Innovation does not always come from the top of the organizational chart. Often, employees who have intimate knowledge of a company's operations are best equipped to spot opportunities for innovation and change. Unfortunately, not all great ideas filter up to the C-suite. And many would-be entrepreneurs at corporations have families, mortgages, and other financial responsibilities that prevent them from leaving to embrace the high-risk, high-reward dynamic of a start-up.
Beyond risk-reward trade-offs, these employees are also loyal to their company and want to see it succeed. Fortunately, by demystifying exactly what innovation is, managers can stay in their positions as they build a low-cost prototype to prove their idea to their company's leaders - leaders who are likely on the hunt for innovation.
How corporate entrepreneurs differ
Corporate entrepreneurship and innovation have become buzzwords that, through repetition, have warped into meaningless phrases. That's why a CB Insights article poking fun at corporate innovation is so funny, because anyone who thinks about these issues knows each example rings true. Innovation initiatives often mimic the atmosphere, structure, and vibe of Silicon Valley, but fail to replicate the entrepreneurial spark that inspires a visionary to do difficult, high-risk/high-reward work.
At a corporation, no work will ever truly emulate the high-risk or high-reward environment of a startup, unless the corporation spins out its innovative arm into its own entity. Employees have 401ks and other benefits, HR follows a pay schedule with tiers and caps, and shareholders are wary of diluting stocks.
But that does not mean that a visionary employee can't become an entrepreneur within their organization. As a corporate entrepreneur, the employee can become an innovation champion simply for the sake of watching their company succeed (while scoring a well-earned promotion). However, to get leadership buy-in, they'll first need to prove their idea works - and they can without learning a single piece of code.
High tech platforms start with low tech, manual hacks
Part of the mystique surrounding tech startups comes from well-designed platforms that seem to anticipate a user's every need. When a corporation innovates, its leaders expect sleek prototypes that run seamlessly on the right algorithms and tech. But the truth is that most prototypes are crude, manual, low-tech hacks. Before an entrepreneur builds a platform connecting pet owners to pet sitters, he or she sits behind a computer fielding pet sitting requests in a chat window and calling pet sitters on their phone. In the early days of a platform, entrepreneurs manually facilitate most transactions, thereby validating demand and supply, and building a low-cost prototype. Only once they've proven that the business demand is real do they worry about building technology that can scale.
There are many types of platforms, and for each there are unique hacks that can test underlying assumptions before a company invests millions of dollars in developing a platform. With a small budget and a good amount of hustle, a non C-suite manager can test assumptions, tweak the market, and deliver to the C-suite an actionable plan.
Armed with a functioning prototype and a few months worth of data, it's time to get the idea funded. Luckily, corporations have built in venture capitalists: their board and executive leadership. To be successful in wooing your leadership, it is critically important to capture all data from the manual prototypes and develop a business plan around how the platform would integrate with or expand the company's core business.