How to get your employees to think more like entrepreneurs

When employees start thinking like owners, it can transform a business. Here’s how to create a workplace where ‘intrapreneurs’ flourish

PROFIT 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Employees on branches of a tree

(Illustration by Sam Island)

Sometimes the best business opportunities are right under your nose. Johann Tergesen, for example, credits the fast growth and continued success of his Vancouver-based digital gift card company, Buyatab Online, to the employees who work for him. He’s also acutely aware of the CEOs who raise their eyebrows and shake their heads at his corporate leadership style. “They think we’re crazy,” he says.

From a distance, it certainly might appear that way. Many of the staff at Buyatab work from home, sometimes as often as three days a week. When they do come to the office, they bring their pets, make their own hours, and often move from the job they were hired to do to an entirely different position—sometimes to support initiatives they’re pursuing themselves. Upon closer inspection, though, these so-called freedoms are in fact deeply researched strategies meant to attract and inspire “intrapreneurship” and innovation among the company’s 51 employees. And they’re paying off. Buyatab Online, which ranks No. 2 on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies, has seen sales increase 18,662% in five years.

Intrapreneurs are employees who behave like entrepreneurs, solving business problems and transforming creative ideas into profitable ventures while operating within the constructs of an organization. While some CEOs might smirk at the idea, Tergesen is in good company. 3M famously funds its employees to create their own projects (how do you think post-it notes were invented?); Google’s employees spend up to 20% of their time pursuing projects of their choice; multi-nationals like Xerox, Virgin, Siemens and Microsoft have skills programs, R&D departments and innovation incubators to promote corporate entrepreneurship from within; and let’s not forget Apple, the company that popularized this approach in the first place.

In a world where innovation cycles move lightning fast, you’d better believe the companies outfitted with a small army of intrapreneurs are forging well ahead of their competitors. “Before the internet and globalization, you could drive a business on a few successful market launches,” says Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works, a Toronto- and NYC-based business consulting firm and co-author of two books on innovation—The 90% Rule and Cause a Disturbance. “But you can’t create the number of ideas necessary to succeed on your own anymore.”

And then there’s the issue of employee loyalty. Nearly 50% of Millennials will leave their employer within two years, according to a recent Deloitte survey. The same survey, however, found a silver lining: companies that create environments where intrapreneurs thrive—rife with growth opportunities, flexible hours, purpose and profit—are more likely to hold on to their hires. And many of Canada’s top entrepreneurs are on board. Here are the dos and don’ts of building a company bursting with entrepreneurial spirit, as told by them.

Seek entrepreneurial traits

James Boettcher, CEO of Calgary-based gelato manufacturer Fiasco Gelato (2017 PROFIT 500: No. 101), requires every single job applicant at his firm—from part-time delivery person to senior management—to go through a five-stage interview process designed to spot entrepreneurial employees.

It starts with the job ad, which is meant to attract entrepreneurial-minded candidates with questions such as, “What is your favourite company and why?” and “What makes you weird?” Those who make it to the final stage meet with Boettcher himself. “By the time we sit down, I’m seeking genuine connection, a level of humility and core human behaviour that often gets overlooked in traditional hiring processes,” he says. One question he relies on to identify entrepreneurial traits is: “What are you terrible at?” It’s a reframed version of the old “What is your weakness” question, but it steers candidates away from trite responses and opens the door for more dynamic conversations, says Boettcher—ones that help him distinguish the real problem-solvers and self-starters from the rest. As an added bonus, it provides context that helps chosen candidates succeed in their new roles.

Boettcher admits Fiasco Gelato has sometimes gone through stacks of applicants without finding the right fit. But given the success the once-small gelateria is experiencing—it has grown 716% in five years, and now distributes to national grocery chains, including Whole Foods, Sobeys and Safeway—it’s a process he’s willing to endure.

Don’t micromanage

Just like entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs need trust and independence to grow, experiment and innovate—and that’s got to come from the top down.

For Tergesen, fostering this type of autonomy meant loosening reins on the idea of a traditional nine-to-five workplace. His employees, many of whom are software developers, simply perform better when they do their work from home. They use Slack, a digital collaboration and chat platform, to connect on projects in real time, regardless of location. “It may sound impossible to believe,” he says, “but we can see the work product—we can see the output. It’s actually much more efficient.”

Boettcher takes a similar approach. “We have over 40 full-time employees and they get to choose their own schedule,” he says. Although Fiasco Gelato has regular meetings, huddles and lunches with the intent of igniting collective creativity and innovation, Boettcher doesn’t watch when his employees come and go, and has never denied a vacation request: “You don’t track the time people spend thinking about how the business is going to get to the next level, so, why would I track their time off?” he asks. All his employees have key performance indicators (KPIs) they are required to meet, but it’s up to the employees how (and when) they want to meet them. “I don’t care how the job is done, I just care that it gets done,” adds Boettcher. “I’m looking for results.”

Give people reason to care

Since it’s the CEO who typically has real skin in the game, it makes sense that he would work harder, longer and more passionately than anybody else. How can you possibly foster that same drive in staff?

Ross Andrew Paquette, chairman and CEO of Maropost (No. 3) thinks he’s got the answer. Instead of dumping cash into massive base paycheques and competitive perks (think nap pods and catered lunches), the Toronto sales and marketing software developer encourages his employees to carve out their own wealth. “When you hand over perks from the beginning, it cultivates the wrong culture,” he says. Instead, “When our employees get something, they’ve earned it. And we can scale up from there.”

From the first interview, it is communicated to employees that they have control over their own financial trajectory. Even Maropost’s onboarding process is self-directed. Employees are given resources and courses to be completed over several weeks. “We expect everyone to independently research areas that interest them as they take direction and control of their role,” says Paquette. “It’s encouraged to come out of training with questions. It’s even better to come out with strategy.”

Make it safe to take risks

In order to build a hub buzzing with innovation, you’ve got to create an environment where your employees feel safe taking risks. PROFIT 500 CEOs do just that by offering their employees space and time for creativity, collaboration and mentorship, as well as the resources they need to succeed.

“Everyone here gets to experiment,” says Boettcher, whose ever-expanding menu of gelato flavours is designed by his staff during regular collaboration sessions. “Regardless of their position, they get to play a role in the future of the brand.”

Boettcher also stresses the importance of recognizing and valuing employees when they work for you or, eventually, for themselves (as those entrepreneurial-types sometimes do). And he suggests that even that could have lucrative perks: “It is very well known in our organization that if anyone stepped out to start their own company, I’d be their first investor and advisor.”