Startup Baby: How Becoming An Intrapreneur Broadened My Perspective And Changed My Life

Ingrid-Helen Arnold

Having the opportunity to start a business initiated by my executive board is an honor and an entrepreneur’s dream. Starting that business; innovating, nurturing, and growing your baby; and simultaneously enjoying the network and the powerhouse of an established, successful company is a phenomenal combination. Being able to incubate – build a business inside of an established business – sounds like a startup without risk. Win-win, right? On the surface, yes.

We have proven that a startup can be nurtured and grown within an established company, so long as it provides an environment for cultivating a startup into a sustainable new business and you have the right network and executive sponsor. In comparing the startup experience with my previous 20 years in business, there is one thing that is definitely a constant: You have to fight for what you love.

Building a startup from the inside demands just as much blood, sweat, and tears as any other startup. The other similarity is that no one is waiting for your novel idea with bated breath. Everyone is busy with their own deliverables, their own priorities and fires to fight. They may think what you are doing is cool, but they only really care if they can benefit from it. So, marketing your new business inside of an established company is just as challenging as for any new, unknown startup brand trying to establish a foothold in the market.

Eighteen months of my living my startup dream has changed me, and what an incredible transformation it has been! It has changed my perspective towards that higher purpose, in Steve Jobs’ words, “making a dent in the universe.”

After living and breathing the “corporate feeling” for 20 years in different roles and leading a global organization of 3,000 people, I packed my bags in Germany and left for Silicon Valley in July 2016 in pursuit of intrapreneurship. It has been all about putting all my heart and soul into building the new business. It was a natural step for me to follow my passion for innovation and driving change. Mind you, the journey from startup to scale-up is extremely energy-intensive, with lots of highs and lows, but simultaneously very rewarding. Even in the lowest of the low moments, I have not had a single moment of regret.

Top 5 tips for intrapreneurs

Have you ever considered leaving your comfort zone, quitting your corporate role, and starting as an intrapreneur within a larger corporation? If you make the leap, my top lessons learned may help you.

1. Unlearn “corporate habits,” think startup

Be intentional about unlearning and changing specific behaviors when you embark in the vast unknown that is the startup world. A corporate role and a startup job may seem like the polar opposites. But truthfully, being successful in a startup leadership role is a combination of knowing what to do differently from your corporate job and what to keep doing from your work background that will be beneficial in the startup. Large corporate skills, such as the ability to confidently engage with large enterprise customers, taking a business to profitable growth, or developing a solid strategy, carry over very well.

Success in a startup also requires a clear vision and an almost obsessive focus on the customer, with people being the number one determinant of success. It’s all about getting the job done, achieving the results you set out to achieve. Ask yourself each morning: What can I do better today than I did yesterday? You will wear many hats during the course of one business day – from strategy to product to execution to selling. And, by the way, closing is way harder than selling. You will make real tradeoffs to get your innovation off the ground. Your resources are limited, and you will do what it takes to get there.

2. Falling in love with your own stuff will end in a messy divorce

Many business or product ideas fail because the creator is simply too much in love with his/her own idea. There are countless stories of startups with amazing ideas, loaded with features and functions. But the business with the most features and functions doesn’t necessarily win in the market. And if the business model or pricing is not right, it will be dead on arrival. Test driving different business models and pricing structures may be necessary before you get it right.

Your elevator pitch is key to ensuring you can share what your business is about in a compelling way. Practice, practice, practice your elevator pitch to anyone and everyone who will listen, so you can get to the value and essence of your business. Make sure your pitch is about the customer, not about what you want to get out of it. Don’t get emotional about honest feedback, even when it’s negative; while it may be hard to hear, it can be helpful. Some of our best value propositions were honed after listening to customers and sales people restate what they heard when we delivered our customer pitch.

Our one-liner is clear: We help customers unleash the revenue opportunities that are hiding within their own data. It’s clear, short, and gets to the essence of what we are here to do for our customers.

