What Motivates Successful Intrapreneurs

by George Watt

At a summit in Boulder, Colorado, I spoke with a group of founders about what motivated them to become an intrapreneur (an entrepreneur who creates a new business within an existing company,) and what they like most about intrapreneurial life. These five reasons came up most often. Understanding these can help you create an environment that encourages innovation and nurtures ingenuity within your own organization.

1. They are passionate about making a difference and building things that matter.

Like Steve Jobs, the intrapreneurs want to "put a dent in the universe." As one founder put it, they want to "make a (positive) difference in somebody’s life." The founders reported that being an intrapreneur gave them the ability to "really listen" to their customers and address the true needs of the market. That meant setting their own priorities based upon a virtuous cycle of listening to customers, learning, inspecting, and adapting.

2. They love to "pull all of the levers."

This was extremely important to the intrapreneurs and came up almost as often as the first one. They were excited about having the ability to make changes to all aspects of their business as they learned from their customers. They believe this ensures they are truly empowered to build things that matter.

In their previous roles they were normally able to influence only one aspect of a business (e.g.: engineering or product management or marketing, etc.) As a result, they were often frustrated and unable to adequately meet newly discovered needs or take advantage of new opportunities. They reported that as founders they are able to “touch every aspect of the business” and make a visible, measurable, meaningful difference as they learn about customers’ needs.

3. They need a creative outlet.

“Creative people need to create” was hardly a revelation. Though there was more to it. They shared a core belief that they needed to create things that made someone’s life better. During the session there was much more discussion of their customer than themselves. They also emphasized the importance of collaboration - with their customers and within their teams - as part of the creative process. As one founder put it, “To me it’s about creating stuff… and what comes out is more than I put in”.

4. They live for mastery.

The intrapreneurs were naturally curious and had a boundless passion for mastery. They wanted to learn about everything that stood between their current state and solving that important problem for their customer. In our accelerator this often began with a passion for technology. Though it quickly became a passion for mastering all aspects of their business and the problem they were solving, and resulted in a voracious appetite for customer feedback.

5. They believe.

The founders believed deeply in the value of their idea, were confident they would succeed. The best among them also realized that there would be a lot of hard work along the way. One founder shared that as an intrapreneur his “best day was often also his worst day”. Those who did not realize this often required much more support and coaching. Normally high performers in their current field, these founders were ready to put their career on pause to commit to their beliefs, to "bet on (themselves)." Many had families and children to support, so the stability of intrapreneurially life and a guaranteed base income was much more attractive to them - and their spouses or partners - than risking everything they own.

Driving Innovation by Nurturing Ingenuity

In order to create an environment that will enable high-quality intrapreneurs to thrive, ensure your incubation program:

  • Offers autonomy to ensure new businesses are unencumbered by mature ones
  • Enables founders to respond rapidly to learning in all aspects of their business
  • Provides mentoring to ensure new teams had all of the skills they need
  • Supplies training to help teams grow and fill mid and long-term skill gaps
  • Ensures ideas survive based solely on their own merit and performance

About the Author

George Watt has been passionate about technology from a very early age and built his first “computer” out of cardboard boxes somewhere around age five. He led the design workshops for the Accelerator program and created and deployed its foundation artifacts and ceremonies. Throughout his career, he has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent. A transformative leader, he has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled organizations to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains. He began his technical career as a systems programmer/sysadmin and systems engineer. He has held many national and global leadership positions, and has led global teams spanning North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. As VP of Strategy for CA Technologies Office of the CTO, he is passionate about helping budding intrapreneurs turn great ideas into viable businesses, and is responsible for the global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the ongoing evolution of the Accelerator program. He is co-author of The Innovative CIO, and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.

This article was contributed by George Watt, author of Lean Entrepreneurship.