While working as an Executive Vice President at Discovery Communications, one of Gabe Vehovsky’s responsibilities was to look for new business opportunities. Vehovsky’s entrepreneurial background had attuned him to recognize market gaps. In meeting after meeting with investors in online education, the same white space kept appearing.
“The overwhelming majority of investor capital seemed to be fueling the creation of new learning experiences,” says Vehovsky, a lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and the founder and CEO of Curiosity.com. But while money was pouring into content development and production—from formal classroom environments like Coursera to YouTube personalities in makeshift studios—there was less investment in attracting customers to that content.
Vehovsky recommended that Discovery build a platform to organize this universe of educational content—a single destination where interested users might go to learn about almost anything. Initially, Discovery expressed little interest in the idea, suggesting instead that Vehovsky identify companies already doing this. Discovery could then evaluate whether partnering with, investing in, or even acquiring them would make sense.
After a few months searching for—and failing to find—an existing company that matched his vision, Vehovsky pressed forward with prototyping the platform internally. In the process of launching Curiosity.com, he discovered that successful intrapreneurship can bridge what he calls the “cultural chasm” between the leadership in established corporations and the entrepreneurs in their midst. It can also add tremendous value for both the parent company and new entity. But it is not always easy to pull off.
Using Intrapreneurship to Bridge the “Cultural Chasm”
“There’s this cultural chasm between working at a large established corporation and being an entrepreneur,” says Vehovsky. “For many really talented, super productive and prolific entrepreneurs, this is a chasm they don’t want to cross. They’re just not interested. There are career entrepreneurs and there are career corporate people. It’s not often enough that those paths intersect.”
Recognizing that the skills and motivations between corporate leaders and entrepreneurs are distinct is critical to bridging that chasm. Where entrepreneurs may prioritize the development of unique company cultures that facilitate creativity, autonomy, and agility, corporate leaders tend to put their focus on execution, operations, and optimizing their core business functions.
“Discovery and other large companies that are extraordinary operators like to focus on what they’re best at, which makes good sense,” says Vehovsky. “Building a company and operating a company—the skills, people, and culture required for those two discrete functions—are in many ways at odds with one another.”
Finding a way to bring those two cultures together can help both groups thrive.
Building a venture within an existing company offers intrapreneurs a number of important benefits, most fundamentally a better understanding of how a large business functions. Seeing the discipline and rigor required to successfully run a company of Discovery’s size gave Vehovsky a new perspective on how he wanted to develop Curiosity.com. Big companies also attract employees with deep expertise who can provide guidance to help launch new ventures. Being exposed to Discovery’s intense corporate focus on human resources and talent management changed Curiosity.com’s approach to HR, an area that in Vehovsky’s previous startup had remained little more than an afterthought.
"There are career entrepreneurs and there are career corporate people. It’s not often enough that those paths intersect."
At the same time, companies have a lot to gain by appealing to intrapreneurs. “Every company out there aspires to innovate,” Vehovsky says. “That’s a charter for virtually every industry, every company.” The recruitment of creative, entrepreneurial talent is essential to achieving this goal, but many entrepreneurs remain comfortably isolated on one side of the cultural chasm.
Large corporations, he stressed, can do more to recognize and support employees with the “gene” for entrepreneurship or innovation; they can find ways for employees to formulate ideas, pursue them as corporate citizens, and get the support of that corporation to determine how best to bring their ideas to life. By fostering a culture of employee autonomy, even established companies can be agile and nimble.
Getting the Green Light
While entrepreneurs are generally accountable to only a small group, intrapreneurs are not afforded that luxury. They must carry out their work within the large, often complicated, infrastructure of a parent company.
“Successful intrapreneurship requires you to be able to articulate your idea and support it with authority to a variety of people who, in almost all cases, are definitive experts in their respective areas,” from accounting to marketing, says Vehovsky. This means having skills and resources that allow for the development of prototypes and minimally viable products. “You need to be able to translate your idea into something that people can experience. Hopefully, you’re able to elicit an emotional reaction that allows your audience to understand what you’re trying to do.”
In Vehovsky’s case, this meant moving Curiosity.com from a collection of PowerPoint slides to something more tangible. He built a rough prototype of the platform, scraping together tools and resources that allowed him to approximate what he had in mind.
This is where resourcefulness and an entrepreneurial mindset are needed. “In most established corporations, you’re not going to be able to go to the design department and have them donate their time to help,” Vehovsky says. “Everyone is focused on their area of responsibility.” So intrapreneurs should cultivate a wide range of skills, particularly in design and technology, and be aware of the various tools that exist to help with prototyping. It also helps to recruit a core team—however small—with complementary skill sets to execute on the concept.
Once Vehovsky had his prototype developed to a point worth sharing, he presented it at a meeting where Discovery’s CEO was in attendance. People were impressed with the platform.
“That’s where I first heard the question, ‘What do you need to do this?’” says Vehovsky. So while the idea of Curiosity.com was initially met with adamant resistance, the prototype led to the green light. “I got a blessing to bring in a more formal resource allocation.”
Be Transparent about Your Options
A bit of tension is unavoidable with intrapreneurial ventures. The parent company must support a project outside of its core business with no obvious or historically proven return on investment; and the intrapreneur may harbor concerns about final ownership of the idea if successful.
In the case of Curiosity.com, as the pilot proved technically feasible and well suited to its market and as its business prospects became clear, Vehovsky and Discovery faced three basic options: keep Curiosity.com as an internal project, partner with an external organization to make Curiosity.com a joint venture, or have Discovery spin off the new entity to build it as an independent company. This junction, notes Vehovsky, is inevitable as the fruits of intrapreneurship mature.
Explicitly managing expectations up front helped Curiosity.com create consensus around what would happen with the new venture if it were to succeed. This requires clear metrics for measuring success and failure.
“Put in the time necessary to define a clear path for your efforts and specify how your venture gets handled—whether it succeeds or fails,” says Vehovsky. “Identify a few options that allow you to work towards a goal that other stakeholders and decision makers have bought into.”
In Vehovsky’s case, he and Discovery agreed that it would be best for the website to become independent. While remaining internal would have provided a reliable source of funding—and, for Vehovsky, a secure job in an established corporation—spinning off Curiosity.com gave it the opportunity to develop a distinctive culture and brand. It also gave Vehovsky the opportunity to create hiring packages that included equity—a fundamental currency among digital-media entrepreneurs.
That early alignment also meant that Discovery was ready for Curiosity.com’s departure. In fact, it invested in the new company and has representation on the company’s board.
“It can’t feel punitive for either party when a decision is made to spin off a project into a new, stand-alone business’” says Vehovsky. “The win–win piece is critical.”