The Intrapreneur Within

“Imagine an organization with an employee who can accurately see the truth, understand the situation, and understand the potential outcomes of various decisions. And now imagine that this person is also able to make something happen.” -Seth Godin, Linchpin

Intrapreneur: A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.”
– The American Heritage Dictionary, 1992

In 1964, Spencer Silver was working for 3M Corporation in St. Paul, Minnesota when he began experimenting with a new adhesive compound that he thought could be used for posting announcements on bulletin boards. Silver’s idea was to develop an adhesive that could keep the paper stuck but then be ripped off easily without leaving a trace.

Today, we don’t think much of this bulletin board problem because of our easy access to sticky notes and double sided-tape. But in the ’60s, this idea would have been new, even out of the box. Those lacking vision may have even considered this product unneeded or unnecessary, referring to it as “a solution that doesn’t have a problem.” But Silver was passionate about the idea and, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with his normal job duties, he began it on the side as a pet project, building a new product on both company time and company dime.

Were this to happen today, Silver likely would have branched off and left 3M to build the sticky product and start his own company. We can imagine him as a start-up founder, working to secure angel investors and advisors or maybe even issuing a round of seed funding that would allow him to build at a rapid pace and bring the product to market. He would have been praised for his daring entrepreneurialism and, if successful, thought of as a business savant.

But in the mid-1960’s the corporate world was different. The term “entrepreneur” wasn’t yet placed on a throne and worshiped as the apex of business success. No, these were instead the years of unwavering corporate commitment. I witnessed this first hand through my grandfather on my dad’s side who spent over 30 years working for the United States Postal Service and, more relevant to this story, through my grandfather on my mom’s side who spent 43 years at 3M before retiring happily. This workforce embodied the age of post-industrial World War II veterans, trusted pension plans, and an almost blind loyalty. The employee-employer bond was often stronger than friendships, even marriages. It is no surprise then that when Spencer Silver finally invented this new form of adhesive, he did not quit his job at 3M to build a start-up. Instead he built his start-up from within.

Silver wasn’t breaking any rules, in fact he was doing what his company wanted him to do. 3M’s corporate Bootlegging Policy allowed employees to spend up to 15% of their work time developing new ideas. This resulted in both an innovative culture and also a freedom for employees to think and act in the best interest for the company even when it did not fall within their nine-to-five responsibilities. Since then other organizations, namely Google and Microsoft, have implemented similar programs for their employees, encouraging their people to spend time working on projects that fall outside of their “swim lanes” as long as it is with the interest of the company.

Why was Silver successful? One could argue that his discovery was a result of the 15% free that 3M gave and encouraged him to take. However, thousands of other employees had the same opportunity to innovate yet they chose not to. There is no doubt then that Silver’s uniquely entrepreneurial mindset, manifested inside of 3M, is what brought his product to fruition. Silver goes down in business history as one of the first real Intrapreneurs, a term that, although rarely used in common-conversation, is imperative to the success of companies like 3M.

Silver’s big idea may seem incredible to us now after all of its success but the truth is that it did not catch on at first. In those first few years he often gathered his 3M colleagues together to show them this new chemical compound but no one seemed to see a vision of future profits. At least not until 1968, when Silver’s coworker at 3M, Arthur Frey, while singing hymns in church became increasingly frustrated that bookmarks continued to fall out of his hymnal book. Art Frey recalled a meeting he attended a few years prior, one led by Spencer Silver, in which Silver had gathered his colleagues together to show them the new adhesive. At the time of the meeting Frey didn’t think much of it but now it all seemed to make sense. Frey would then partner with him to create the Post-It note, becoming to Silver what I imagine Steve Jobs was to Steve Wozniak when Apple Computers was born. Silver the inventor, Frey the marketer. This duo would go on to create one of the most common household and office products of all time.

Today, almost as common as the Post-It note are the many ambitious corporate employees who possess entrepreneurial characteristics. Some of them are stuck in a Want Trap Manure (my previous post about being a Wantrepreneur), and others are simply stifling these ambitions and falling in line as a corporate cog in a wheel. But there is good news for these people: neither of these feelings of defeat are necessary. Wantrepreneurs can stop feeling down and instead start behaving like intrapreneurs.

Intrapreneurship is the act of behaving entrepreneurially even while working as an employee. It defies the logic that a person needs to be the CEO or President of their company in order to build new products, start interesting projects, and drive change. While an entrepreneur’s heart and soul might belong in Silicon Valley, they are more often found in cubicles, on assembly lines, and in retail stores, working for the companies we know and trust.

Maybe your employer doesn’t have a policy that encourages you to spend 15% of your time working on cool new ideas for the business, but who says you can’t think like that all of the time or spend some of your free time doing this work? A highly successful friend of mine who works as a manager within a Fortune 100 healthcare company once told me that every Friday afternoon, before going home for the weekend, he finds a quiet place with a notepad and pen and spends an hour brainstorming about how to improve his company’s business. This practice has led him to new ideas that have improved his own team as well as other areas of the business. This is intrapreneurship.

The opportunity for you to innovate, create, and lead new projects is probably right in front of you. Furthermore your company needs you to think this way and I will tell you why…

Since 1955, only 12% of the companies that started on the Fortune 500 remained on that list in 2016. 3M, however, is one of those that has stood the test of time. Other companies who were on the Fortune 500 list in 1955, such as American Motors, Brown Shoe, Studebaker, Collins Radio, and Detroit Steel have all fallen off, losing their places as top performing companies. Despite high revenues, tall buildings, and glamorous advertising, successful companies like these fail every year. (source)

Others companies however are growing stronger because of incredible employees and leaders like Spencer Silver and Art Frey. In 1955, 3M was ranked #151 on the Fortune 500 list with 14,411 employees and $230.9 million in revenue. Today, 3M is ranked #94 with $31.7 billion revenue (source).

In order to survive and thrive, established organizations need their inside individuals to step up and think differently about the business. Employees must push their bosses and their organizations to adapt, change, and build new businesses and services. Employers need entrepreneurs from within their organization. They need you to be an intrapreneur.

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