Business Strategy

How to Innovate From Within


You’ve got a killer idea for a new product that might benefit your company. But the idea has little, or nothing, to do with your day job.

Enter: The Intrapreneur.

Companies including Google, Facebook and TK have long supported employee innovation with programs and policies. Not happening at your company? You can take your idea to the market yourself by starting your own company, or you can become an intrapreneur.

Developing a product while holding down your job has a lot of advantages. You can hang on to your steady paycheck. If your idea doesn’t pan out, you will still have a job. That’s a lot less risky that launching a company; after all, about half of start-ups fail within four years of launching.

You’ll also build a wider range of skills that will help you be a better leader down the road, protect you from job loss, or use if you do start a company later, such as learning to pitch your idea successfully and garnering support across departments. If your idea turns into something benefiting the company, you might get noticed and promoted.

Creating your business while doing your job is a balancing act. Much depends on your company’s culture, your role, and your relationship with your manager. If your corporate culture is open and you have been excelling at your job (at least, in your bosses’ view) you may get a green light for your idea and, even better, support.

If your relationship is rocky, or you—honestly—barely have time to get your daily tasks completed as it is, you may worry that your manager will give you a flat out “no.”

In that case, you might want to avoid asking directly, and get to work. “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” says Bruce A. Strong, co-author of Strategic Conversations and founder of Cbridge Partners. “And if you are succeeding when you tell them, you’ll hear, of course we support you.”

That’s a risk, of course, but one that goes with the start-up landscape. “You can mitigate the risk by having a plan,” says Strong.

Here’s how to start planning

  • Create a business plan for yourself. Take the time to write up your idea as if you were launching a company. Your plan should address what problem you are solving, who will benefit and how, potential revenue or cost savings, the resources needed to create, produce and market the product, the steps to launch and a timeline. Be sure to estimate your own time as well. The plan will change, probably often, as you move forward, but thinking as much through as you can at the start can avoid a lot of problems.
  • Break it down again. Focus on the steps you think you need to take from now until launch, and detail the actions needed to complete each.
  • Identify resources. Once you know what needs to be done, figure out who will do it, and the resources you or your new support team may need. Maybe you need someone to help with design, or to write code. Or someone in customer support who might have a sense of how the product will be received. Consider who in the company has the skills you need, and where you might need external resources.
  • Find a supporter. You don’t want to go it alone, but you need to be careful not to appear to be asking someone to boost your career at someone else’s expenses. Ideally, you will present your idea to your boss and meet with support, and then can handle gathering support across the company. But if your boss is not open to your idea, find a supporter in another area of the company, a mentor, or advisor to guide your project. Be very sensitive to avoid stepping on people’s toes.
  • Create weekly check-ins. Whether you are doing your project largely on your own or with an informal team, be sure to regularly update progress and troubleshoot. Keeping your team in the loop will build momentum as well. Recognize the progress you have made without getting caught up in what you still have to do or the speed with which things are getting done.
  • Be ready to pivot. Entrepreneurs who succeed know when to keep pushing ahead and when they have to change some of their ideas, whether it is as aspect of the product not working well or a different business use than you’d thought. Expect to have setbacks and learn, if not to enjoy them, to keep them from throwing you off course.
  • Don’t neglect your job. Remember that your day job comes first. It may mean your project takes longer to complete, but you are doing this to benefit yourself and your career, not to damage it. You can quickly lose support from your manager and colleagues if they see you are not tackling your daily responsibilities.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.