearful of losing our jobs because of the failures—and there were many.

My team and I were often left alone with our projects—which is good in many cases but it also made us feel isolated from the rest of the company. However, it wasn’t until the final season of the publication did I feel like I had a team with that something special where they weren’t afraid to take risks and see what worked, and have the grit to say, well, that didn’t, let’s try again.

I wish we would have been able to share the data and lessons we learned with the rest of the organization. We learned some valuable lessons from our experiment. We learned what worked, and what didn’t. We could have used these best practices for other publishing houses to emulate. And in some ways we did, but we could have contributed more.

I learned that success within a company is measured in miles and success in an intrapreneurial role is measured in millimeters.

Finally, I wish I would have just flown under the radar. I wish that I would have been able to keep my trap shut and just have done my job quietly so that when we succeeded, someone else could tout our success and when we failed, no one would be impacted by it. But I didn’t.

And so ultimately I learned that intrapreneurship, in some ways it very much like entrepreneurship. It’s riddled with risks. It might not work. It’s got to solve a pressing problem and ultimately it has to make money to survive.

Had I have known all of these lessons from Syracuse, and not the school of hard knocks, I think I would have been able to make far wiser decisions.

In the end, would I change any day of it? No way. It paved the way for me to start my own company because in its failure it gave me the ultimate lesson of all: the courage to fail publically and continue to try despite the many obstacles against me.

About the Author
Named Top 100 Leaders by 2012 Magazine, Jasmine Grimm has been nominated for Central Penn Business Journal’s “Top 40 Under 40,” and The Lancaster Chamber’s ATHENA Award.

Jasmine founded Ruby, Inc. a personal styling business that teaches women how to dress for their body types and became a two-time nominee for Inc. Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 Top Young Entrepreneurs in America. She won the 2013 SCORE Business Development Award, the won the Central Penn Business Journal’s Top 25 Women of Influence Award in 2013 and the 2013 Leadership Award from the MS Society.

She has been a popular guest lecturer at the Maastricht Institute of Entrepreneurship and has been featured in Under 30 CEO and Productive Magazine, was the cover story for Harrisburg Magazine and her writing has graced National Geographic Television and Film, Harvard University and more.

She’s a 5,3,8,3 on the Kolbe A Index and her strengths include input, relator, learner, responsibility and achievement.

For more information visit her Google + Page.