intrapreneurship

Are you an entrepreneur? you don’t just follow a path; you build one. You’re willing to take risks and be responsible for the outcome. You persevere, without hesitation, until you reach your goals. You are passionate but level-headed, prepared but nimble. And perhaps, like me, once your hard work has turned into success, you’ve been faced with the difficult challenge of instilling the traits listed above into the culture of your business, even as it grows steadily.

My own entrepreneurial story began in 2004, when I left a long corporate career in advertising to launch Sweetspot.ca, an online lifestyle magazine for women. With a small investment and a big idea, I worked on creating a niche. I had little to support me but my own conviction that this would work—and work well. It took a year before I hired my first full-time employee, Stephania Varalli, in the unofficial role of Mini-Me. Driven by the same entrepreneurial spirit that I was, she worked for free for six months in exchange for a small stake in Sweetspot. Like me, she touched all areas of the business, from marketing and business development to finance and even web programming.

Over the next few years, the ranks of Sweetspot’s subscribers and advertisers continued to grow, Rogers Publishing Ltd. (owner of PROFIT) invested and the employee roster expanded to keep up with the demands of the business. While I didn’t want to lose the entrepreneurial culture that had defined Sweetspot’s roots, it was no longer feasible to follow the same Mini-Me model that had worked so well with Stephania.

The solution? Instead of entrepreneurs, I began to seek out and foster intrapreneurs, those who can flourish in an environment of intrapreneurship. The philosophy of intrapreneurship is simple: it involves incorporating aspects of an entrepreneurial culture into an organization, regardless of the type of business, its size or how far it has come from its entrepreneurial origin. It requires instilling a sense of ownership and accountability in employees so that teams will work harder and smarter to achieve the goals of the organization as if it were their own. Each business faces its own unique challenges, but the same general guidelines to achieving an intrapreneurial culture apply.

When I first embraced intrapreneurship, I explained the concept to my Sweetspot team. It wasn’t just a buzzword; it was an idea that came with a set of expectations on how to conduct business in our organization. Let me be clear: I provided my employees with guidelines, which is a different concept than implementing rigid policies.

I have worked in companies that micro-define every role and process, and I have always seen it as a weakness. Such rules do not account for an ever-changing environment. Organizations can lock themselves into being subpar by assuming that the “best practices” of 10 years ago, or even 10 months ago, are still the optimal solution today. With flexible guidelines, I gave my employees room to use their own judgment. This not only encouraged creativity, it gave them ownership over their work life, much like an entrepreneur. Unlike the risk-free environment of a rules-dominated workplace, where there is no impetus to change processes or find better solutions, employees at Sweetspot had to develop the ways and means to meet the company’s goals. They were responsible not only for their successes but also for their failures, and this element of risk motivated them to find ways to improve approaches and execution.

The concept of ownership was present even in the most simple of practices. At Sweetspot, we didn’t have an official start to the day. We simply asked employees—at all levels—to let us know where they would be if they weren’t going to be in the office by 10 a.m. We also implemented work-from-home days, allowing staff who could get their job done over an Internet connection to do just that from the comfort of their own home. We never had any issues with employees abusing this system, mainly because I and my senior staff worked hard to set an example of how to be both flexible and accessible. We practised what we preached. You can’t expect your employees to do what you yourself won’t. I’ve always told my employees, “I don’t care where you do it; I care that you are doing it well.”

This level of freedom—and the responsibility that comes with it—is only half of the equation. To ensure your employees act like the business is their own, you need to consider not only the freedoms and corresponding responsibilities but also the rewards. Neither entrepreneurs nor intrapreneurs will be willing to toil for nothing. At Sweetspot, I always strove to connect the success of each individual with the success of the company.

Recognition can go a long way here, but monetary rewards are also important. I implemented performance bonuses that were based on a combination of personal and corporate goals that were clearly stated in a performance-review document—a collaborative effort between the employee and her supervisor. This was regularly reviewed, and employees were given the responsibility for flagging any necessary updates or possible roadblocks. Using this system, bonuses were never arbitrary. There was a clear link between the work done and the reward, and employees felt a degree of ownership over the bonuses they earned. I also implemented perks, such as a training budget. This allotted amount could be used for any educational program that an employee wished, as long as it was relevant to their role. I also made a point of promoting from within whenever it was possible. And I recognized that the degree of “possible” largely depended on how I worked to develop the careers of employee, recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and never letting potential go unnoticed or unused. Many Sweetspot employees have not only risen through the ranks, they have also worked in various areas of the company, finding the niche that suits their talents, enabling them to maximize their contribution to Sweetspot’s success.

I’ve always believed that the next big idea could come from any level or department of an organization, and this inspired a program at Sweetspot called The Next Sweet Idea. Having started the company with a miniscule budget, I offered a similar sum to the employee who could come up with the best new business idea.

The “winner” would have the benefit of my support and the company’s resources for implementation, and receive a significant bonus for her contribution. Seven employees (out of 24) submitted proposals and, as a result of the competition, we eventually launched a new program called Daily Dealight, a time-sensitive offer on a product or service that was of interest to our audience, generating revenue for the businesses that participated and increased traffic to our website.

This intrapreneurial system can only work if the vision of the company is defined. At Sweetspot, I always made sure to communicate where I saw us going. At the beginning of each year, I documented the company’s objectives for the year ahead. I’d started this practice with Stephania, my first employee, who after four years with the company could still say: “The goals were always clear. We knew what we were trying to achieve. And from the day I started in a company of two to the day I left a company of 25, Joanna always encouraged me and my fellow Sweetspotters to collaborate in reaching common goals. We shared ideas. We shared the failures and successes. We were a part of the brand.” Implementing these practices of intrapreneurship can go a long way toward connecting your employees with your business.

It is unrealistic to assume that the people you hire will be just as passionate as you are about your business—your baby—simply because you will always have more at stake. But this doesn’t mean they can’t come close. With empowerment, guidance and a clear definition of success, you can reap the greatest benefit from the human capital you already have while delivering equal satisfaction to your employees. The proof is in our positive results, our far lower than average turnover rate (less than 1% per year) and industry nods such as making the Progressive Employers of Canada list for 2010. An even greater accolade is the degree to which Rogers has looked to Sweetspot for sales and marketing expertise since acquiring 30% of the firm in 2006. (Rogers acquired all the outstanding shares in 2010.)

Since passing the Sweetspot torch to Rogers, I’ve put my entrepreneurial mettle to the test with a new venture. Dealuxe.ca is a luxury shopping site offering Canadian women the opportunity to find contemporary fashion brands online. With the goal of creating an intrapreneurial culture once again, I’ve maintained a horizontal structure, with all employees having regular contact with me. There are also performance incentives and equity packages in place to ensure each individual feels tied to the success of the company. The first step, however, was ensuring I had a team that would respond to this kind of environment and reward system. I focused the interview process on what it takes to be a good entrepreneur, seeking out creative thinkers and self-starters who were clearly comfortable with autonomy. If their background showed a variety of roles, and experience working with a limited budget, it was more likely they would be a good fit for the organization.

Using the lessons learned from Sweetspot, I have no doubt I can use intrapreneurship to make Dealuxe.ca a success. Can you do the same with your business?

Joanna Track is the co-founder and CEO of Dealuxe.ca. Launching in May 2011, Dealuxe is set to redefine online retail in Canada by providing women’s fashion, exclusive deals and superior customer service. Prior to this venture, Joanna founded Sweetspot.ca, an online lifestyle magazine, which was acquired by Rogers Publishing Ltd. in 2010.

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