Entrepreneurism and Large Companies – An Oxymoron?
Recently some colleagues of mine were discussing the topic of being entrepreneurial at a large company. The most obvious questions were if it is possible to be an entrepreneur at a large company and if so, what does that really mean.
There was a good exchange amongst a couple of people, but I found the discussion lacking in diverse thought since the active participants are in the same group and we frequently collaborate. To me this is a bit ironic given that in my opinion, one of the top ways to fuel Entrepreneurship involves collaboration across people with diverse thinking. We did agree that it is possible to be an entrepreneur is a large company is possible.
So what exactly does that mean?
Well, I’ve not seen any real accurate definition of what being an entrepreneur is all about. That’s probably since there is way too much “conventional wisdom” about what it means. Wikipedia isn’t always a good source or as in this case is too narrow in its scope, relying on the legacy of the word and “conventional wisdom”. Note the term “conventional wisdom”, a bit of an oxymoron for the entrepreneur since most are not conventional in thought and have a bit of wisdom in their domain.
One key aspect to drive Entrepreneurism is a redefinition of success and failure. In many ways success is a product of acquired knowledge gained through a series of failures (as defined in the conventional sense).
I’ve been in quite a few startups, most were financial failures, but all succeeded in some fashion, either through the creation of intellectual property that is useful for future ventures, pushing the state of the industry forward, expanding the network of contacts or acquired knowledge by the individuals involved. The common element for each was thinking differently. The common mistake was thinking so differently that it was a revolutionary not evolutionary change in thinking from the target customers.
In many ways, large companies have a unique advantage. When managed effectively, large companies have the potential to take more controlled risks, knowing that each attempt will progress the final product and ultimately achieve a more competitive offering.
They are able to use their brand and strong marketing to support the perception of a disruptive change in the market even though their products have gone through an evolutionary change. This can create the aura of a revolutionary product.
However, successful revolutionary products/services have always depended on the evolution of the target market to be open to different thinking. The iPod wasn’t revolutionary; it built on the evolution of portable music players dating back to the Sony Walkman and prior products that none of us knew or heard of.
One could say that the iPod was technically inferior to competing products in many ways. But that was judging the iPod conventionally. Steve Jobs was smart enough to understand that the product was only a part of the experience so he went about evolving everything from the consumer product to the back-end systems while leveraging Apple’s strong brand and marketing machine to create the disruptive change. That was revolutionary and unconventional thinking.
As I mentioned before, collaboration en masse is especially key. Part of the entrepreneurial spirit is transparency and collaboration, especially in the early stages of initiatives. Many large companies have the tendency to over-govern initiatives, seeking approvals toward the end, when in fact the end approval should be fait accompli if an appropriate amount of collaboration is used through the process.
The last overused word in this area is risk. So often we see big companies look to avoid all risk without understanding risk. An entrepreneur does not look to implicitly take greater risks, but looks to achieve greater differentiation involving thinking that is based less on something deterministic but something more stochastic. In growing any business, risks can be mitigated or controlled, but never eliminated.
The behavior that is needed to be encouraged is for people to be bold in their thinking and open to bold thinking from others. The most successful ideas may begin with an individual, but only through collaboration can achieve success.
Always interested in hearing your thoughts.