How To Become A Corporate Entrepreneur

Dilipkumar Khandelwal

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When I graduated, India was thriving in the global economy, but there was no startup ecosystem like there is today. Like many of my generation, I was drawn to the large technology corporations that laid the foundation for India’s meteoric rise as a global innovation hub. Technology is a catalyst for driving economic, social, and environmental progress. Joining a large technology corporation was my opportunity to drive change.

Today, I am an entrepreneur at a global company. Some may call me an intrapreneur. I prefer calling it being a corporate entrepreneur and inspiring others to become entrepreneurial as well.

Over the years, I realized that large companies need entrepreneurs; even companies that are more than 45 years old and have more than 95,000 employees. In fact, having an entrepreneurial mindset is not only important when you start a company, but it also remains important for running large organizations. Entrepreneurial thinking keeps companies innovative at every growth stage.

Based on my own entrepreneurial journey and work with startups, I identified the top three priorities that help you inspire your team to become corporate entrepreneurs.

1. Inspire and reward entrepreneurial thinking

Entrepreneurial thinking at work is about giving team members the freedom and support to envision new ways to improve the business and stay innovative. This could be better ways of servicing customers, developing new product ideas, improving operations, or coming up with new strategic directions. Some employees are born self-starters and embrace the opportunity to have a more active role in contributing to the company’s direction, while others may need a little bit more time to break out of their traditional work boundaries and routines.

In my experience, the best way to inspire entrepreneurial thinking is to weave it into the fabric of the company culture. Entrepreneurial thinking needs to become an intrinsic part of the daily work. This can be done by giving team members more autonomy to pursue ideas that contribute to the company’s mission and customer value creation as part of their job. Provide regular opportunities to share and collaborate on ideas that drive research and product development. We have seen great success with company-wide and team competitions for new product or service ideas.

2. Embrace collaboration

Yes, it’s a competitive world and companies need to protect their intellectual property, but at the same time, innovation does not happen in a box. Innovation is teamwork. Collaboration goes beyond department and company borders. Research has shown that innovative companies have structures in place that support entrepreneurial thinking and are connected with external partners, including universities, research institutions, startups, and other companies, to drive research and development. You can start by tapping your colleagues and network for ideas and know-how.

Our accelerator program works with startups as part of an open innovation approach with a focus on disruptive technologies from the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Employees collaborate with startups on product development, often in conjunction with customers. One example is our team’s collaboration with Ecolibrium Energy, a startup that helps enterprises embrace the Industry 4.0 journey with IoT and AI-powered predictive maintenance solutions. The company’s flagship product, SmartSense, is a real-time energy monitoring and analytics application that helps companies save energy and maintenance costs and enhance asset productivity.

3. Innovate to scale means knowing your numbers

Every idea needs market validation and, if promising, a business plan. Knowing budgeting and financial metrics seems to be a basic requirement, but it is also still a common stumbling block for bringing an idea to market. Every day, I check balance sheets and key metrics to know the latest about sales, profit, expenses, cash flow, profit margin, and customer acquisition costs.

If you watch the American TV series Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in hopes of an investment from the hosts, five self-made businessmen and businesswomen, you know that many pitches leave the tank without an investment because the business owners don’t have a good grip on their financial metrics, or they over-evaluate their company. This also applies to product ideas within corporations. Understanding budget requirements and financial metrics are equally as important as ideas, passion, and drive. It’s the foundation for turning your ideas into a viable business model that can scale.

Another key criterion is scalability. Can the product idea scale nationwide – or globally, and if so, what investment, infrastructure, and team size are required? Together with the team, I meet with a group of startups to talk about that every quarter. We review business models and growth opportunities for product ideas that can be built together on a global scale.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to quit your job and start your own business to be an entrepreneur. You can – and should – think like a startup within a corporation. You still have to conquer the same challenge as a business founder to bring an innovation to market and scale it. But the beauty of corporate entrepreneurship is that you are not alone in that challenge. You have a network of colleagues and external partner to drive change.

Imagine the possibilities of what corporations can achieve when their employees turn into corporate entrepreneurs. Corporate entrepreneurs can make possible what was thought to be impossible before.

Listen to the Digitalist Flash Briefing “The Mind Of An Innovator: Five Essential Skills For Innovation.”

Dilip Khandelwal

About Dilip Khandelwal

Dilip Khandelwal is the Managing Director of SAP Labs India. He is a member of the SAP Global Executive Team reporting to the Executive Board. Dilip was recognized by The Economic Times as a ’40 under 40’ leader. In 2019, he was named among the Top 100 Great People Managers by the Great Manager Institute, in collaboration with Forbes India. The International Business Awards honored Dilip with a Silver Stevie Award as Executive of the Year in the Computer Software Industry. He is a NASSCOM Executive Council Member and sits on the Governing Council of the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad.