April 18, 2019
By Mario Jobbe
Corporate giants around the world are embracing startup culture as a way to innovate, recruit top talent, and be the disruptors instead of the disrupted. Call it the age of the intrapreneur.
Companies from Procter & Gamble to Coca-Cola and General Electric are forming small, powerful teams and giving them the capital and resources to build new products and growth areas with agility and independence. More than half of Fortune 500 companies had a business accelerator or incubator in house as of 2017.
Leading these internal startups requires managers with the ability to confidently communicate their ideas and vision on multiple levels: in boardrooms with corporate executives, through online workspaces with their employees, and in video conferences with new clients.
It requires people who can mobilize a diverse team of innovators around a big idea, develop new ways of defining success, and motivate everyone to let go of the old, traditional ways of working.
In the “fail fast” culture of startups, part of the journey is figuring out which solutions and strategies fit your specific mission. But after a few years of corporations experimenting with intrapreneurship and in-house incubation, there are some universal lessons to be learned.
Here are five tips from my time building new things inside big companies, from launching an online community at Microsoft to my current position reimagining the way small businesses collaborate as a startup called Spoka, inside Arkadin, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies.
Remote working is the way of the future, and it’s an invaluable way of getting talented people from around the world to collaborate. But it takes the right technology and culture to get it right.
Automattic is the pioneer of remote working across a large team, and their approach is the gold standard that many companies aspire to.
The short version of Automattic’s approach: subsidize everyone’s home office, encourage creativity by working from coffee shops and co-working spaces, and bring the entire team together in person once a year. Then support all of this with 1-2 proven collaboration technologies (no more).
Of course, internal startups can recreate the intimacy of an office in digital spaces — especially if the team operates across a multinational corporation with offices around the world. If an engineer in Mumbai needs to get in touch with the marketing team in New York, how does the organization make that exchange as efficient as if it were in the same office? How do companies create digital workspaces that have the effortless connectivity of a physical office, without being overly complicated or expensive?
Transparency is everything
The best communication platforms on the market won’t matter without a culture of openness and honesty. Transparency starts at the top. Managers who keep secrets and hide problems will engender distrust and rumors within their teams.
Organizations should start by clearly defining their mission and by making it their mantra. A Deloitte survey taken a few years ago found that 73 percent of employees who said they worked for a “purpose-driven” company felt engaged, compared to just 23 percent of those who didn’t.
I believe in complete transparency within our team. If information is valuable to me, it’s probably valuable to everyone. We’re completely open across our team about everyone’s yearly objectives, taking inspiration from Salesforce.com’s V2MOM process. This ensures everyone sees how their objectives align with others and to the team’s overall mission.
Making trust and transparency the foundation of a startup team’s culture is what allows it to fail fast, evolve, and disrupt. When information moves through the company instantly and employees are empowered to act on it, the fear of individual failure is replaced by a joint effort to find solutions.
Be your own company
Startup leaders need to believe in their own vision before convincing others to join in. This requires an honest assessment of a company’s strengths and the truly unique value it brings to its customers.
Part of this process is finding the appropriate level of independence from the parent company, both operationally and philosophically. Sometimes shared services models work – relying on the parent company for things like finance, legal, and IT. In other cases, it’s better to operate with complete autonomy.
Finding the right approach for your internal startup is critical. Getting it right enables intrapreneur teams to do what big companies cannot — stay narrowly focused on delivering the best possible product or solution. Employees don’t have the time to deal with complicated software or cumbersome admin, unlike corporations with entire departments dedicated to those operations. Funding clean and simple solutions or creatively relying on the parent company for non-core functions lets teams stay focused on moving the mission forward.
Empower your built in fans
When a startup outside the corporate world brings its product to market, it suddenly realizes how small it is. Selling, marketing, and gaining traction for your product when you’re a team of 3 or 10 is difficult. It’s a scary, memorable moment for every first time entrepreneur.
But if you’re a startup inside a larger company, you have a secret weapon: an immediate network of coworkers across your larger organization – sometimes thousands of them – who can help spread the word about what you’re doing.
What’s even better is that they’re usually enthusiastic about getting involved, as the startup spirit magically inspires even the most cynical. Internal launch events, branded gifts, and employee referral programs are all simple ways to achieve big returns. This type of distribution is incredibly valuable.
Always be closing
One of the biggest problems in large companies today is follow through. How many emails go unanswered? How many great ideas get dropped because it’s unclear who owns execution? Wasn’t there an action item from last week’s sales review?
Startup teams funded by a larger company have the same accountability to their investors that Silicon Valley startups do: they must prove their product and business model work, and justify they deserve growth capital to scale.
The best way to do this is by prioritizing follow through. An internal startup’s sales team should always be closing; its product team should always be shipping; its analytics team should always be crunching. Facebook’s mantra is “done is better than perfect.” This shared commitment to getting things done is positively contagious and it comes naturally to startup teams.
When properly supported and organized, internal startups can have the best of both worlds.
But just like real startups, it takes real grit and follow through to rise above the competition and be best-in-class.
Mario Jobbe is a longtime entrepreneur and current intrapreneur leading Spoka, a cloud communication tool for small businesses that just launched its video conferencing solution in the U.S.