It is a common business practice for corporations to hire consultants to help solve some of their most pressing business issues.  Naturally, consultants have varying levels of expertise and typically issue large invoices for services rendered. Inevitably, some corporations end up paying for validation of what they already believed to be true, a tool that they could have potentially developed internally, or strategic advice without an execution plan, that they are left to implement with varying degrees of success.  The mid-to long term ROI  for these services is rarely ever re-evaluated for its true contribution to the business, and yet it remains acceptable in the corporate environment to continue to enlist these services time and time again. 

Clearly there are, however, strong consultants in every field that deliver value and build lasting partnerships with corporations. Yet, there is another source of unique added value that can be obtained through the skill sets of entrepreneurs who are already laser focused on delivering value for their own specific businesses, day in and day out.  Entrepreneurs are consistently developing strategy while in the midst of executing it, and determining priorities while focusing on specific outcomes in the face of a variety of opportunities. These entrepreneurs understand the pressure to deliver a return for all efforts they put forth, and have accountability to manifesting outcomes for all dollars invested in an initiative.  So why is it that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs aren’t partnering on solutions more often?

Cultural bias can be part of the issue.  A recent leadership article in Fast Company by Michael Goldstein, ‘When Startups Pair Up With Big Corporations, Everyone Wins- If You Make the Right Match,” describes some of these dynamics:

Like different generations, the two sides misunderstand each other. Corporations are seen as old, bureaucratic, and risk-averse. Startups are disruptive, irresponsible, and inexperienced. Neither usually sees the good in the other.

Typically when we speak about the relationship between startups and corporations, the focus is on investment potential, acquisition strategies and alignment between the corporations industry vertical and the focus of the startup business.  But what about the value of collaboration when technology/business acquisition is not a potential end goal?  When the pressure of valuations and sources of funding does not play a role in establishing the foundation of the relationship between big corporate and startup entrepreneurs?  What about when there is an equal appreciation for entrepreneurial skills and the application of those skills, resulting in measurable outcomes?  When entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs find common ground and mutual benefit from each other’s experiences, guidance, and insights…what value can be obtained then?

In a recent op/ed on Forbes.com, US Medical Device Industry in Critical Condition,  Henry I. Miller states: “We need to create a more nurturing entrepreneurial climate, one in which ingenuity and innovation are rewarded, not penalized.”

I doubt there are many people that would disagree with that statement, but how exactly are we creating and promoting an environment to do just that? Where is this entrepreneurial collaboration happening?

When entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs work together, the results can be fruitful and cost effective.  Rather than employ consultants on typical fee for service contracts, in-kind investment can be another form ‘payment’ agreement between these two parties, if there is mutual benefit to be realized from the collaboration itself.  What may have once been an informal friendship of sorts, sharing stories of the day’s trials and tribulations while seeking a trusted ear for advice over coffee or after work drinks, can now be formalized into cooperative efforts to tackle those very same challenges and learn from each other’s business practices along the way.

Recently I had an opportunity to embrace this form of collaboration.  As an intrapreneur within an MNE (Multi-National Enterprise), I had identified an operations gap that was impairing our ability to deliver service in one of our largest and fastest growing markets in Latin America.  Informally, I had been sharing my weekly work related challenges with a trusted friend and entrepreneur, who specialized in logistics and operations.  Having only recently relocated to the Netherlands from North America, I sought his advice on some of the challenges I was facing as a commercially focused intrapreneur, sorting out some of the operations challenges of a fairly newly integrated business in our family of operating companies. 

After a visit to Brazil, I realized that we needed a fresh set of eyes on our current operations processes, and those eyes needed strong expertise with focus on short term execution of pilots to begin the improvement process, something that entrepreneurs do every day.  With the support of a few fellow intrapreneurs in our global leadership team, we created an opportunity for this Dutch entrepreneur friend of mine to visit our operations in Brazil, and provide us with some pointed and execution ready suggestions for improving our service levels.  The result was a two week dedicated and focused partnership, full of stakeholder meetings, strategic discussions and resulting in a concise and consolidated plan of action for immediate implementation.  We formalized an informal relationship, and we used in-kind investment, as well as travel costs reimbursement, to fund the development of each other’s skills and experiences, and to support a low cost, high quality, and high value collaboration.

From the perspective of the corporation, we were able to take immediate action, and initiate 3 pilot programs to measure the potential gains of each change initiative. The resulting PowerPoint deck, including analysis, references and recommendations, was clear, pointed and ready for application- a nice change from the usual reference decks that end up in the black hole of someone’s hard drive.

