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I had a great conversation yesterday with Martin Talks over a burrito at the very good Daddy Donkey in London’s horrendously rebranded “Midtown” (Holborn/Clarkenwell in old money).

One of our topics of conversation was the concept of entrepreneurship in large organisations, its role and appropriateness.

I don’t really think of myself as an entrepreneur, although to all intents and purposes that’s the path upon which I now find myself. I kind of see what I’m doing now as being the reality of work for people of a certain type (broad viewed, “dot-joiners”), a certain age (middle-ish) and seniority (reasonably well-paid) who are too iconoclastic to fit easily into the institutional madness that is a full time role in a big old corporation.

What is it to be a “proper” entrepreneur?

Well, there’s the risk-taking bit. Putting ones bits on the line, making big bold bets. Running the risk of losing everything. Except is that good entrepreneurship, or just a trait of the thrill seeker that might be common amongst some entrepreneurs, just as it is amongst some sales professionals or racing drivers? You need to take some risks in life to progress and “succeed”; you don’t necessarily need to bet the house on them every time, though.

There’s the innovation bit. Coming up with a new idea and taking it successfully to market. But again, is that real or just mythology? Many in the tech start-up scene don’t have a “big” new idea – they have a bit of a new idea and then tack and pivot their way to some sort of success or ultimately extinction. Apple (arguably) have never had a new idea in their history, but they have been remarkably successful in package nascent technologies in ways that consumers want and want to buy – a significant skill in its own right.

There’s the driven to create wealth bit. But, quite frankly, entrepreneurs who are truly just driven by the need to create money could find way better ways to do it than starting up businesses: investing in other people’s businesses is one, but the world of finance and hedge funds and all those fancy numbers games are probably better still. And an entrepreneur who’s ultimate “why” is money will generally struggle to create new products or services of value if that’s their motivation unless they are just money-creation exercises in their own right (see finance, hedge funds and so on).

Entrepreneurship is probably driven by necessity above all else. For one reason or another – whether to be able to change the world, or just to be able to pay the mortgage – one’s own venture becomes the vehicle to deliver rather than somebody else’s. That’s the thing that strikes me as the common factor in all of the people that I meet in the world of entrepreneurship – that there just isn’t another sensible way to make the things happen that they want to happen.

Which probably does make me an entrepreneur, even if I wouldn’t label myself as such.

Which then takes us to another question – what value is there in entrepreneurialism within established organisations?

First of all, if there is something that sticks in my craw it’s when I speak to someone from a big organisation who describes themselves as an entrepreneur, a “start-up” person, or, even worse, “an entrepreneur really“. The correct response in such situations is “You what? How are you living that dream exactly in your day job with MegaCorp?” (although because I’m British what I actually say is “Oh how interesting!”). This even goes for the founders of MegaCorp; one of the biggest problems that entrepreneurs face is either becoming a big company person when their baby has grown, or getting out and doing something else instead.

So let’s now look at those three bits again in terms of big organisations.

Risk taking is something that bigger organisations can do in a much less risky kind of way because they are, well, bigger. If I were working for MegaCorp, the risks that I’m taking today in pure financial terms would be a blip in the paperclip budget. In terms of the outcomes of failure, for MegaCorp there would be no impact. For me (and my family) it’s a little bit greater – risks that I am hedging to some extent for the sake of the sanity of my family.

But big, “bet the farm” risk taking in big corporations is usually what happens when it’s all gone wrong already (see: BlackBerry, Nokia, Dell etc) or when on the precipice of all going wrong (see: The Global Financial Crisis 2008-, Enron, The Co-Op Bank, The City of Toronto). People who take the latter sorts of risks (where the personal outcomes of the risks are negligible in comparison to the organisational ones) are a danger to us all and should be fired at once.

Innovation in big organisations is a tricky concept. The bigger the organisation, usually, the greater the resistance to change both internally and externally (see this for an exploration on the innovation-hampering effect of being a shareholder-owned public company). Peter Thompson writes on how increasingly big corps are using external third-parties to innovate “as a service”. Tech companies (and marketing agencies and others) have innovated for years by acquisition (for all of Google’s talk about innovation, the majority of their new, successful services over the years have been acquired, not built). But both of these approaches have the same issue: it’s one thing to create the new service, it’s quite another to turn it into Business as Usual.

Putting aside that some acquisition comes about with the intention to merely kill competition, how many great products or services grown up within or outside of a big company have never really delivered on their promise because of the inability to assimilate into the status quo. It’s not impossible, but it’s undoubtedly the hardest part of the equation (and again where to an extent I’d call Apple out as examplars, or will do at least when they eventually kill the iPod).

Then finally there is the drive to create personal wealth. That sits often at the top of organisations (in fact, often I would argue more so than within the entrepreneurial community), and you’d be foolhardy to think that these are meritocratic structures where the wealth at the top equates to value and worth. See the video below for a great exploration on that theme.

So where does that leave us? What value have entrepreneurial skills got in a big company?

In another topic I’ve been recently arguing the importance of understanding nomenclature and how a theme can have a name that clearly articulates or merely confuses its meaning to the masses. In that other case, the use of the term “digital”, I think it’s the best of a bad bunch but a term that we should probably stick with for want of something better.

It feels to me that with “entrepreneurship” we have a similar challenge. I would argue that within an organisation we don’t want entrepreneurs, but we do want our organisations to display some of the characteristics that are associated with smaller or new business ventures. Using the term “entrepreneur” though has two fundamental problems; firstly that some of the aspects of entrepreneurship are exactly what a big organisation doesn’t need, and secondly that the barriers to being an entrepreneur these days are so low that seeking these people to work in big corporations is getting an increasingly challenging thing to do.

So my hunch is that we should be calling out much more specifically the things that an organisation wants to do, be realistic about whether those things can actually happen within the culture and necessary, beneficial bureaucracy of a big organisation, and then think much more specifically about the sorts of skills and the sorts of roles that would be necessary to make that actually happen. Looking for lots of “entrepreneurs” to join MegaCorp is an increasingly futile task, because they’re all out setting up businesses.

3 thoughts on “Entrepreneur, Intrapreneur, Wombling free…

  1. Very thoughtful post, Matt. Not sure of what I think about this. I’d suggest that there’s a difference between ego- driven entrepreneurship – the personal capital that drives new ventures and ideas to fruition, leading, managing risk and breaking rules on occasion, and entrepreneurialism – which is a function of social capital that allows seeking, self-determination and experimentation. I’d say any corporate culture needs to breed the latter, and enable the former at its fringes…centripetal entrepreneurialism; centrifugal entrepreneurship..

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