Business development 30 August 2018

Can you start a business and keep your job at the same time?

Around 20 per cent of UK employees are likely to start a business alongside their regular day job in the next two years

The “side hustle” is becoming ever more popular. You have a job which pays the bills and, if you’re lucky, provides interest and new perspectives. Away from work, you set up a small business. It can be stressful but it’s exciting. If things go well, you could leave the formal job and become your own boss.

This piece is more about a different option, about “intrapreneurship”, being entrepreneurial within the context of current employment. This last bit is very important. This is not about creating a business which you will then quit the employer to run, or even build then suddenly spin off and part-own. It is about creating value for the people you work for – but giving yourself the buzz and creativity of entrepreneurship while keeping the security of formal employment.

Intrapreneurship is an idea that tends to go in and out of fashion. When times get tough, it gets frowned upon. Big companies throw up the shutters and talk about “sticking to the knitting”. Then things loosen up, and they suddenly see themselves being outflanked by nimble, disruptive outsiders, and need to find that spirit within themselves. Now, I sense, we are entering a new phase of the latter, after the long years of austerity.

So how do you become an “intrapreneur”?

First, of course, you have to have an original idea. Something the company should do, or should do better. Most intelligent employees have plenty of these – the question is more ‘which one should I put time and energy into?’

If you have good contacts with customers, have an informal chat with the ones you like most. “If we did x, would you be interested?”

If the answer is ‘Yes’, find a way of doing it. If it works, then the idea now has some measure of proof.

You will need to start building a team around your project. Two team members are essential.

The first is a ‘foil’, someone who works with you on the project, whom you can bounce ideas off. It helps if this person has a different temperament and mindset to you. If you are an engineer, designer or a programmer, find someone from the sales or marketing side. If you are introvert, who likes to ‘get on with the job’, find a more outgoing type who enjoys engaging people.

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The second essential team member is your ‘sponsor’. Look around your company to see who, at or near the top, has an entrepreneurial mindset. Some senior people won’t have – they see the business as a machine that they don’t want disrupted. But others will have more imagination. Maybe they even fancied starting their own business, but for various reasons never got round to it. Arrange to meet the second type of person and talk to them. Say that you want them to help you.

They can help in many ways – with advice, with connections, most of all, perhaps, with protection, as it’s only a matter of time before someone in the organisation comes gunning for you, either envious of your success or afraid of your capacity for changing things. ‘We don’t do that sort of thing round here,’ is the rallying-cry of the intrapreneur’s enemy, the aggressive opponent of change, the T Rex. Your sponsor is there to shield you against them.

Good intrapreneurs – or their foils – make friends all round the company, finding people who can help them out. A bit of budget here, some time in the workshop there, a spare laptop there. Remember, none of this is for personal financial gain; this is a company project, albeit still an unofficial one.

This is all part of what I call the “intrapreneur advantage”. Entrepreneurs have to create their own networks: intrapreneurs have a marvellous, ready-made one, the company. Entrepreneurs have to source and pay for office space and communications – intrapreneurs have these already.

Materials and know-how are on tap if you know how to access them. Of course, the ultimate entrepreneur pay-off is lacking: the big sale and the big bucks that come with it. But instead you have more security. If the company respects enterprise, starting a successful “intraprise” should boost your career.

There will come a time when your under-the-radar project needs to go public. Talk with your sponsor about timing. This decision is partly to do with internal politics and partly to do with how enthusiastic your customers are.

The unfortunate truth is that some companies are more open to intrapreneurship than others. What is yours like? If it is antipathetic, then maybe it is time for a move. Not just because of your pet project but because of general attitudes. In the long term, will you really flourish in such a closed-minded organisation?

The third edition of The Beermat Entrepreneur– Turn Your Good Idea into a Great Business by Mike Southon and Chris West is out now on Amazon

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