So You Want to Be an Intrapreneur: Sean Conlon Reflects on In-House Innovation

Sean Conlon traces his entrepreneurial streak all the way back to high school. As a teenager, he started a company to help high school yearbook staffs process payments, and he’s been building businesses ever since. His string of successes includes founding PetBox, a subscription service for dog and cat owners, as well as growing both B2B and B2C companies.

Sean has largely flown under the radar in his career but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with such diverse success in technology and innovation. From starting and exiting his own companies to transforming a multi-million dollar company, Sean truly knows what it means to be a serial entrepreneur. His career path has allowed him to apply lessons learned from building startups in order to help large enterprises innovate from the inside.

Five tips for other innovators working in-house:

1. Learn before you lead

As an in-house innovator, you face different challenges than traditional entrepreneurs. One of the biggest: you’re not starting with a clean slate. Your company has existing structures—political, logistical, cultural, and otherwise. These can be deeply ingrained and, at times, powerfully enforced.

If you aren’t aware of them, Sean says you’re likely to get blindsided. Employees and leaders who feel threatened by change may work against you to protect the status quo, even if this hurts the company in the long-term. “You’ve always got to know context,” Sean explains. “You have to know the environment and the world that you’re living in.”

He cautions that innovators shouldn’t expect to go into a new company and start making changes on day one. Instead, they should enter as students, learning how the company operates, who its key players are, and what matters most to different parties. “If you don’t do that—and you don’t take the time to do it—you’re going to come across as arrogant or not really listening to your people,” he says. “You’re more of a dictator rather than being more communal.”

Listening in the early phases is key to success. Recalling one intrapreneur role, Sean says, “I spent my first three weeks on the road meeting with reps, just getting to know them a little bit better…I was just asking questions left and right. I brought a notebook, and I was filling it out like crazy.”

Sean realized quickly he’d need buy-in from these representatives. Many of them had been with the company for more than twenty years, and they were understandably wary of shakeups. By getting to know them, Sean helped lay the groundwork for innovation and prove that change would benefit everyone.

The Takeaway: Listen, listen, listen. If you act as if you already know everything, you’ll miss out on important information and give others the impression that you’re not a team player.

2. Don’t focus on the corporate ladder—or your paycheck

Learning the intricacies of a company’s culture is important, but Sean warns innovators not to get too caught up in corporate climbing. “Your objective is not to get a raise, not to get the next promotion,” he says. “Your objective is to innovate in whatever you’re trying to do.”

Innovation requires a different mindset, one that’s not focused on personal advancement or afraid to take risks. In some ways, this mindset can be harder to maintain in a corporate setting, where there’s not the same feeling of urgency as in a startup.

“The environments are totally different,” says Sean. “If you have a couple of million bucks in the bank for [a startup], you have some cushion, but it runs out eventually.” This scarcity can drive rapid innovation. On the other hand, in a corporate environment, he says, “You’ve always got a paycheck. I think your only fear is getting fired.”

If you’re not careful, a steady paycheck can breed complacency. That’s why Sean says innovators can’t worship the bottom line. “You don’t chase that, and you don’t focus on it,” he says. He adds that disruptors like Facebook and Uber have succeeded because they prioritize progress over short-term ROI: “It wasn’t for the love of money,” he says of them. “They weren’t like, ‘Hey. I’m gonna go out and make a billion bucks.’”

The Takeaway: Self-interest is the enemy of progress. Ask not what your company can do for you, but what you can do for your company.

3. Be a problem-finder

Instead of eyeing the next rung on the corporate ladder, Sean says innovators should always be on the lookout for problems to solve. This is where the initial stage of getting to know a company’s employees will come in handy.

For example, as he talked with one company’s employees about the challenges they faced, Sean learned that their employer was still relying on direct mail and blanket emails. “It was screaming of opportunity for digital marketing,” he says. As he delved further into things, Sean realized none of their competitors were leveraging digital marketing either.

