Discovering the Value of the “Corporate” Entrepreneur
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Entrepreneurship Innovation Feb 1, 2016

Discovering the Value of the “Corporate” Entrepreneur

How one established company benefited from a dogged intrapreneur.

corporate entrepreneurs


Based on insights from

Gabriel Vehovsky

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 Curios​i​ty​.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.

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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 Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.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’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 Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.com as an inter­nal project, part­ner with an exter­nal orga­ni­za­tion to make Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.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 Curios​i​ty​.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’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.”

Featured Faculty

Gabriel Vehovsky

Adjunct Lecturer of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer focusing on criminal justice and science. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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