The first question I usually get after giving the one-liner is: so, are you a product, platform, or service? Our problem is that people still think in terms of products, platforms, and services, rather than solutions. I answer that question by saying, we are about business outcomes, solving business problems, and helping our customers thrive through data. Our customer comes to us with a problem or an opportunity, and it is our job to solve it or harvest it by employing any means possible, including with a product, a platform, or a service.

We help our customers solve problems such as: “We have so much data and we’re not doing anything with it, can you help us?” “We know we could improve our customer’s experience with the amount of valuable data we have, we just don’t know where to start,” or “We’ve done some ideating on what we could do with our data and need help taking the next step to realize and commercialize the business case.”

3. Seeing is believing

There are many advantages of having a large corporation backing you, whether it’s leveraging the brand’s power or using its established go-to-market channels. But be clear that, from the minute you launch your internal startup, you are on a clock. I am inherently an optimist, but If you cannot demonstrate tangible results quickly, your people will be coveted by other organizations. This was one of the reasons why we established our “Seeing is Believing” principle early in the journey: to ensure rapid experimentation and fast prototyping of our products. You are challenged again when you show sustainable success and start to grow. Organizations around you will start to take notice and may distract you from delivering on your customer mission, draining the startup energy out of the team. Be disciplined about always delivering for the customer.

Even if you are successful by startup means, your achievements are still fairly small in comparison to the rest of the company. So, be sure to have thick skin, minimize bureaucracy, and leverage all of your network allies to grow the business. Stay focused on the customer, keep leading the orchestra, and remain firm in your convictions. Be sure that as you innovate at the periphery of your company, it all ultimately strengthens – rather than endangers – the core of your business. This will help you increase your number of internal allies.

4. Choose your own destiny and learn to fail properly

In the beginning, your team is your business. All you have is an idea and a small team. Your first focus is building up your team with the right people vs. delivering content. You will be haunted for a long time if you reverse that order. I believe strongly in picking your own team, because you will be counting on every single team member to be a CEO in their own right with full accountability. It’s not a walk in the park, and everyone has multiple roles and a long list of responsibilities. Therefore, you need people who share your same passion, vision, and values as you start to build the brand. Choosing your own team is not a luxury; it is a necessity to realize your dreams.

Be sure you choose people who are resilient and resourceful. If you cannot bounce back and go at it again from a different angle, you shouldn’t be doing this, because chances are you won’t get your offering right the first time. Edison went through a thousand unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. The Wright brothers didn’t get it right the first time. The creator of Dyson vacuums went through over 5,000 failed prototypes and his whole life savings before one finally worked. Therefore, plan on it, know that you will need multiple iterations so that the failures are absorbable. We did a lot of stealth testing for pricing, testing our messaging, even testing how we build products before we got it right. And we continue to learn with every customer engagement.

5. Stories (not slides) inspire

Of course, when founding a startup, you have to iterate and circulate your vision, strategy, and business plan. It has to be sound, and it is not sufficient to be written or seen by only one person before you run with it. But, at some point, enough is good enough. A critical challenge in building a startup is time. A speedy time-to-market could mean life or death. The only thing that matters to the outside world is the impact to customers. Get your customers to talk about you and the impact you drove for them. Stories evoke empathy. Customers are the best advocates and influencers that you could ever have.

Get the results first, then communicate and spread the word.

Where we are today

We went public with our offering in Q2 this year and already have a rich customer pipeline. With every customer engagement, we are constantly expanding our mindset, beliefs, experiences, and knowledge. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. If you feel you are an entrepreneur at heart, follow your dream. What’s the worst that could happen? You might fail, but I guarantee you will learn from it and you will find a new mountain to climb.

If you’re ready to take the next step in data-driven business, connect with the SAP Data Network.

Follow me on Twitter @arnold_ih or #SAPDataNetwork.


Ingrid-Helen Arnold

About Ingrid-Helen Arnold

Ingrid-Helen Arnold is the president of SAP Data Network, the new business unit delivering end-to-end data monetization for SAP and its customers.