Antique wood paneling. Posters with quotable one-liners about failure. Table after table of bright-eyed entrepreneurs working on their pitches. And of course, beer. Lots and lots of beer.
In 2013, I traded the polished midtown office of my consulting firm for a co-working office in downtown NYC that had all the features you would expect when you hear a word like “co-working”. I was helping my company launch a new startup, and we had decided to move out of our company headquarters and into this space to really feel like a young company. We wanted to borrow more than just kegs and quirky murals – we wanted to thrive off the NYC startup ecosystem that was beginning to emerge at the time. Our intent was to feel connected yet distant, small yet well-resourced, supported yet avant-garde.
“Intrapreneurship” at its finest.
Yet when I made the decision to help launch a startup within my firm instead of leaving to start something outside, I felt like I had failed some golden test of entrepreneurship. Could I really consider myself one of those risk-loving, battle-ready entrepreneurs I had heard so much about, if I was too scared to give up a steady paycheck?
Maybe. My time spent as an intrapreneur, where I worked with colleagues we recruited from smaller, more traditional start-ups, taught me that intrapreneurship is sometimes a valid, even preferable, alternative to full-blown entrepreneurship.
Building an organization within your company is different from building one outside, because of the brand, products, people, norms and mission already in place. Here are some things to consider when debating which to do.
Do you just want to test the waters?
You don’t need to cannonball right into the deep end of the pool, where the water is cold, unfriendly, and lacks health insurance. You may be paying back student loans, starting a family, or up for a promotion – there are tons of reasons why now is not the right time to quit and start your own company. Which is FINE. It’s OK to dip your toes in first – it’s what I did in 2013, and it’s not stopping me from diving deeper two years later. For others it may never be the right time to take the plunge – staying in the shallow end of the pool by becoming an intrapreneur can be just as rewarding.
Is there something you love about your current company that would be hard to recreate elsewhere?
Brand. Culture. Mission. Your current company has taken years, if not decades, to fine-tune and cement many of the things you would have to re-design from scratch. Compared to products, customers, and even people, these things are hard to plan in a new organization, yet hard to escape when launching a new team within an existing one. Gauge the uniqueness of these softer elements of your company and figure out how important they are to you.
Can you navigate the internal politics?
As an intrapreneur, you have to be conscious of who knows who within the company, how incentives are structured, and how your work affects (and often cannibalizes) other business lines. If you’re already well-informed and can navigate internal politics, then your company can offer you resources to help launch your startup more quickly than you could on your own. In other words – if you’re heir to the throne, why would you leave for a foreign land where you can’t access your kingdom’s resources?
Do you value the re-entry option?
In the very likely possibility that their startup doesn’t work out, intrapreneurs have an easier time transitioning back into their parent organization than do standalone entrepreneurs. If a project is labeled “skunkworks” or “experimental”, failure doesn’t have the same stigma it would have for a run-of-the-mill company project. In fact, the creativity, leadership, and problem-solving you can demonstrate while leading the initiative are highly sought after skills in any company. On the other hand, the scars you earn from trying to launch a product with few resources at your disposal may be valued more highly among the traditional startup community (e.g., VCs, other startups) than if you had done it the same within another company. You should figure out which community matters more to you.
Is it better to move slowly?
“Move fast and break things” sounds more like a tagline for Speed than a rule which all companies should follow. Not everyone can be Keanu Reeves careening through downtown LA at over 50 mph and expect to emerge unscathed – similarly, there are many situations where moving slowly (as you almost surely would as an intrapreneur) is preferable. For example, we’re not all starting tech companies where the cost of failure is a few hours of downtime. Biotech and social enterprise startups, for starters, are in industries where the cost of failure is extremely high and may only become apparent down the road – perhaps these types of startups can benefit from the processes and rigor that slow down innovation in larger companies.
If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve been told “startups are hard”, I’d have…well, probably just a few bucks. Which may be enough money to buy Joost. Or Color. Or SearchMe. Or Homejoy. Or Cuil. Or Pay By Touch. Or any of the other 90% startups that are destined to fail.
Because starting a company is hard. It’s even harder to start a successful company. So why make a scary thing like entrepreneurship a black or white, all-in or all-out issue, when there are plenty of similar alternatives?