Sean helped the company make the industry’s first foray into digital marketing, and the resulting sales boost was huge. “Nobody had been digitally marketed to within our customer base,” he remembers. “Naturally, there’s going to be a pressure valve that gets released when you do something like that. Our return on ad spend was just ridiculous.”

Coming across opportunities like this isn’t a matter of luck, according to Sean. Every conversation is a chance to learn more about the issues a company and its industry are facing. “A lot of people always tell me I have a magnet for opportunity, but it’s not really being a magnet,” he says. “It’s just listening to people and listening to the market.”

“I can pick up a conversation in any industry and figure out where the issues are,” he goes on. “Listen to whoever is talking. Identify where the opportunities are. And then come up with a plan to attack them.”

The Takeaway: Every problem is an opportunity for innovation. If you keep your eyes peeled and your ears open, you’ll find the problems that need to be solved and the innovations needed to solve them.

4. Get stuff done, even if that means getting scrappy

Whereas startups can pivot quickly, corporations are often slow to change. The larger and older they are, the slower they tend to move. This can be frustrating if you’re used to nimble operations where decisions don’t require layers of approval. In contrast, a corporate employer might require you to present a business case or convince a board of ROI before implementing your plan.

As Sean points out, proving ROI is a tricky proposition in and of itself. You can’t always demonstrate value ahead of time. “Innovation is not proven,” he explains. “You can prove it along the way, but you can’t sit there, day one, and say, ‘Hey. We’re going to innovate, and here’s what this is going to look like.’”

He believes in-house innovators have to strike a balance between realism and resolve. Yes, there are limitations—financial, cultural, technological, and structural—in a corporate setting. But in almost any context, you can find creative ways to work with your available resources.

Sean had to do just that when helping one organization evolve its digital strategy. “Our technology was the challenge,” he remembers. “We were limited with what we had to use.” He didn’t want to wait for a long approval process and miss the opportunity to make changes before the next peak sales season.

So he took the leap at his own expense, putting the charges on his personal credit card instead of waiting for funding. “I was very confident,” he says. “I knew what I could deliver. So we did that, and it worked.”

The Takeaway: Don’t get frustrated by what you can’t do. Instead, do what you can with what you have, and get creative with your resources.

5. Let small successes lead to bigger ones

Of course, not every problem is one you can solve by putting the charge on your personal credit card. “I’m not saying you can do a $10 million project going rogue. This was a small test,” says Sean. “You have to know where you can go rogue and where you can’t, because there is a line.”

He cautions that the upfront work of listening to key stakeholders is essential before you make a move. You need buy-in not only from leadership but also from any internal parties your actions will affect. “I tested the waters with the sales reps. I made sure I had their buy-in,” Sean says. “I tested the waters with the president of our company.”

And his leap paid off in a big way. His $22,000 investment resulted in an $800,000 revenue increase. He says this enabled even more innovation: “From that point, we got buy-in and started showing momentum. … That paved the way to actually create a business case and say, ‘Hey. We need a $2-million e-commerce platform to do this on steroids.’”

This is the good news for in-house innovators. Corporations might be more risk-averse and less nimble than startups. But the longer you’re with a company, the more you can build your track record. And that track record allows you to go out on a limb and ask for more resources. “You’ve got to walk before you can run,” says Sean. “Demonstrated ability to execute trumps revenue growth.”

The Takeaway: Gaining others’ confidence doesn’t happen overnight, but executing smart ideas eventually builds credibility. In time, you’ll find yourself entrusted with more and more autonomy.

Translating Entrepreneurial Skills Into In-House Innovation

Sean’s been on both sides of innovation—both as an entrepreneur starting from scratch and as an in-house innovator working within an established framework. He says the two roles share a lot in common, but each requires a different skillset, a different tolerance for risk, and a different kind of patience.

Established companies may seem to move more slowly at times, but often, they’re fertile ground for disrupting industries and processes that have never been innovated before. By entering with a teachable attitude, practicing patience, and working to build consensus, innovators can bring an entrepreneurial mindset to a new context. And in doing so, they can lead entire industries forward.