Intrepreneurship and Employee Retention

Intrepreneurship and Employee Retention

January 21, 2013 2:00 pm 0 comments
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Often we hear a lot about entrepreneurship – the idea of starting a business, building it, and the goal of taking it public or selling it to someone and getting your “exit”. I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit myself, but find myself working for Distilled. I’ve been at Distilled for over a year and a half, which to some people is not a very long time but to me it is the longest I have ever stayed at a job. My past jobs have gone 8 months, one year, one year, 8 months, and now a year and a half. I’m 28 and have found what I want to do.

But I see a lot of people in my industry, search and online marketing, who are very transient in their jobs. In fact, I would say that there is a trend, especially in tech, of hopping between jobs every year or so. In my industry, the path is often inhouse (to get started), agency (to learn a lot and get experience across verticals), and then back inhouse into a lucrative Director of Marketing position or something to that effect. Sometimes people will move agencies, but in my experience more people go back inhouse after working at an agency.

Why is this? Why do people move around so much, and what can we do about it?


Instead of talking about entrepreneurship, I want to focus on the idea of intrapreneurship. That is, being an entrepreneur within a company to discover new revenue streams, new ways of doing things, and the ability to shift and mold your job as needed to keep your work interesting. After all, most people with an entre/intrapreneurial spirit get bored quickly.

The FreeDictionary defines intrapreneurship as:

A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.

Basically, an intrapreneur is someone internally who sees an opportunity for growth and takes ownership. I think that businesses should be making a bigger effort to retain these people instead of saying “Oh well, we were never going to keep them anyway.” We need to realize that these people are indeed going to be more expensive than a more junior person, but their output and vision are worth it. These are the people who are going to make you money.

Top Down Approach

In order for the intrapreneurial approach to work, it has to come from the top down. If the executives in the company are not bought into the idea of employees having some free time to experiment with new ideas, they will never have that freedom within their normal jobs. The best of the best, the very driven, will still work to fulfill their intrapreneurial goals on their own time, sometimes to the detriment of other responsibilities both at work and in their personal lives.

A top-down approach to intrapreneurship allows employees this space in their day to think about other projects than their “day job.” Some examples of companies that have given free time to their employees to pursue new veins of innovation for the company include Google (known for their “ship it” mentality) and 3M (Velcro was created out of this). Other companies have implemented a twist on the 20% time by having quarterly, or more regular, “hack days” where everyone on the team works on new projects. Here’s one take on it.

Distilled ran a hack day in January 2012 when the whole company was in London for our first Distilled-a-thon. One outcome was that Will, Mike P, Geoff K, and myself launched the MVP of DistilledU, which is now making Distilled $15,000+ a month:

We also, however, had people who accomplished tasks like overhauling internal reporting mechanisms, shipping new tools or a database to keep track of our internal tools, and more. Every single one of these pushed the company forward, with blessing from the execs.

Set My People Free

Giving free time is not enough if the company is also not willing to let the employees be free to decide what they want to work on. Not every venture that your employees work on internally will be an external facing project, though employees should be encouraged to think this way.

Often, the greatest effects that intrapreneurship time can have are internally, as people get used to taking ownership of internal problems and solving them themselves as opposed to saying that the problem is someone else’s responsibility. For example, maybe someone notices that your company’s office is not listed on Google Maps, or is not correct. With this free time, they will take the 10 minutes to get the correct listing instead of sending the problem to the marketing team.

Setting people free involves an element of risk, but I also believe it is extremely rewarding. The largest challenge will be trusting them not to abuse your goodwill and being willing to deal with the messiness of people pursuing their dreams within your company.

Sometimes, Letting Them Go Is Necessary

I want to be very clear about what I am saying here (and not saying).

First, I’m not saying that there never comes a time when you need to discipline someone or help them change the way they are behaving. Sometimes even when we try our hardest to hire the best, we still hire people who will take advantage. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Unfortunately this is part of business. At this point you must have a strategy for personal feedback and growth, which is a fuller business initiative.

Second, I am saying that we need to abolish the “Fire the bottom 10% and promote the top 10%”. Sometimes the top 10% are not the best for your culture or as managers, and so there should be other ways to let them move up than just into management. The same with the bottom 10%.

I recently read a book called The Seven Day Weekend, which talks about this exact thing. The book covers a company called SEMCO that has a crazy way of doing business (and has grown revenue exponentially over the past 20 years), but one of the coolest parts of their company is their ability to help people find a job that they love, even if they are underperforming in another area. I for one believe in giving people multiple chances. Firing is a last resort if they’re a good culture fit.

Finally, retention is not necessarily a goal. Sometimes turnover is good. Wisdom comes with knowing when it’s good and when it’s bad. If you’re losing your best people and it’s avoidable, then turnover is bad. But if people are no longer happy because the company is growing or they want a new challenge, then it can be good.

What do you think about intrapreneurship and its challenges or advantages?


I'm the online marketing manager for based in San Francisco. In my free time I'm a Brooklynite, where I am also a rock climber, skier, and avid traveler. I entertain myself with photography and cycling as well. I also founded HireGun, where you can hire an SEO consultant.

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