The Intrapreneur: the unsung hero of our industries?

preneur_picThere are certain strong ideas that we instinctively and rightly want to highlight and see nurtured in our creative industries.

One is the idea of the entrepreneur, and it’s no wonder. We know from experience that growth will likely be initiated by a new generation of innovators, leaving University courses and setting up on their own. After all, several now-massive companies in our sectors have done just that- the Gower brothers and JagexMichael Acton-Smith and Mind CandyDavid Sproxton and Peter Lord founding Aardman, all the way through to ‘the two Steves’- Jobs and Wozniak, and Apple. All these entrepreneurs went on to create international brands.

Most entrepreneurs recognise themselves that they had an element of good fortune to survive the journey, as the attrition along the way from an original great idea to commercial fruition is huge, and thousands never make it.

The word entrepreneur, described as “an enterprising individual who builds capital through risk and/or initiative” was defined as far back as 1723 by Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon. The idea was refined by Joseph Schumpeter, the first scholar to develop theories in this field. According to him entrepreneurs are innovators who use a process of shattering the status quo of the existing products and services, to set up new products and new services.

However, in the 20th century’s new era of mass communications and international flows of capital, modern businesses developed ever more complex structures and chains of command. A new parallel word gained purchase, then got forgotten- that of Intrapreneur. As the prefix intimates, the intrapreneur essentially innovates from within a company.

So we have two definitions that should be seen in parallel:

  • “An Entrepreneur is someone who has the skills, passion and financial backing to create wealth from new business opportunities and is willing to take full responsibility for its success or failure”.
  • “An Intrapreneur is someone who manages that business with entrepreneurial flair in line with the limitations of the business environment.”

The first written use of the terms ‘intrapreneur’ and ‘intrapreneurship’ date from a paper written in 1978 by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot. Later the term saw daylight in a 1982 issue of The Economist, but seems to have been first used in popular media in February 1985 by a TIME magazine article “Here come the Intrapreneurs” after a book by Gifford Pinchot emerged titled Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur (Harper & Row, 1985). Finally the neologism gained official status in the 1992 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

The Intrapreneur is distinct because they also have the operational skills of running the clockwork mechanics of the business to enable a good idea to be turned into commercial reality.  Some people are born intrapreneurs. Not every small business needs an Entrepreneur, but it may be that every innovative business needs Intrapreneurs, who operate within business confines, without the high testosterone of risk.

So, it’s surprising we don’t use this word more. When you don’t have a word to describe something, you don’t really have a way of discussing a concept, and this is really my point. Whilst the skillset of Entrepreneur and Intrapreneur are very similar, there are specific and individual barriers to success in each. If we go back to our previous example, Sproxton and Lord may be classed as entrepreneurs, but Nick Park could be seen as the intrapreneur. Interestingly, to millions he is Aardman Animation. I daresay Park’s innovation is different from Sproxton and Lord’s.  In another example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the entrepreneurs behind Apple, but the ultimate intrapreneur might be Chingford’s own Jonathan Ive, lead designer and conceptual mind behind the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacBook Air, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

In fact it seemed Jobs was acutely aware of the power of this role, in an interview in the September 1985 Newsweek article where he stated, “The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as intrapreneurship; only a few years before the term was coined—a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage, but in a large company.”

So is this demarcation between entrepreneurs and intrepreneurs just splitting hairs? Both are kinds of visionary, driven by passion for what they do, and ambition. But being an entrepreneur isn’t right for everyone.

“Some individuals don’t want to go off on their own and build something from scratch wearing every hat (or hoodie) under the sun in order to find professional fulfillment.  There’s no shortage of books and media messages that paint the world in black and white in this regard. You are either a faceless corporate cog in the machine of a large, soulless organization, or you are fighting the good fight as a free and independent entrepreneur in charge of his own destiny. But I’m here to tell you from experience that there is a third way, and it’s called being an intrapreneur” says David Armano, executive VP, Global Innovation & Integration at Edelman, the world’s largest independent Public Relations Agency.

At Creative Skillset we know the world needs entrepreneurs. We’re pinning our hopes on the start-up mentality that can emerge both from our universities and from the street.  These days it seems there are entrepreneurs behind every app, social network, or new media service. But as soon as these organisations reach a critical size, they need the intrapreneurs, to regain their entrepreneurial spirit and continue to thrive and innovate, combatting an often understandable inertia and sometimes creeping complacency.

bus_planIn the past NESTA has described this plateau or flatline that young companies can suffer from after initial success, and indeed have set up mentor schemes to try to “increase the ambition and drive to grow creative businesses” and to help them “raise their game”.  That is one tactic, but what about shifting focus and assistance from this external agent of change as a possible solution, (the business mentor) who is often only available sporadically anyway, to an internal agent of change, the intrapreneur? Many companies fail because they don’t adapt, and this is because they don’t have these intrapreneurs on board.

This is the real difference between intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs, especially in the creative industries. Yes, we need to breed entrepreneurs, but maybe we’ll increase the odds of success if we train a new generation of intrapreneurs. Jonathan Ive couldn’t have started Apple, Google’s Serge Brin and Larry Page couldn’t have taken their search algorithms to market without intrapreneurs Omid Kordestani or Wayne Rosing, and Nick Park couldn’t have made a thriving business out of moving plasticine alone.

It could be argued that the intrapreneur is sheltered from risk- they have a job and a paycheck, and so they’ve got it easy. They are sheltered from losing their house if a business deal goes wrong. That maybe be so, but that’s no reason to ignore their contribution, this isn’t a macho comparison about who suffers the most, and we shouldn’t divert resources from assisting the entrepreneur, but if we could recognise and support the intrapreneur, how many more start-ups might succeed? How many more jobs might be created?

Maybe the intrapreneur should now be part of our mental map, similar yet distinct from the entrepreneur. As for Creative Skillset, we could promote this facet of commercial innovation, suggesting to our friends in academia that intrapreneurism might be given equal prominence to entrepreneurial studies in their curriculum, articulating the different competencies and choices each necessitate, and reassuring graduates who (sometimes because of family dependents) don’t want to live with the all consuming risk of entrepreneurism, that there is another way of taking that skill for innovation to the workplace. Who knows, intrapreneurs could become a new oxygen supply for the growth agenda we all want to see flourish.

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