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04 Dec. 2014 | Comments (0)

Recent research confirms that entrepreneurs inside large, established organizations (which we’ll abbreviate to EIs) largely follow the same act-learn-build logic as new venture entrepreneurs, but with some significant differences. One of the biggest difficulties reported by EIs is that they have few colleagues (and sometimes no one) to talk to, explore ideas with, or gain emotional support from.

A new venture entrepreneur housed in Silicon Valley, for example, can walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto, accost and invite a virtual stranger for a latté in a nearby Starbucks, and spend an hour with a like-minded person in deep, productive, generative conversation. But EIs report feeling quite lonely. Even though they’re surrounded by people at work, they generally don’t have brainstorming partners or even like-minded individuals inside their organization, and tell us that for support they typically rely on popular books and conferences. These can certainly be helpful but are wholly incomplete—and terrible as a substitute for human relationships.

EIs can feel less lonely by forming support groups; finding partners; and enrolling more of their colleagues in their venture.

An EI support group will be likely be different from the colleagues who are specifically interested in your idea, although there may be some overlap. This sort of tribe, instead, consists of people who share an interest in entrepreneurial action within existing large organizations. An important aspect of this group is that its members care about you, as well. Such groups already exist in many metropolitan areas now (search online for “entrepreneur social networks” and your city, for example). Sometimes you can also find them in your organization — often, our in-house educational activities bring EIs together who then stay connected after a session together.  While face-to-face meetings are likely best, you can find and join one or more online groups as well.  If you’re an EI and you can’t find a tribe to join, extend real effort and time to form your own. The bottom line is that you should find a way. You need the support of people who “get” you.

In addition to a tribe it also helps to have a partner in advancing an inside venture. In a recent study of over 50 start-up ventures, more than 80 percent started with someone finding a partner before generating an idea. Just like in life, some of us make it through fine alone, but most of us search for a partner. We would speculate that your “inside” venture isn’t that different. It’s likely to be tough, and it’s simply easier when you have a committed partner— someone who complements your skills, to whom you can make commitments and who will hold you accountable, who can help you sort through your thinking, bring fresh ideas to the table, and more.

As you bring more people on board with your venture, you should also be continually engaged in two distinct but complementary modes of interaction with your peers and colleagues, whether they are part of your tribe or not: Selling and Enrollment. It’s easy to get these two confused (take a look at our previous blog How to Create Raving Fans). When you are selling, you are persuading; for example, convincing someone to buy or to do something. When something is sold, it is essentially a tangible transaction—an exchange of real things like resources or influence. Often incentives are involved, and there is generally some sort of quid pro quo.

By contrast, enrollment is a process of sharing and inspiring, with the aim of having the person “place their own name on the role.” It is an emotional and intangible transaction. Enrollment is based on fundamental conversations during which people are touched and excited. There are no deals to be made, and any incentives or payments will corrupt the process. You, personally, are vital for enrollment; this is less true for selling. People enroll in you as much, if not more than, your idea. Your vision, enthusiasm, and integrity are key.

Your success requires both sales and enrollment. You certainly can sell your idea on its economic merits alone, if you have them. But often at the conception of an idea, you don’t. So sell when you can, and enroll all the time. It is the combination of the two that will garner you the committed stakeholders and dedicated supporters you need.

Everyone has a potential part to play in your venture. It’s simply a matter of discovering, together, how they fit into your equation. You might find yourself getting calls from people who heard about your venture from someone else who heard about it from someone else; such propagation can be serendipitously beneficial. And it’s a lot more fun than going it alone.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 8/12/2014.

View our complete listing of Leadership Development and Career Development blogs.

  • About the Author:Leonard A. Schlesinger

    Leonard A.  Schlesinger

    Leonard A. Schlesinger is the president of Babson College, and coauthor of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future.…

    Full Bio | More from Leonard A. Schlesinger

  • About the Author:Charles F. Kiefer

    Charles F.  Kiefer

    Charles F. Kiefer is president of Innovation Associates, and coauthor of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future .…

    Full Bio | More from Charles F. Kiefer


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