This is the moment for the corporate entrepreneur. As the virus makes its terrible way through our society, so a new world is taking shape, and businesses will play a vital role in that future. Countless entrepreneurs are thinking through brilliant solutions to our problems, finding ways to make our lives better, igniting ideas to give us hope.
We need them, but it’s the corporate entrepreneurs we need above all others. They’re a rare breed. Like all entrepreneurs, they speak their own language, have their own priorities, and work the way that suits them. Unlike most entrepreneurs, they also have the scale of a global organisation behind them, and this means they have the potential to achieve so much more.
Like all of us, they’re confused, anxious and fearful now. They need to rise above this. They need to step forward with the ideas no one else has. They need to take the actions everyone else is afraid to take. They need to recognise that this is their moment.
Changing the world
These are people who’ve already changed the world. Back in 1997, Amazon programmer Peri Hartman was determined to find a way to ‘make the ordering system completely frictionless’, and ended up building the software for 1-click purchases. Twenty years earlier, St Louis McDonalds regional manager, Dick Brams, pitched a new kids meal in a box to management and today kids are still demanding Happy Meals.
Perry and Dick both found their organisations open to their ideas; others have had to fight far harder to make their ideas reality. Ken Kutaragi, an engineer at Sony, was convinced he could improve the gaming experience of his daughter’s Nintendo and spent hours tinkering with it. He hit on the idea that an independent soundcard would do it, but his bosses disagreed. He didn’t give up on the idea, and eventually, once the CEO decided to focus on the nascent gaming industry, he was proven right, and the Playstation was born.
Or you can look back nearly 120 years to the factory worker at match company Swan Vesta. He told senior management they could put the sandpaper strike on only one side of the matchbox rather than both and save the business millions of pounds in production costs. Management refused to listen to a lowly factory worker. He didn’t give up, eventually got a few minutes with the board who saw the potential, and the design of Swan matches hasn’t changed since.
Those are only the product innovation stories you hear about. For every one of those, there are dozens of stories of organisational restructuring, financial efficiencies, marketing initiatives, and other brilliant ideas that came from a corporate entrepreneur and transformed not only the business but society as a whole.
It’s hardly surprising. Mix the innovative approach, bold decisiveness, and intuitive feel for an audience that entrepreneurs have with the sheer scale of production, distribution and promotion of a corporate, and it ought to produce results.
Yet life as a corporate entrepreneur is often tough. They see their ideas dismissed by more cautious colleagues. Slow, methodical processes dampen Their zest. They see opportunity and a need for action, while others see only risks and a need for rigorous consumer testing. All too often, the potential of corporate entrepreneurs is wasted, and they end up frustrated.
COVID-19 has changed the equation. It’s an unexpected and unprecedented revolution in how we live. Long established habits have been profoundly disrupted. As I’ve argued here, COVID-19 hasn’t so much levelled the playing field as detonated a landmine under the field. The soil and grass are still falling around us, a new field is forming, and no one knows what it will look like. Above all else, it’s a moment for radical solutions.
A fleeting moment
This then is the moment for corporate entrepreneurs to be bold. They need to see the opportunity, trust their instincts, and forge ahead. Testing is never as helpful as an entrepreneur’s instinct for what their customers need.
While others complain about limited budgets and fret about an uncertain future, corporate entrepreneurs can free their minds to reimagine our future. They can spend this time thinking about what our new world will look like, and they can make plans to make that world a better place. They can finally make a start on all those plans they’ve never had space or freedom for.
At Babson College, they define entrepreneurship as actions involved in “identifying or creating an opportunity, marshalling the resources, and providing leadership to create social or economic value”. Those, then, are the pressing tasks for corporate entrepreneurs in this moment – this fleeting moment – of opportunity.
They’re mavericks. They’re dreamers. They’re damn hard to be around. But we need them now more than ever. As Apple once put it: “Here’s to the crazy ones.”