Can You Be Entreprenurial in the Corporate World?

When people ask this question, I think they are really asking three questions:

  1. Can you be happy in a career in the corporate world? Yes.
  2. Can you innovate in a career in the corporate world? Yes.
  3. Can you be an entrepreneur if you’re working for someone else? No.

I’ll explain my answers in a second. This question popped into my head while I was reading a post on Employee Evolution last night. If you don’t follow the blog, the founders (coincidentally both named Ryan) recently decided to leave their jobs and move to Wisconsin to become partners in an angel-backed company. The common reactions they are getting from people almost exactly mimic the ones I received when I left my job two years ago.

But one commenter named “dibyadeep” caught my attention and got me thinking:

Ok..maybe I am the odd one out….but I just dont understand why people are hyping about entrepreneurship so much…I feel the same thing that you are hoping to achieve by going out all alone in an entrepreneual firm can be achieved in any of the big firms too. Both however require you to think out of the box. A corporate job can be just as exciting and enticing, as an entreprenual job, without so much of personal risk at stake. A corporate firm will no doubt be full of beauracracy and red tape, which will prevent you from functioning independently, however that is specifically where thinking out of the box comes into play. You have to find out how to manipulate the elements to your favour, and not let them disable your dreams and ambitions.

Which is what led me to ask the question: can you be entreprenurial in the corporate world?

Can you be happy in a career in the corporate world?
Of course you can. Who am I or anyone else to say what does and does not make you happy. Happiness might be working on challenging projects. It might be working with people you care about. It might be getting out of work at 3 PM every day so you can pick your kid up from school and spend time with them. Defining happiness at your job is not something that can be painted with a broad stroke.

Can you innovate in a career in the corporate world?
Hell yes. Think Apple’s engineers have their fix of innovation? Back in my engineering days, we employed two engineers whose job it was to travel around the country and partner with innovative college programs that were developing technologies that could be used in our future products. They then developed prototypes of future products using these technologies and presented the prototypes to the company. I can’t imagine a more innovative career.

Can you be an entrepreneur if you’re working for someone else?
Absolutely without a doubt NO. The definition of an entrepreneur (from Dictionary.com) is:

en·tre·pre·neur – a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.

Without being the one who assumes the risk of the business, you just can’t be an entrepreneur.  Entrepreneurs are exposed to the high of all highs and low of all lows.  They have no safety net, but they also have no ceiling.  You could go broke or you could change the world.  That’s why many people want to start their own business and talk about starting their own business, but never actually do.

At one point about six months after I left my job I was still living off my dwindling savings.  I remember saying to myself “If I don’t turn things around quickly I’ll be bankrupt in three months.”  Working under that kind of pressure is something most people will never experience.  Thankfully things did turn around and Pure Adapt is in great shape.  But I was willing to take the risk, and there was a chance that it wouldn’t have turned around.  That first year after I left my job gave me more strength and character than any corporate job ever could have.

Should everyone be an entrepreneur?  Hell no, we’d live in one messed up society if no one wanted to work for other people.  But unless you’ve assumed the risk of running a business you are not entrepreneurial – it just can’t be accurately simulated in a corporate environment.

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