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A Case for Intrapreneurship

May 11 |

“Entrepreneurs right now are like the rock stars of the ’80s.”

This analogy was recently posed to me by the founder of a successful wine and spirits delivery startup based in New York City. He continued, “In the ’80s, everyone wanted to be a rock star and live a rock star life of wealth, success, and fame. The reality is that not many people had the right combination of talent and resources to accomplish the feat, but everyone wanted to do it nonetheless.”

I initially had two reactions:

  1. Rock stars? I grew up in the ‘90s. Do you mean rappers?
  2. Does this concept hold any water? If so, are there any solutions that could save aspiring entrepreneurs from imminent disappointment and failure in chasing their dreams?

There’s no denying that in recent years there has been a great surge in interest in entrepreneurship. People see the overwhelming and very public successes of the Facebooks, Snapchats, and Ubers of the world and can’t help but dream of the possibilities that they, too, could drive forward such an innovative, popular idea. And the spoils of entrepreneurship are very easy to align with: startups offer tremendous financial upside, autonomous decision-making, the possibility of a very tangible world impact, and a more direct link between effort/time expended and one’s payouts.

But the reality is that for every Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, and Travis Kalanick, there are thousands of startups that fail to get off the ground, let alone meet the lofty aspirations with which they were founded. Though I’m sure the experience is invaluable, a failed start-up can reap a hefty financial, professional, and emotional burden on its founders. Founders are often left with a crippling amount of debt, and considering that a large portion of smaller businesses are initially funded with personal capital or loans from family and friends, this has to yield some stressful situations.

So what is the answer, then? As members of our generation hope to launch successful careers of our own, does a happy medium exist between full-fledged entrepreneurship and overcoming the antiquated model of spending decades climbing a corporate hierarchy? I believe it does, and I believe that happy medium may be “intrapreneurship”.

You can find a number of good reads on “intrapreneurship” online (including some interesting articles here and herefrom Forbes). The basic premise is that employees are given the autonomy and ability to apply basic principles of entrepreneurship (ability to innovate, ownership of ideas and initiatives, resources to bring ideas to fruition, etc.) to their roles. The “intra” aspect is derived from the fact that these employees are not beginning their own work ventures, but rather working within an organization.

Smart companies can offer a platform for their employees to test their entrepreneurial mettle in a more controlled, safe environment. Not only do the innovations push the company forward, they increase employee satisfaction and development through the ownership and autonomy they instill.

As a concrete example, AlphaSights has seen itself shaped by a number of intrapreneurs at all levels of the organization. Our VP of Operations was an Associate on our Client Service Team, but recognized an imminent need for a larger office, identified new spaces, signed a lease, designed the office, and ran the entire logistical transition. The four VPs now running our segments serving Capital Markets, Private Equity, Consulting, and Corporate clients each took an early interest as Associates in growing these segments, and ran with the opportunity to yield triple digit annual growth. Is it a coincidence that these five are heads of their respective segments? You tell me. Outside of management, an Associate who joined this summer is heading up the company’s Health & Wellness initiative, focused on improving employee happiness through massages, yoga, meditation, and workout classes. Two other Associates brainstormed and executed the company’s catered meals program. Another created and hosted a US Compliance Expo for our clients. The examples are countless, and even for failed initiatives (I may have tried, and failed, to start this blog 18 months ago), the learnings are quite valuable.

An intrapreneurial initiative is essentially a microcosm of an entrepreneurial one, without the major downside. To successfully drive one forward, you must:

  • Gauge “market” interest from a group of affected individuals.
  • Drive tangible impact, or the initiative won’t stick.
  • Rally team members around a cause that may not be their own, and handle any ensuing ego issues.
  • Keep operations streamlined due to time constraints.
  • Realize the value of marketing your initiative, even at a small scale.
  • Understand which managers to seek for assistance, and how they judge success. Consider these people your “investors”.

These are incredibly valuable soft skills to cultivate as you progress your career. The point here is not that entrepreneurship as a path is the wrong choice, it’s that it may not be the right choice right now. As you consider career options, it could be helpful to include savvy companies that are helping people grow professionally, while also serving as an incubator of sorts for intra/entrepreneurs.

Good companies are changing the way they think about the changing workforce. It could be time we change the way we think about what makes a company a good place to start a career.


Shaun joined AlphaSights in July of 2013 and he currently serves as a Manager of our Private Equity segment.