How to run a corporation like a start-up

Courtesy of Kleiner Perkins

In 2009, I took on a new job title—not a new position, but a new way of describing myself—that fundamentally changed how I worked.

At the time, I was a general manager at Intel Corporation (INTL), and had been tasked with turning an education PC initiative into a for-profit business. The job included developing user-friendly products and establishing a market for Intel in the education sector. I recall describing my role during a talk I gave at Harvard Kennedy School, and someone said, “So you are an ‘intrapreneur?’” It was the first time I had heard the term, and I realized it described me perfectly, and the type of work I had been doing during much of my Intel career.

Five years later, after leaving Intel, I am now a Partner at Kleiner Perkins Claufield & Byers as well as Chief Business Officer at an education tech company, Coursera. I spend my days working with entrepreneurs — people with immense energy and big ideas, trying to change the world. I realize that my Intel team and I functioned much the same way; although we worked for a large company, we focused on doing new things.

Taking the inside track to entrepreneurship as an employee in a big company can be just as rewarding and exciting as leaping into the start-up world, and it can offer some great advantages. Keeping your corporate job may provide greater stability, while also enabling you to: leverage a strong corporate brand; recruit talent more easily within an organization where you already have relationships and share a common language; and concentrate more on achieving your vision than on tasks, such as securing venture funding, figuring out office space, and building a company infrastructure.

Intel is obviously a far cry from a scrappy start-up, but the company provided opportunities for me to follow my passions and turn ideas into projects with huge impact. Here are a few tips to becoming an intrapraneur that I learned along the way:

Be different. Take on new projects and pursue positions that broaden your experience. Early in my Intel career, I took a job in Japan working on DVD standards. One of my managers said it was a bad move — that I didn’t have enough experience and it would take me off the fast track toward the corporate C-suite. But I was effective in the job in part because I was different — no one expected a young American woman from the PC industry would be trying to open doors at consumer electronics companies like Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi, but that’s just what I did.

Through cold calling, finding introductions to the right people, speaking Japanese in business meetings, and generally being fearless, I was able to get Intel onto the committee that allowed us to advocate for DVDs to work on computers, not just living room devices. As it turned out, people did want to watch movies on computers.

Become your own CEO. Successful CEOs understand different parts of their company’s business and know how to work well with people. Many would-be entrepreneurs have a single, focused skill set. Maybe you’re a great engineer, but you know little about finance, manufacturing or communications. With the limited resources of a start-up, you have to be smart about hiring and the skills on your team. You need to wear many different hats, even when you’re not the expert. You also need to commit to being someone who never stops expanding your knowledge and skill set. There are so many resources out there, as well as mentors and peers from whom to learn and gain perspective.

Build your board of directors. Find an executive sponsor—someone who will serve as your sounding board, connect you to people in the company who can help you, and protect your organization to give you the time and space required to achieve your vision. My Intel executive sponsor functioned like a lead director or a good venture capitalist: he asked me the hard questions, highlighted the things I needed to think about, helped me recruit talent, and taught me the ropes in securing annual funding. The good news is that it’s much easier to build your board and rally support within an organization where you’re already known than it is to cold-call a venture capital firm.

Own what you are. Adopting the “intrapraneur” label at Intel gave me (and my team) an entirely new vocabulary. Suddenly we were able to explain what we were doing within a “start-up” framework that other people could better understand—a process that helped remove obstacles to new ways of doing business. As intrapreneurs, we took pride in being rebels, rolled up our sleeves, and got the job done.

You don’t need to be at a startup to innovate and have a huge impact. Often, all you need is creativity and the willingness to learn skills outside of your comfort zone to innovate right where you already are.

Lila Ibrahim is the Chief Business Officer of Coursera, an education technology company that offers massive open online courses. She is also an Operating Partner and Chief of Staff at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

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