Innovating in a Corporation: The Best of Both Worlds
(Note: This article was co-authored by Maciej Kranz and Alex Goryachev)
We’ve all heard the romantic anecdotes of entrepreneurs.
These entrepreneurs are the ones that work in corporations while working on their innovation. These are they who toiled furiously day and night in their garage, or took out a second mortgage on their home.
How often does this really happen?
Is this a requirement for a person to be an entrepreneur? Maybe once upon a time,– but the answers these days would be, “hardly ever” and “of course not.”
Did these entrepreneurs ever create their innovation and build their company single-handedly — without any assistance from others? Once again, “of course not.”
Conversely, let’s say these entrepreneurs were given a supportive environment with a big-picture view.
Let’s give them a view that encourages and inspires them to pursue their vision without having to hole up in the garage or put their family’s home at risk. Would they go for it? If would certainly seem so.
The lonely entrepreneur.
The notion of the lonely entrepreneur taking huge personal risks to turn an idea into an enormous success is indeed romantic. We all like to see the underdog win in a rags-to-riches story – but it is generally inaccurate and counter-productive.
The truth is that entrepreneurs today cannot act alone.
An entrepreneur must have interactions, resources, and mentors to grow their innovation. They will need partners on a variety of fronts to transform their innovation into a viable product. In today’s digital economy, entrepreneurism thrives best in an environment where it can be nurtured.
Support frees the innovator to obsess on developing the idea more than stressing over the next round of funding.
While some may try to claim that there’s no such thing as a corporate entrepreneur, the reality is that corporate environments today can often be the best breeding grounds for innovation, enabling in-house entrepreneurs to thrive as well as, or even better than, in a startup environment.
Let’s take a reality check on what type of environment best suits the needs of an entrepreneur in today’s world.
Fertile ground for idea generation.
Sometimes idea generation is viewed as a magical process. Environmental factors that can create an innovation greenhouse. Research from numerous sources has shown that the ideal environment for idea generation provides diverse, collaborative, cross-functional connections as well as the ability to experiment.
The ideal environment also has a win-together mindset that includes different perspectives, which is a proven formula for the most successful innovations.
The environment should acknowledge that innovation can come from anyone and is not limited to technology.
A better business process or an improved way to deliver product to customers, for example, could have just as much impact as a new piece of technology.
Government-funded or private research facilities at universities or research institutes can provide some of the elements needed. Large companies are also well-suited to create a cross-functional, collaborative, win-together environment. Demonstrated support has been shown by innovation incubators such as Google’s Area 120, Intel’s India Maker Lab, and Adobe’s Kickbox.
Focus on the innovator, not the innovation.
Just as an apple tree seedling will eventually bear fruit if it is nurtured, so it is with entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs will need expert resources, training, development tools and mentors to guide them. Along the way from innovation to initial funding to business partnerships and onward they can be supported.
Corporations with a culture of supporting entrepreneurship are able to provide guidance from the start.
Enabling the entrepreneur to get business buy-ins fast and tie their innovation to business needs is profitable for their corporations, too. Examples of successful programs at some of the world’s largest corporations, such as Cisco’s Innovate Everywhere Challenge.
Showing your entrepreneurs that cultural mindsets at many companies have shifted — will encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes. Individual’s or venture team’s idea can fail in a safe zone — at corporate.
The attitude is, “This person’s first three ideas didn’t pan out, but let’s learn from it and see what the fourth one is.”
This prevailing attitude mitigates the stress of failure and encourages others within the organization to try their own ideas. The notion that an entrepreneur must take huge, personal risk is as flawed as the idea of the entrepreneur flying solo.
Allow the innovator to innovate.
Often the innovator can get bogged down by business or financial realities. This limits the entrepreneurs ability to create a truly disruptive innovation. It’s easy to point to established companies and say they are hog-tied by bureaucracy. On the other hand, entrepreneurs on the startup side can also easily find themselves in a quagmire of time-sucking issues.
At corporate the entrepreneur can skip the dog-and-pony shows — VCs — patent filings, facilities and HR issues — and business skepticism.
Corporations force entrepreneurs to limit their innovation to incremental gains. Google and Facebook were able to dodge the start-up quagmire by getting rolling on university servers first. This is where they established an appreciable market.
While Google and Facebook are examples of disruptive innovations coming from outside existing businesses — in recent years the most disruptive new innovations have come from within big companies, such as Apple’s iPod and iPhone.
We also have Toyota’s Prius, Nintendo’s Pokemon Go, and Amazon’s cloud services. These large companies had the capital and the ecosystem to incubate and scale truly revolutionary innovations.
Enable pursuit of passions.
A comprehensive study by the Enterprise Research Centre and described by Martin Zwilling entrepreneurs have a drive. The drive is primarily the desire make their idea work to improve things.
On the financial side, if their idea turns into a winning lottery ticket for them, that’s great. Money is not what drives most entrepreneurs. Instead, an entrepreneur is motivated to change things by bringing their idea to life.
In corporations — this goes back to employee empowerment. Companies with “blue sky” programs like 3Mencourage their employees to pursue their dream ideas. These companies provide support with the same intellectual freedom found in incubators or university dorm rooms.
Success should be rewarded within companies aiming to foster innovation or retain employees with an entrepreneurial heart.
Corporations and companies will need to provide the funding to support ideas and help their employees grow. Corporations can financially reward the employees who have brilliant ideas and drive them to fruition. If companies will allow their entrepreneur employees to keep their own ideas — they will benefit greatly.
A virtuous cycle for growth of an innovation.
There needs to be a clear path for the progression of both the innovator and the innovation. In regional hotbeds of entrepreneurship — an innovator can move from research to mentors.
With the help of their own companies employee entrepreneurs can find angel investors and then on to VCs. The entrepreneur lives within the gates of the corporate investors — if these companies will stop squashing the entrepreneurship. Eventually, with corporate support there can be multiple exit options.
Research, mentors, market knowledge and capital — all at home.
Enterprises can establish similar virtuous cycles and have the benefit of already having many of the pieces all in one place.
Connections with outside ecosystems.
A corporation is an ecosystem of partners who can provide a wealth of knowledge, expertise and perspectives. The combined benefits are such that no single person, or even one company, can possess.
Such an ecosystem will help an entrepreneur achieve the best outcome for an innovation. Initially, these partners can offer validation for their idea. For startups, idea validation typically comes from the opinions of a collection of VCs.
For entrepreneurs in corporations, customers and business partners can provide validation based on market information.
With a combined idea validation and connections with the outside ecosystem — a full company can provide business mentorship. These connections can lead to commercialization and sales channels.
Corporations can provide many advantages for their entrepreneurs in the commercialization phase. The businesses have already done their market research and muscle can create or accelerate markets.
Try to imagine an early-stage startup getting the music industry to agree to the iTunes business plan.
The combination of these attributes — an inclusive, cross-functional environment with resources focused on the innovator. This industry has a virtuous cycle for innovation growth which can enable entrepreneurs to thrive.
Corporations with a true commitment to innovation are uniquely positioned to offer the best of both worlds.
Not all corporations have the atmosphere of a startup-like environment with the additional support to nurture entrepreneurs. With these resources — companies can create cycles that their innovators can access.
If the corporations are willing to be the support their entrepreneurs need — they can readily provide their counterparts needs. If a corporation or business is willing to give the freedom to their entrepreneur employees — the benefits cannot be outpaced.
Corporate innovators who resist grabbing all credits and ideas for themselves are rare. Entrepreneurs who find true help in the workplace will find a distinct competitive advantage for successful entrepreneurism.
This article originally appeared in ReadWrite.