James Caan on intrapreneurship

The explosion of entrepreneurship across the UK has been phenomenal and it seems everyone wants to become their own boss and start a business. Entrepreneurship has spread like a contagion and there are more and more people thinking of new, innovative and creative ideas they hope will shake up the market and make them successful.

Entrepreneurs develop in lots of different environments and more recently, I’ve seen this a lot in the workplace. So, should business owners be encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour from their staff? Many people (including me) think absolutely yes we should be giving our people the space to be creative, take initiative and think of new ways to solve tasks. This is what we call intrapreneurship – employees displaying entrepreneurial characteristics to improve business culture and strategy.

A relatively new concept, the aspect of the intrapreneur has gained a lot of traction in the last few years and one by one, businesses are beginning to realise the benefits that come from taking advantage of innovative thinking. The rise of the intrapreneur presents us with the question; is entrepreneurship really contagious?

An ‘entrepreneur’ – according to the Oxford dictionary – is ‘someone who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit’. More than this, people I’ve asked define an entrepreneur as someone who is ambitious, passionate and business-minded; a risk-taker who has enough courage to follow their dreams and start something without the added privilege of certainty. When you’re in close proximity with these kinds of people, it’s hard not to be inspired. Whenever I meet a really engaging, passionate entrepreneur – whether during my time on Dragons Den or as former chairman of Start Up Loans – I come out of the meeting with a desire to start up all over again. A desire to take something, make it better and start my entrepreneurial journey from scratch.

I think we all like the idea of being our own boss and when you realise that you can do it and it is an attainable concept, the idea can be very tempting. Not everybody is a risk-taker but when you see entrepreneurs who started with nothing building great businesses and doing well, you start running out of reasons why you couldn’t do the same thing.

As business owners, it is imperative that we support and motivate staff at all times. Its people who breathe life into business and without them, your business will not scale successfully. Throughout my 30 years in business I’ve found that encouraging an innovative approach when resolving issues or thinking strategically has always triggered the best results for me because the resolution tends to be outside the box and imaginative, something people wouldn’t expect to see.

Intrapreneurs, just like entrepreneurs, thrive off independence and freedom to ponder new ideas. Granting your people autonomy of their role not only increases productivity, it maintains motivation, lowers retention rates and improves company culture.

Many business owners worry that encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour is damaging because it means one day, they will have a great idea and leave. The reality is, people are more likely to leave if they feel like there’s no potential for career development and they’re stifled. Supporting creative thinking and allowing staff to bring forward and capitalize on new ideas can be hugely beneficial for business – take Google for example, who do you think came up with different divisions such as Google Ads and Google News? This is a perfect example of intrapreneurial product innovation. Smart businesses will advocate intrapreneurship because they know it fuels business growth and gives them a competitive advantage in their industry. People starting out in the business world rarely forget those who supported them from the offset. And if you’re backing your own staff in this way you can be part of their future plans. Who knows, you could be nurturing the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Whenever a member of my team has pitched me an idea I have always taken a keen interest because I have witnessed first-hand the potential success that could follow. When I was building my first recruitment business, Alexander Mann, a member of my team consistently pitched me to let her start a new, separate division of the business. At the time, Rosaleen Blair didn’t have much experience in the industry and any other businessman probably wouldn’t have taken the risk and backed her. Because I’m a sucker for a good pitch, I did just that. Rosaleen was passionate and determined to make it work and so I gave her 6 months to prove me wrong. Sure enough, 6 months later Alexander Mann Solutions was growing at an incredible rate and is now worth millions. It took one idea and one passionate intrapreneur to make that happen.

More recently I backed Amy Golding, an employee of mine who suggested we branch out and begin backing start-up recruitment businesses. Amy had the vision and dedication to turn her idea into Recruitment Entrepreneur, a recruitment start-up propeller that has already backed 10 businesses within two years. Looking back, I knew she would make it work and turn the business into a successful incubator. If I hadn’t backed her, I’m sure someone else would have.

Think about it, should you really be sitting back and letting these sorts of people slip through your fingers or should you be encouraging them like I did and then have the pleasure of watching them grow and develop into successful entrepreneurs? I think you’ll agree the latter sounds much more rewarding.

At the end of the day, if you suppress the creativity of people, they will leave and find someone or somewhere who is willing to support them. The bug will spread – 2015 is the year of the entrepreneur, don’t get left behind.


About James Caan

James Caan CBE is one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs. He made his fortune through the global success of his Recruitment companies, Alexander Mann and Humana International, before founding private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw in 2004. He is best known for joining the panel of the hit BBC show Dragons’ Den, and more recently, The Business Class on CNBC. A passionate supporter of small businesses, James chairs the Government’s Start Up Loans scheme, which provides funding and mentoring to budding entrepreneurs.