6 Steps to Becoming an Intrapreneur

Businesspeople in office

By Susan Price

You've got a killer idea for a new product that might benefit your company. But the idea has little, or nothing, to do with your day job.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and 3M are well known for giving employees leeway to hatch their own ideas. Not happening at your company? That doesn't mean you should let your creative spark burn out.

You could ditch your job and start you own company. But if the thought of losing your steady paycheck makes you shake, or you want to hang on to your job for other reasons, you have another choice: You can become an intrapreneur.

Beyond the reliable income, developing a product while holding down a job has many advantages. You'll build a wider range of skills – pitching, marketing, budgeting, coding or design – that will strengthen your career prospects and build leadership chops. And if your idea turns into something that does benefit your company, you'll get plenty of raves and maybe a jump up the ladder.

Launching your brainchild while doing your day job is a bit of balancing act. However excited you may be about your idea, you can't neglect your daily tasks. That may mean your project takes longer to complete, but you are doing this to benefit yourself and your career – not to damage it.

Your first decision is when – even whether – you should discuss your idea with your boss. Much depends on your company's culture, your role and your relationship with your manager. If you have been excelling at your job and work in a supportive, innovative culture, you may get a green light for your idea. If your relationship is rocky, or you barely have time to get your daily tasks completed as it is, your manager may not be as receptive.

In that case, you might want to avoid asking directly, and get to work. "It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission," says Bruce A. Strong, co-author of "Strategic Conversations" and founding partner of consulting firm Cbridge Partners. "And if you are succeeding when you do tell them, you'll hear, 'of course we support you.'"

That approach carries some risk, but taking chances is part of the entrepreneurial path. "And you can mitigate the risk by having a plan," Strong says. Here's how:

Create a business plan. Take the time to write up your idea as if you were starting a company. Your plan should be clear about the problem you are solving; who will benefit and how; potential revenue or cost savings; the resources needed to create, produce and market the product; and a timeline. The plan will change, probably often, as you move forward, but making it will force you to think things through and prevent some stumbles on the way.

Break it down again. With your plan as a starting point, determine the specific steps that need to be taken to reach each of the goals. Estimate how much of your time is needed along the way and – as much as you can – what tasks need to be completed.

Find an internal supporter. You don't want to go it alone, but you need to be careful not to appear to be asking someone to boost your career at someone else's expense. If your boss is not going to champion your project, identify a person who can offer advice and help you build bridges to other departments. Be careful about stepping on toes, however, particularly in companies with a clear hierarchy.

Identify the gaps. Once you know what needs to be done, figure out where you will need help and the type of help you need. You may need advice about marketing, hands-on help creating a prototype or an introduction to someone in the company. Find employees who have the skills you need, and decide how and when you might bring them on board.

Build your team. Entrepreneurs, and all leaders, need to be able to garner enthusiasm for their projects and ideas. Create a small group of people who will help with the tasks of your project and act your board of advisors. Bring in a mentor, too. Be sure to regularly update your team, which will keep up momentum and help you troubleshoot.

Be ready to pivot. Entrepreneurs who succeed know when to keep pushing ahead and when they have to step back and try something different. As you move forward, you may find that some aspect of your plan or product is not working well. Determination is good, but stubbornness can be fatal. Expect to have setbacks, and learn to keep them from throwing you off course.

Susan Price writes about work, money and entrepreneurs. She covers careers for Ivy Exec.