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Empowering Intrapreneurship: How To Create Maximum Value Inside Your Company

I was about to be fired, but I didn’t know it. My boss, Doug Harms, had asked me to meet him at a Taco Bell in Ames, Iowa. I found his lunch request curious but figured he just wanted to buy a poor college kid a grande burrito extra-something. As soon as he started to fidget with his mild sauce, my spidey senses told me something was up.

640x480_outrapreneurDoug was an amazingly inspiring entrepreneur who had grown a screen printing shop that focused on college events into a chain of clothing stores serving college towns. Working as a designer in his company, T-Galaxy, was literally my college dream job.

Doug had created company that encouraged learning and ideas from everywhere.

That’s where the trouble started.

About three months before our meeting at Taco Bell, I had created the “Help Fight Herkes” T-shirt. Nobody asked me to; I just thought it was a good idea. In order to get the joke here, you have to realize that: 1) Iowa State Cyclone fans love to hate fans of the University of Iowa, 2) The mascot for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes is called Herky—don’t ask me why, and 3) The STD Herpes—which sounds like Herky—was getting a lot of attention in college towns at the time.

In a feat of what I believed entrepreneurial, albeit sophomoric genius—hey, give me a break; I was 20—I had created a T-shirt that captured both the hate of the Hawkeyes and a funny double entendre sex joke that college kids would go ga-ga over. It was basically an illustration that looked a lot like Iowa’s mascot with a condom stretched over its head. Needless to say, sales of the Help Fight Herkes T-shirt were fast and furious. My parents were so proud. Not.

Good news? Well not exactly.

The Taco Bell meeting was the beginning of the end for my time at T-Galaxy.

Doug had heard rumblings of my dissatisfaction—I thought I should be making a cut of the profits of the shirt—and he was angry that I didn’t appreciate my job. I believe he was also a bit annoyed that he was profiting from an off-color product that was generating a bit of heat at church and home.

At the time, I was behaving as a (young) intrapreneur. An intrapreneur is somebody who uses one’s skills and social capital to create products, services and business models from inside an established company.

Since I believe that the future of growing businesses depends on their ability to harness the passion and talent of intrapreneurs, and because I also believe intrapreneurs would be happier if they got to use their talents to the fullest, I’d like to share some telltale signs of budding intrapreneurship and tips to allow both you and your company to benefit from your rare brand of talents.

How do you know you could be a successful intrapreneur (IP)?

First, you see a need in the market that others are missing. This is because “experts” know what has worked in the past, how things should be done, etc. IPs, on the other hand—especially those who are new to the company—more readily see the new ways consumers are acting today. Unfortunately, the boss often doesn’t see it. He can’t. He is an expert.

TIP for IP in these situations: The Internet provides many quick and inexpensive ways to test your ideas—from simple surveys to selling prototypes through online storefronts like eBay. The direct response marketing industry provides a perfect model for this. They will test ideas in a very, very small market and invest heavily in ideas that are proven in these tests. Would you have invested in the Snuggie® idea? Probably not. But after passing similar tests, it has now sold more than 30 million units.

You’re willing to put part of your salary at risk for stake in the upside. This is a sure sign you’re an IP, and it is a good thing. Nobody likes to pay more to an employee who is just doing his or her job.

Tip for IP: Propose instead of getting a raise for coming up with a truly great idea of which you get a piece of the action. (A percentage of sales, for example.) The benefit is that you will move your name from the overhead line to the income line.

It is typical for IPs to feel frustrated that their talents are not being fully recognized.

Tip for IP: Don’t quit: Co-create. Propose starting a subsidiary or independent company that you and your employer own. You may even suggest working 9 to 5 on your current job and 5 to 9 on the second venture.

Remember, your employer is risking a lot when they support you. They are liable for financial losses, distraction and must also manage the perceptions of other employees who may wonder why you’re getting special attention. Plus, you may be benefiting from many years of investments that have created the platform and brand on which you are now building your ideas. This brand must be protected. So you need to give them a compelling financial reason for going for one of these arrangements.

Doug didn’t fire me. Instead, we had a healthy conversation in which he honestly revealed his frustration with my shortsightedness about my lack of appreciation for the opportunities HE had created for me, and the fact that instead of just going to him directly with my frustrations, I was causing a stir behind his back. He was right to be annoyed, despite the fact that I made him what to me was a lot of money.

The truth is, Doug was ahead of his time as a boss. He fostered a community that made it possible for young professionals to take chances, to fail without risk of losing their jobs, and to launch their own ideas. If I was a bit more seasoned, I’d like to think that I would have been able to become Doug’s business partner. Instead, I left for the big city (Chicago) where I eventually started a number of businesses, including the one at which I am sitting today.

Today’s young intrapraneurs have capabilities, tools and resources that can provide incredible leverage to enlightened leaders and companies. If I am talking about you, go to your boss today and show her how you can help grow her business (even if she is a Hawkeye) in a way that will change the world for the better. (Go Clones!)

First published on Forbes.com June 11, 2012.

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