From Silos to Services: Cloud Computing for the Enterprise

Nov 29 2015   2:06PM GMT

Lessons from an Intra-preneur

Brian Gracely Brian Gracely Profile: Brian Gracely

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Startup

shutterstock_139401506In my career, I’ve had four opportunities to either lead or be part of projects that would be consider “internal startups” within larger companies. Sometimes the people that are involved with these projects are called “Intra-preneurs”, because there are some similarities to the experiences of people that create new businesses (e.g. entrepreneurs).  The projects were:

  • In 2006, the “Linksys One” group that was spun out of Cisco and into Linksys, to focus on building early SMB solutions.
  • In 2008, the Virtualization and Grid Infrastructure group at NetApp that was focused on integrating virtualization technologies (VMware, Red Hat, Microsoft) with NetApp technologies.
  • In 2010, the pre-VCE group (from VMware, Cisco, and EMC) that was focused on the Vblock technologies before they were formalized into the VCE company.
  • In 2014, the EMC {code} group which focused on open source technologies and communities.

I contrast these experiences with my time at Virtustream, as they transitioned from a Cloud Provider to also being a technology/software provider.

The technology industry has an unusual fascination with startups, entrepreneurs and how it measures success and failure. I suspect that it goes back to the original HP garage and the excitement around new ideas. But the reality in the technology industry is that new ideas are and will always be plentiful, but the execution of those ideas into businesses is incredibly difficult. The odds against making something new come to fruition are astronomical, to the point where most logical people would discourage anyone to do it. Big companies have more money, more engineers, existing sales and distributions channels and overall brand awareness. But yet people keep trying to build better mousetraps and they keep climbing mountains because they are there to be climbed.

Lessons Learned

Over the last couple months, I was drawn back into thinking about this based on a couple things I read and listened to:

  1. Chad Sakac on The Geek Whisperers podcast, talking about how he created, grew and scaled the “Chad’s Army” vSpecialist group into the much bigger role he has today.
  2. Lucas Carlson’s newsletter series about entrepreneurship and failure.

Between the two, it was a nice mix of internally and externally-focused activities, small company and big company challenges, and successes and failures…..and learnings.

So what did I learn during my time in these various projects and groups?

  1. Risk is not a Consistent Variable for all People – While these types of projects tend to attract people that are more willing to take risk (e.g. career-path risk), not everyone in the organization shares that same less of willingness. Expect to get tremendous pushback and opposition from internal groups that feel threatened that these new projects got funded, often times to address elements of something they might believe they currently own.
  2. Over-Communication is Critical – Not only are you communicating status updates to people, but you’re educating them on completely new (and often “crazy”) concepts. It’s important to communicate successes (internal and external), even if they are small. It’s important to communicate visions, tangible plans and status updates. And it’s important to communicate that new things take time to evolve – it’s the concept of minimum viable products (MVP) and rapid evolution. Be sure to spend an extremely large portion of your time talking to the marketplace (e.g. potential customers or community) and walking the hallways at HQ to communicate with people face-to-face, not just electronically.
  3. The Starters might NOT be The Finishers – Many times the people that start projects have a mindset or skillset that is appropriate for starting and nurturing the project, but not necessarily for growing it to scale. Sometimes this is about skills and sometimes it’s about personality, which is something that we’ve seen with startup CEOs in the past. This is an important thing to understand for anyone choosing to be part of these projects during the early days, as there can often be frustration or disappointment if they don’t believe that they are “rewarded” for the risk-taking portion of the project.
  4. Not All Measurements are Equal – Simple test – which is better, 1000% growth or 10% growth? Are you measuring for revenue or stars on GitHub? And how might you account for an “overlay” group? There’s no right answer without the proper context. Unfortunately, when existing projects and new projects get lumped into the same status meeting to an executive, context isn’t always given time to breath. Not only will this be a problem with the concept called “Bi-Modal IT”, but it’s also potentially challenging as new projects have to compete for attention with existing projects. It is critical to understand how leadership view growth vs. revenue vs. innovation vs. disruption.
  5. Similar Concept, Different Reality – While internal startups might sound similar to external startups, at least in concept, they are very different. External startups don’t have the big company brand to rely on. External startups are viewed differently in the media. Internal startups have less visible scorecards for people looking to parlay any successes into a next opportunity. Internal funding comes with different requirements and pressures and expectations that external funding.

Overall, being an intrapreneur is a good fit for certain types of people and personalities, but it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a place to gain experience for your career, but I’m not sure I’d always say that it’s looked at as a career-building move – it all depends on the situation. And it’s important to understand the different phases of an internal project, from pioneer to settler to town planner – different stages have different requirements both in terms of skills and personalities.

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  • cukkei
    Yes, this does make sense. 
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