Thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers huddled around campfires would share stories of the “great hunt” or battle. Our heroes in these narratives left the safety of camp, clad in leather, wielding swords, stepped into dark woods to battle a mythically large creature or enemy, and returned in glory with meat to feed a village.
Today our folktales are populated with a different kind of hero: the entrepreneur who leaves the safety of college or a job, clad in a hoodie and jeans, who moves to Silicon Valley to hunt down the mythical IPO-destined-Facebook-meets-Uber-meets-WhatsApp-big-data-fueled-clean-energy app, and brings home a billion dollars to feed a village.
But just as the Beowulf myth crowds from our view the true hunter heroes of the past who learned the craft, hunted in packs, waited patiently for their prey, the mythical hoodie-wearing entrepreneurial myth blinds us from the true heroes: the innovators and “intrapreneurs” at work within large organizations engineering new growth, jobs, and opportunities.
I will be honest. I too fell for the myth. Like most Americans I love rooting for the underdog, the small daring company taking on the big boys. I too believed innovation and growth were born from entrepreneurs. I too love the energy and big-thinking-ness of those who dare to bet it all and start their own businesses.
But the numbers point to a more nuanced reality.
- While policy-makers place a lot of attention on start-ups and source of job growth, a National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that there is “no systematic relationship” between firm size and job growth.
- Jobs creation of small firms has been dropping steadily over the past ten years, according the Kauffman Foundation.
- The jobs that new businesses do create only pay about 70% as much as those of established firms.
- The share that small businesses contribute to the GDP has been declining since 2002 (from about 51% to about 46%), according to the Small Business Administration.
This is not to say small is not beautiful. We should and do still love and respect the entrepreneur willing to bet his or her financial future on a dream. Every Fortune 500 company was at some point a start-up. Indeed, did you know that 40% of today’s Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants and their children? It is that entrepreneurial story that is at the root of the American economy, still the largest in the world.
But what I am saying here is that large is beautiful too. Don’t think that because you are unwilling to bet your family’s financial future on a start-up idea, your ideas are less worthy. Indeed, if your mission is to contribute to innovation and growth, there are many reasons why the BEST place to do this is from inside a large organization.
Here are the five top reasons the 40+ innovators I have interviewed say it’s better to be an intrapreneur than an “out”-trepreneur, five reasons why your idea has a better chance of succeeding if you pursue it inside your company than from without, five reasons you are MORE than a start-up:
- Partners call you back: Let’s say you need a key partnership to get your idea off the ground. As an entrepreneur you’d have to spend days working down call lists to get that big meeting and may not get the meeting at all. But when you call from a corporation others recognize, as one intrapreneur at a leading bank told me, “They call you back. You get the meeting.”
- Immediate brand recognition: What would the start-up down the street pay to get the blessing of a company like yours? They know if they can go to market with backing of a brand customers already know, they would save millions in marketing. If you play your cards right you can piggyback on a brand name that wins immediate recognition.
- Back-office resources: When I was at McKinsey, I hated filling out expense reports. But now that I’m on my own I can appreciate that everything got paid. You don’t have to learn how to use QuickBooks because you have an accountant. You don’t have to sweat over which attorney you should you hire because you have a legal department. Now many intrapreneurs fret that these back-office resources are slow and bureaucratic, but they are also staffed with people who have passions and dreams and interests. If you can get them excited about the possibility of your project, you can usually get them to flex to your fast-paced needs and that’s no more difficult than the start-up entrepreneur trying to convince a lawyer to give them discounted rates.
- Proprietary technology: Make friends with people in R&D, take them to lunch, find out what they are working on. A vast chasm still persists between the technologies being developed in corporate labs and what is actually commercialized. Because you know the market, you are good at recognizing the potential of new technologies, and while a start-up entrepreneur would have to convince a university researcher to give them rights to commercialize their invention, your R&D friend is already on your team.
- Deep pockets: To get an idea to market you have to match the right idea with the right investor. The start-up entrepreneur starts with the idea then hunts down an investor who fits. They pitch VCs, angels, and rich uncles over a months-long road show. Your challenge as an intrapreneur is the opposite. You already have a rich uncle – your employer – and you just need to find the idea that aligns with your company’s strategic goals, leverages what it defines as its core competencies, and fits its appetite for risk. When you know how your company defines winning (what its strategic goals are), where it wants to compete (which segments and markets it is focused on), and what its growth-risk profile is (hint: look at what investors are expecting from your company), you can more quickly spot the idea that will unlock your uncle’s deep pocket.
So accept the unique challenges you have as someone seeking to innovate inside a large company, but also embrace the unique advantages you have. You don’t need to wear a hoodie or risk your career to pursue an exciting and fulfilling mission.