Patricia Holland, Regional Business Unit Director for Latin America, describes the value of the collaboration:

“Our challenge is one that is common to many other small, international businesses inside large corporations…it relates to operating in a cost reduction environment while not having enough skilled internal resources to focus on pertinent growth market business demands. We hosted Friso from HubHub in Brazil for an intensive 2 weeks of meetings scheduled with customers, our warehouse and our distributors, in order for him to absorb all content needed for his analysis. Friso immediately complemented the team with an organized and structured approach to assessing our operations. He assisted with further identifying gaps and proposing logistic solutions that we otherwise would not have had the expertise or bandwidth to complete on our own at that time. We involved our full commercial and operations teams in our meetings with Friso, so that they could understand and embrace his approach and now lead the efforts of our implementation phase. It was a unique collaboration and valuable experience for our employees, and for our business, to have had this consultancy with an external entrepreneur, who specialized in our area of needed focus, and who could bring a practical mindset to the implementation proposal.”

From the entrepreneur’s perspective, Friso Feilzer, Managing Director for HubHub, describes the value of his experience as follows:

“Spending two weeks helping out an MNE gave me a unique opportunity to learn from doing business in a totally different environment. Starting and quickly expanding my own enterprise had left me little time for personal development and gathering experience that I would need further down the road to support the growth of my own operation. For me, this partnership was a very welcome mini MBA.”

Corporations are quick to hire consultants to help solve some of their most challenging business concerns.  In a time of cost containment, and the need for expedited results, opportunities exist with  partnerships between the kindred spirits of intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs.  Organizations both large and small have a lot to gain from stepping out of their daily work environments and looking at their business challenges, or the related business issues of others, with renewed perspective.  Whether you are an intrapreneur or an entrepreneur, you can begin to create these opportunities for collaboration now by taking a few small steps, consistently:

  1. State your willingness- Day- to-day business obligations can make it seem like there is simply no time for helping to sort out anyone else’s business challenges.  Be practical about the right timing and your ability to handle additional tasks, but start creating room for informal business discussions around shared topics of passion.  Then state your willingness to help when appropriate.
  2. Be specific- There are all sorts of challenges we face every day, and there are many resources out there willing to help you solve them.  Since formalizing these types of collaborations is likely  new for both parties, be very specific about the challenge you are trying to solve, and the skill sets you are leveraging from your collaborator in order to do so.  The more pointed and specific the issue and the leveraged expertise, the greater the likelihood for successful outcomes.  Start to cultivate an environment that manifests the benefits of these entrepreneurial partnerships in a tangible fashion, with some urgency around the time to realization of the outcomes.
  3. Promote the outcomes- For most consultant engagements, once the consultants leave, teams of employees forget about the money spent and outcomes expected.  Do the opposite.  Promote the value of entrepreneur and intrapreneur collaboration, by setting aside time to share the outcomes with leadership, and employees of your respective organizations.  ‘Why did the leader of our startup run off and ‘go corporate’ for the last two weeks?’  ‘Who was that entrepreneur floating around the building assessing our processes?’  Don’t leave these questions circulating around the rumor mill.  Share these experiences and more importantly the tangible outcomes, so others are encouraged to look for similar opportunities.

In a time where almost every industry is touting the importance of value for money, one of the best sources of value that can be captured is shared expertise.  Rather than focusing on the inherit organizational differences between MNEs and startups of varying phases of maturity, why not focus on the similarities in the desire to solve pressing business issues, and look to leverage the best of each other’s skill sets and resources in order to deliver solid results?  The positive experience and outcomes of these collaborations open up further opportunities for corporations and entrepreneurs alike, to foster the willingness for these partnerships.  Both the intrapreneur and the entrepreneur represented in this article, hope that this serves as example for others that they can promote within their organizations, resulting in future value focused outcomes driven by entrepreneurial spirit.

About the author

Sarah Fisher currently lives in Amsterdam, NL, and works as Director, Global Market Development in the Medical Device & Diagnostics sector of Johnson & Johnson.  She has 11 years of experience in the healthcare industry, primarily focused on new technology and business introductions in domestic and international markets.  In 2010, she was the recipient of the honor of the Corporate Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, by Corporate Entrepreneurs, LLC.   She completed her MBA in Entrepreneurship from Babson College in Wellesley, MA in 2009, and her post-graduate degree in Global Business from Oxford University, Oxford , UK in 2012.

Sarah Fisher – LinkedIn profile: nl.linkedin.com/in/sfisher711/

Article Resources

Friso Feilzer, Hub-Hub: www.hubhub.nl

http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2013/07/24/u-s-medical-device-industry-in-critical-condition/?goback=%2Egde_84843_member_261585993#%21

http://www.fastcompany.com/3008546/when-startups-pair-big-corporations-everyone-wins-if-you-make-right-match

 

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