Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Howard Shultz, George Lucas, and many more are iconic figures whose remarkable vision, determination, and nerve have left an indelible mark on our world. They are the entrepreneurs whose names are widely celebrated and revered. Countless articles and TED Talks have dissected their success.
However, this article takes a different path, shining a light on the unsung heroes of the business world: intrapreneurs. While they may not command the same attention as their entrepreneurial counterparts, grasping the art of inspiring and empowering intrapreneurs is key to blending startups’ innovation with the scale of corporate giants.
We’re all familiar with household names like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google. But what about Paul Buchheit, the intrapreneur who invented Gmail? While Jeff Bezos’ name is synonymous with Amazon, few recognize the vital role Charlie Kindel played in driving the development of Alexa. Or Ken Kutaragi, the engineer at Sony who repeatedly pitched the (now revolutionary) gaming console to his superior and was initially met with strong resistance, but he never gave up.
By focusing on one wildly successful and high-profile founder, we miss the fact that these tech giants’ greatest successes are the result of many smaller innovations across the organization. What truly distinguishes them is their visionary founders and the intrapreneurial culture they fostered.
In this article, my colleague Ronan O’Callaghan and I explore the three vital lessons in building intrapreneurship through stories from large companies across industries and history.
Part 1: The rise of the intrapreneur generation
Intrapreneurs have played pivotal roles in businesses since the inception of modern capitalism. Moreover, it’s becoming evident that companies fostering and endorsing intrapreneurship are drawing in top talent. This can be largely attributed to generational trends that made GenZ the intrapreneur generation.
GenZ workers yearn for engaging, flexible work with the stability of traditional career paths. 90% of Genzers said they wanted to “create something new and better for the world,” with 45% concurrently managing side hustles alongside their full-time job. A staggering 75% of survey respondents between 18 and 25 ultimately wanted to become entrepreneurs. Remember: this generation grew up while the barriers to entry for content creation virtually vanished. Anyone can attain celebrity status with just a camera and an internet connection. Hence, the magnetic pull towards entrepreneurship among Gen Z workers is hardly surprising.
However, part of this appeal may be the result of economic anxiety. More than 46% of GenZ workers report living paycheck-to-paycheck, and 26% report not feeling confident that they will be able to retire on time. 72% agreed that “traditional career paths that were open to their parents are no longer open to them.” Skepticism about conventional routes to success coupled with a fervent desire to leave an impact are the driving forces that propel Gen Z toward entrepreneurship.
Companies stand to gain immensely by cultivating a culture that fosters intrapreneurship. Offering a stable job with the added perk of the freedom to make a personalized impact is an alluding promise for GenZ workers. Furthermore, attracting potential entrepreneurs means they may develop their groundbreaking ideas within your company rather than independently. Of course, building an intrapreneurial culture is easier said than done. Let’s explore a few success stories.
Part 2: Allocating resources for intrapreneurship
Bell Labs has left a significant mark on the world, and it’s challenging to envision a world without its contributions. Currently owned by Nokia, it was founded in the early 20th century. It emerged as a hub of innovation, pioneering advancements in everything from transistors and lasers to UNIX and cellular network principles. But what was the secret to Bell Labs’ astounding success? Intrapreneurship!
This iconic institution nurtured a culture where its brilliant minds were not just employees but intrapreneurs — those who demonstrated entrepreneurial fervor within an established organization. Bell Labs ignited a cauldron of creativity by granting its staff the freedom to explore and ample resources. Instead of imposing rigid hierarchies and stifling regulations, it championed cross-disciplinary collaboration and encouraged unfettered creative thinking. The result? A slew of groundbreaking innovations, some of which were honored with Nobel and Turing prizes in physics and computer science, ultimately formed the backbone of modern technology.
Your company may not be at the frontiers of science, but the success of Bell Labs prompts a number of universally applicable questions. For instance, what resources do your employees need to be able to experiment with? While Bell Labs scientists needed access to cutting-edge telecommunications technology, your team may need different tools. However, everyone needs time. Think of Google’s 20% rule, which designates that 20% of an employee’s work hours can be devoted to pursuing their own passion projects. Gmail and Google Maps sprang from these 20% projects and have since evolved into core offerings for Google.
While it’s reasonable to be cautious about allocating time and funds to your employees’ untested ideas, refusing to invest in your employees’ concepts can be more detrimental.
Part 3: Pioneering transformations
While Nintendo is a household name, the name Genpei Yokoi may not ring a bell for most. Yet, Yokoi is the unsung hero responsible for shaping Nintendo into the iconic company it is today. Starting as a modest toy creator within Nintendo, a company initially rooted in card games, Yokoi had an epiphany. He saw potential in electronic gaming, a budding industry in the late 20th century. With Nintendo’s DNA steeped in entertainment, Yokoi’s bet on video games was a natural progression.
What set Yokoi apart wasn’t merely hitching a ride on a trend; it was his ability to harmonize Nintendo’s playful essence with cutting-edge technology. The result? The epoch-defining Game & Watch handhelds and the revolutionary Game Boy. His intuition and foresight transformed Nintendo from a traditional game company to a global electronic gaming powerhouse. Thanks to Yokoi, Nintendo seamlessly bridged its illustrious past with a future brimming with digital opportunities.
Before Yokoi’s influence, video games were not even on Nintendo’s radar for their future endeavors. However, by allowing an employee the opportunity to experiment, they opened the door to a nascent industry. This goes back to the earlier point about GenZ. Yokoi was a recent hire when he began infusing video gaming into the company’s DNA, and with his youth came the insight to foresee the market’s direction.
Investing in intrapreneurs within your organization is a sound strategy if you aim to attract top-tier talent and infuse fresh energy into your innovation efforts, starting with an analysis of where your company is now and where it needs to go. Intrapreneurship is not exclusive to tech giants; it can thrive in any company. It’s plausible that the next Genpei Yokoi, the visionary catalyst for transformative change, may already be a part of your company.