Making your mark – The Intrapreneur

29 August 2013

Being an entrepreneur isn't for everyone. You may have a knockout idea and the 'right stuff' (whatever that is), but starting your own successful business often requires a consternating cocktail of luck, timing, contacts, money, financial risk and personal sacrifice.

Fortunately, the opportunities for those with the personal qualities and motivations of an entrepreneur aren't limited to those brave enough to go it alone. In fact, for the 75% of us working for someone else (like RPC), employing our entrepreneurial skills and spirit for the benefit of our employer can also reap huge rewards. Enter the 'intrapreneur'.

What is an intrapreneur?

The 'intrapreneur' concept was created by management consultant and author Gifford Pinchot in 1978, and although definitions vary depending on who you talk to, my favourite is: 'someone who redefines their role and personal brand by taking direct action to advance ideas, projects and ventures utilising an organisation's internal resources and external equity to the joint achievement of the individual's and company's goals'.

As you can see, it's a pretty wide definition that recognises the wide variety of ways in which intrapreneurs can contribute to their employer's business. This means that intrapreneurship isn't just about bringing in new clients or developing new services (vital tasks though they are). Intrapreneurship is just as much about:

  • Using your knowledge and initiative to refine an existing product or service;
  • Employing personal skills to assist with networking and business development;
  • Thinking innovatively to create new efficiencies in the business; and
  • Contributing to the culture and morale of your company, perhaps by putting on an event

A Great British Intrapreneur

If you need a role model, one of the greatest British intrapreneurs I know of is Sir Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple. Before joining Apple in 1992, Ive ran a London design company called Tangerine. He confesses: "I was terrible at running a design business, and I really wanted to just focus on the craft of design". He goes on: "I worked out what I was good at and what I was bad at. It became pretty clear what I wanted to do. I was really only interested in design. I was neither interested, or good at building a business".

Ive wasn't cut out to go it alone. Instead he joined someone else's company and worked tirelessly to make his mark at Apple. He redefined his role repeatedly (famously blending the traditionally separate roles of design and manufacturing – Ive is now an expert in both, arguing that an understanding of one improves execution of the other).

As a result of Ive's intrapreneurial efforts and willingness to question Apple's traditional offerings, he became one of Steve Jobs' closest advisers. Today, Ive is credited as the lead designer and conceptual mind behind the revolutionary iMac, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iPod, iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad, amongst many others.

Ive's success, he says, is attributable partly to his (somewhat counter-intuitive) "interest in being wrong". He describes this as: "the inquisitiveness, the sense of exploration. It's about being excited to be wrong, because then you've discovered something new". Failures, Ive says, are merely lessons along an overall path.

Making Mistakes

Fear of failure is one of the biggest barriers to intrapreneurship. If you're treading new ground, you're certain to make mistakes. New ideas carry risk, and when you're accountable to the guy (or gal) above you, risk is perceived as something to avoid.

Pinchot's solution to this was to "come to work each day willing to be fired", meaning that intrapreneurs need to be prepared to lose once in a while. The key, Pinchot argued, is to learn and look at how you can turn that failure into success. That's not a bad philosophy to adopt (although I wouldn't take Pinchot too literally).

Fostering Intrapreneurship

More problematic in my view is the perception of intrapreneurship by employers. Making mistakes is only acceptable in a company that sees those mistakes as stepping stones on the road to success.

Fortunately, companies have a big incentive to support their intrapreneurs. Studies have shown that companies who foster an intrapreneurial spirit have higher employee engagement and retention, greater levels of innovation and a sharper competitive edge. Take a look at Dan Pink's video about his time at Atlassian, an Australian tech company. A few times a year Atlassian tells its engineers to deploy their intrapreneurial skills and work on anything they want for 24 hours, as long as it's not part of their ordinary work (Atlassian calls these "FedEx Days", because you have to deliver something overnight… *tumbleweed* …).

Employees at Atlassian then present their day's work to the rest of the company. Of course, some ideas will be terrible, some will be fantastic. However, none would come about without a FedEx Day and Atlassian's belief in supporting intrapreneurs.

FedEx days worked so well that Atlassian, like Google, implemented a programme called "20 Percent Time". This means that Atlassian and Google folk can now spend 20% of their working day on anything they want. Famously in Google's case, around half the products we're familiar with (such as Gmail) were invented by intrapreneurs during 20 Percent Time.


There's nothing wrong with you if you don't want to be Alan Sugar or Richard Branson. Intrapreneurs can, as Ive demonstrates, be just as successful as their self-employed counterparts. There's no magic to it; being an intrapreneur is simply about pushing boundaries, questioning norms and making your mark. Companies who want to be ahead of the competition will embrace your ideas, and won't be afraid for you to get it wrong once in a while.

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