An intrapreneur exit is not straightforward
When a startup entrepreneur is successful their final destination rarely deviates from three endpoints: they get acquired, go public, or stay autonomous and grow organically. But for a corporate intrapraneur there is no clear definition of a successful exit. The normal big company accolades of a promotion or an increase in salary often ring hollow for someone with the wiring of an entrepreneur. (And from a purely monetary standpoint these incentives are usually much smaller than a startup exit.)
Against this backdrop, a successful intrapreneur exit is not straightforward. There is inevitable tension between personal fulfilment, product acceleration, and organisational change.
Another layer of complexity is that every good option has an evil twin. There is always another alternative that looks alike but is really co-option and stagnation disguised as progress.
Don’t slow down
The good news is that there is one cardinal rule that helps clarify what to do next: don’t slow down. Everyone I’ve ever worked with who gets seduced by a raise or a promotion and walks away from high-speed impactfulness regrets it. (And usually leaves money on the table.)
In my book, This Might Get Me Fired I describe seven intrapreneur exits, I’ll explain what they are below…
The New Normal and its Evil Twin The Bearhug
The New Normal – In this scenario the intrapreneur achieves total aligned validation between users and stakeholders. They solve a mission critical problem for the market and the organisation, and have full executive support to make it grow.
The organisation is fully committed to incorporate the process that made it work into other products where there is a high cost of not innovating. This also means that historically untouchable leaders and fiefdoms are dismantled and replaced with new, more entrepreneurial talent. The intrapreneur is given enormous power and autonomy and has a commitment from executive leadership to provide all the political, strategic, and financial support that is necessary.
The Bearhug – This is the New Normal’s evil twin. On the surface the Bearhug looks a lot like a New Normal.
The intrapreneur is congratulated and promoted and given more resources to keep expanding. But soon all the punk sensibilities which catalysed the product’s initial success are suffocated and killed. Their executive supporter is marginalised, often through a ‘promotion’ which separates them from the intrapreneur and the product.
The new designers and developers the intrapreneur must now work with are a far cry from the team they initially worked with (and are often offshore). Scrappy startup talent is often ‘upgraded’ and replaced with high-priced consultants. Soon the energy and speed of the entire team slows to a lumbering, risk-averse, politically fraught crawl.
The Bearhug is essentially regression disguised as promotion.
The only way to avoid the bearhug is to imagine your worst case bearhug scenario before you start and challenge your company to prove that they will prevent it from materialising. Ask difficult, deliberately provocative questions from the outset and see how people react. The other way to avoid the bearhug is to name your terms about hiring, firing, and product strategy and to ask that they be put in writing. If at any point someone says “trust me” or “as a friend” instead of putting it in writing – then they are lying to you.
The Spinoff, The Outcast, and Their Evil Twin the Quarantine
The Spinoff – In this scenario the new product and the team that built it are set up as a new stand alone company with funding and support from the parent company. The intrapreneur runs this new entity and typically an executive supporter from the parent company will become the Chairman, or stay involved as the chief liaison from the parent company.
A spinoff is the best possible end-result for many intrapreneurs. In effect, the parent company says, “we love you and your product and we want to participate in your growth without getting in your way.” The organisation explicitly recognises that they can’t run every product like this – but that shouldn’t end the relationship. In effect, the company embraces the team and their product, but defers sweeping organisational change to another date and time.
The Outcast – Some of the greatest startups of our time began as products which were cast out of huge companies. When a company says, “You, your product, and your idiot punk staff are all fired!” you have become an outcast. It essentially means that you and your product’s user validation were not matched by stakeholder validation. The body rejected the organ. It often occurs when an internal team with a rival, incumbent product throws an apoplectic fit when they see what you’ve built and brought to market – and use this as the premise for getting you fired. Bloomberg began life as a startup outcast after Mike Bloomberg and Tom Secunda were fired from Solomon Brothers. Lynda.com and Brooklyn Brewery also began life as outcasts.
Every intrapreneur I know who was outcast suffered a bruised ego and then went on to do the greatest work of their life. It is a new beginning disguised as a bitter end. The Outcast often appears to be the Spinoff’s evil twin but is often the best possible result.
The Quarantine – The quarantine is the Spinoff’s evil twin. In this scenario the organisation effectively says, “we love what you’ve done and want you to build a new innovation lab.” This may seem like a flattering compliment but it is usually designed to thwart innovation rather than accelerate it.
The true intent of the quarantine is to separate the intrapreneur from the core business. Many of these labs work with new cutting edge technology like AI and the blockchain, and never use it to solve a single real world problem. An intrapreneur in an innovation lab will soon feel the soul-crushing sense of wasting time and stagnating (albeit while also wearing a virtual reality headset).
Honorable Discharge and Its Evil Twin, The Scarlet Letter
Honorable Discharge – In this scenario your CEO takes you out for lunch, orders a bottle of something fancy, and says, “You’re capable of amazing work and we’re holding you back. It’s time for you to move on and I’ll orchestrate a severance package so that you can take your time and figure out your next steps. The organisational goals we set are not realistic and I don’t want you to waste your time or your talent. We / I want to support you in whatever’s next and want to stay friends.”
Honorable discharge also often works in the other direction. The intrapreneur takes the CEO out for lunch and explains that it’s time to move on. Most people who are honorably discharged after an intrapreneur sprint realise that they are entrepreneurs and not intrapreneurs. It often is the final invalidation that confirms that they are not cut out for the corporate life.
The Scarlet Letter Tattoo – In this scenario there is no fancy bottle of wine or gracious sendoff. You’re summoned by HR on a Friday afternoon and told to pack your shit so that security can escort you out of the building. Or you quit – effective immediately. At the moment this feels like you are being tattooed with a scarlet letter and will be permanently stigmatised. The truth is that I have never met a single intrapreneur who didn’t view this moment as a blessing, albeit with risk and uncertainty that was terrifying. Not one.
The day before I quit my job at Bloomberg I was at a friend’s party when someone asked me what I did for a living. I sheepishly replied, “I’m an Innovation director at Bloomberg and I’m going to quit my job tomorrow.”
“That’s so badass!” she replied. “Do you have another job lined up?”
“No.” I said, still sheepish.
“That’s even more badass!”
I very quickly learned that the scarlet letter tattoo actually serves as valuable currency as long as you own it. When you’re totally candid about why it didn’t work out and the real work you want to do, people respect the authenticity and tenacity. They respect the courage and open up their network to help you out. At least they did for me.
Whatever you do, keep accelerating.
When you build something amazing and innovative inside of a huge company you will emerge with new value inside of your company and outside of it. In order to capitalize on that value you must commit to not slowing down. Whether the right next move is to stay or to leave is largely determined by how fast you can move in either scenario. The right exit for an intrapreneur is the one that promises the most continued acceleration – so don’t slow down… The Universe needs you.
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