Partner With Entrepreneurs Inside and Out

Should innovation come from within the company or from without? The answer is both.

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Every company today faces the same challenge: how to innovate in the face of disruption. Many companies turn to external partners for innovation efforts, such as accelerators and innovation labs, while another approach is to promote internal entrepreneurship, also known as intrapreneurship. One has a manager-with-entrepreneur focus, the other a manager-as-entrepreneur emphasis. But which is more effective?

While it’s important for companies to prioritize these approaches to best suit their resources, one misstep organizations take is treating intrapreneurship programs and external partnerships as purely an either/or choice.

The problem is more common than you’d think. A manager from the intrapreneurship team of a large global company once asked me to recommend an accelerator he could talk to, completely ignorant of the fact that the startup partnering division of his own company was already working closely with one. This siloed approach to external startup engagement and intrapreneurship illustrates the dangers of treating innovation options as mutually exclusive.

To avoid losing innovation opportunities, managers should follow three approaches for effectively deploying people, resources, and capabilities.

Empower intrapreneurs to drive startup engagement. Over the past decade, I’ve conducted more than 200 interviews with multinational executives, startup entrepreneurs, accelerator managers, government officials, and industry experts from around the world about their expanding entrepreneurial efforts. Many of the internal leaders I’ve met who have entrepreneurial bents serve as the catalyst for partnering with startups. One example is former Microsoft corporate vice president Dan’l Lewin, a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur who joined Microsoft in 2001 and launched two pioneering programs, BizSpark and BizSpark One, which established Microsoft’s venture capital and startup community engagement efforts across six continents in over 150 locations.

Lewin started by introducing the BizSpark breadth program for startups working on the Microsoft stack and built on that success with the BizSpark One depth program, which identified the 100 most innovative startups from among Microsoft’s thousands of BizSpark member startups. Each member of the select BizSpark One group received business mentoring as well as technical and marketing support from a designated portfolio manager. This program allowed Microsoft to collaborate closely with highly innovative partners — including StorSimple, a Silicon Valley startup offering cloud-integrated storage solutions, which Microsoft went on to acquire, and

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