Startup Baby: Five Tips to Thinking and Acting Entrepreneurial in Your Corporate Gig

Two years ago, I was asked to start a new business unit within SAP. After 20 years of living and breathing “corporate,” I packed my bags in Germany and left for Silicon Valley in pursuit of a new intrapreneurship opportunity.

Nurturing a startup within an established company comes with its fair share of hurdles. It demands just as much blood, sweat, and tears as if you were starting your own business; intrapreneurs require a different set of disciplines. Here are my five tips for those who decide to leave their comfort zone, quit the corporate role, and start as an intrapreneur within a larger corporation.

Tip 1: Unlearn corporate habits and think startup.

Be intentional about unlearning and changing specific behaviors. Making the move from a corporate role to a startup job often seems like the polar opposite, but truthfully, it is a combination of what to unlearn from your corporate job and what you keep from it that benefits you in the long run.

Large corporate skills, such as ability to confidently engage with big enterprise customers, taking a business to profitable growth, or developing a solid strategy carry over very well. Success in a startup also needs a clear vision and an almost obsessive focus on the customer, with the people being the No. 1 determinant of success.

You have to be able to discern which corporate business processes serve your business and which do not, and cut out the ones that don’t — immediately. The interesting thing about this is that as an intrapreneur, you can! The wait-and-see approach is definitely one of those corporate habits that has no place in this new world. I recently attended an executive program at Stanford where Professor Robert Siegel said “bureaucracy is structure without purpose.”

You will wear many hats during the course of one business day at a startup, from strategy to product to execution to selling. It’s just reality and it’s extraordinary. Learn to embrace your many hats and not push back on them.

Tip 2: Falling in love with your own stuff will end in a messy divorce.

Many businesses fail because the creator is simply too much in love with her own idea. There are countless stories of startups with amazing ideas, loaded with features and functions. However, the business with the most features and functions doesn’t necessarily win in the market. Test-driving different business models and pricing structures may be necessary before you get it right.

Your elevator pitch is key; practice your elevator pitch to anyone and everyone who will listen. Do this so that you can get to the value and essence of your business and be sure to internalize feedback — no matter how difficult it is to hear someone talk negatively.

Tip 3: Seeing is believing.

There are many advantages to having a large corporation backing you, be it its brand power or using its established go-to-market channels. But be clear, from the minute you launch your internal startup, you are on a clock. I am genetically an optimist, but if you cannot demonstrate tangible results quickly, you will fail and it will impact the team.

Even if you are successful by startup means, your achievements are still fairly small in comparison to the rest of a large company. So, be sure to have thick skin, minimize bureaucracy, and leverage your network to grow the business.

Tip 4: Choose your own destiny and learn to fail properly.

In the beginning, your team is your business. All you have is an idea and a small team. Focus No. 1 is building up your team with the right people versus delivering content. You will be haunted for a long time if you reverse that order. I believe strongly in picking your own team, because you will be counting on every single team member to be CEOs in their own right with full accountability. You need people that share your same passion, vision, and values as you start to build the brand. Choosing your own team is not a luxury, it is a necessity to realize your dreams.

Be sure you choose people who are resilient and resourceful. Chances are you won’t get your offering right the first time. Edison went through 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. The creator of Dyson vacuums went through over 5,000 failed prototypes and his whole life savings before it finally worked. Therefore, plan on it, know that you will need multiple iterations so that the failures are absorbable.

Tip 5: Stories (not slides) inspire.

Of course, when founding a startup, you have to iterate and circulate your vision, strategy, and business plan. It has to be sound. An entrepreneur’s critical challenge in building a startup is time. A speedy time-to-market could mean life or death. The only thing that matters to the outside world is the impact to customers. Get your customers to talk about you and the impact you drove for them. Stories evoke empathy. Customers are your best advocates and influencers that you could ever have.

Get the results first, then communicate and spread the word.

Follow me: @arnold_ih, #SAPDataNetwork

Helen Arnold is president of the SAP Data Network.