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A Case Study in Intrapreneurship

Most people consider having a job and being an entrepreneur to be two separate and mutually exclusive things. Once upon a time, though, I discovered that to be false – it seems in fact that you can be an entrepreneur at your job. Here’s a glimpse into my professional foray into the world of Intrapreneurship.

Background

A long time ago in the textbook publishing world, back before iPods and the Mac were even a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eyes, publishers produced textbooks in a variety of subjects. They got professors to use them by offering helpful supplements like printed Test Banks and Instructor’s Manuals, and the professors told the students to buy them. Thus, it was in the publishers’ best interest to offer the best and most useful supplements possible.

Business Opportunity

One day, one of the publishers got the big idea to take those Test Banks and jam it into a computer program for the most popular computer of the day, the IBM PC. (Wimpier than a pocket calculator by today’s standards, the PC was the Rolls Royce of computers back then.) This took the college faculty offices by storm, because instructors could assemble a test in a tenth of the time it used to take.

This was a clear business opportunity to gain additional sales, not by having a great textbook (so much) but by having a great CTB (computerized test bank). Other publishers quickly followed suit and a new arms race was born.

Business Problem #1: Distribution

The typical publishing distribution system consisted of large warehouses filled with pallets of books. Similar to the giant piles of products you’d see at warehouse clubs today, the picking/packing/distribution processes of a typical textbook warehouse were geared around large numbers of big products. The CTBs, on the other hand, were at the time a few 5-1/4″ floppy disks at quantities of a dozen or so sets. In a warehouse designed to handle individual titles by the thousands, CTBs just didn’t fit into their mindset.

Business Problem #2: Production

In order to produce these CTBs, originals needed to be created using specialized computer programs. At this point, production editors produced the originals for printed books using exacto knives and other non-computer tools. In fact, very few of the textbook publishing staff even had a personal computer on their desks. (I said this was a while ago!) Further, a program was needed to drive the automatic test creation function – one that could be matched with the individual test banks. Were there any personal computer programmers on staff? What do you think?!?

Once originals were created, copies needed to be made and shipped to those professors waiting for this magical supplement. Editorial and marketing assistants had long been tasked to make and send photocopies of various printed materials, but none of them knew how to handle floppy disks.

At that point, there were no employees that were computer-jocks of any kind apart from those that worked on mainframe terminals. So, as a first-pass attempt to solve the business problems, the textbook production head convinced a couple of mainframe jockeys to write a CTB program for the IBM PC in their spare time. She also got the typing department to keyboard the test banks onto the minicomputers they used, and the mainframe jocks created a program to convert raw text files into a consistent CTB data format. All she needed now was somebody to run the conversions, produce the originals, and make copies. That’s where I came in.

Business Challenge #1: Creating Sustainable Processes

I was originally hired to make copies of floppy disks. That’s it. Luckily, my vast computer experience to date (including many afternoons playing Space Invaders at the arcade) served me well initially, and I was able to keep up with demand. As time passed, however, I began to see the need to create more sustainable business processes for CTBs.

For example, there was no quality assurance in creating the originals, nor was there any mechanism for correcting any programming errors we might run across. I had to jump in with my (then) limited programming skills to make corrections. I also put together printed CTB instructions (absent at first) and help streamline the shipping process by piggybacking on existing processes in our Operations group. Later, when the need came for additional features to satisfy our instructors (and sales people), I took over the programming duties entirely. (After all, the mainframe guys already had full-time jobs and couldn’t provide solutions in our time frame.)

Business Challenge #2: Expanding Service

As time passed, more computerized supplements were introduced. Often, these were some sort of program or simulation that one of the book authors had put together; in other cases, the author or editor had solicited a third party programmer to produce it. In either case, the business processes I introduced needed to expand to include these new supplements.

This meant, for instance, more in-depth quality testing of the software, the installation instructions, and the documentation. I introduced a fundamental process shift when I began using a standardized checklist for all new software, complete with an evaluation and recommendation as to whether we (the publisher) should even offer it. (I recall once, in my arrogance, I labeled a simulation to be “Stupid and Useless.” My boss suggested I try “tact” in the future, but the editor later admitted that, after checking out the software herself, that it was in fact stupid and useless.)

Another expansion was forced upon us (by this time there were several of us in this fledgeling department) by our Operations group, who no longer wished to ship product for us. We had to expand our “warehousing” and shipping capabilities to embrace a JIT (just in time) approach.

Could be a major intrapreneurship tool...With the ever-increasing amount of software supplements, it fell upon us to provide technical support to the instructors trying to use the software and our sales reps who were trying to demonstrate it. We eventually produced a sales manual specifically geared towards helping the sales people demonstrate the highlights of our most popular software. I also found myself regularly attending sales meetings to train sales people on how to demonstrate it. (Separate note: Have you ever made a presentation to sales people right before lunch or right before a cocktail hour? I don’t recommend it… Yikes.)

Intrapreneurship Results

From humble beginning, I was able to work with others and build a organization from the ground up. In the end, I left a burgeoning software department with established processes and a reputation for excellence throughout the company. Other publishers have followed similar paths I’m sure, but I’m pleased that I had the opportunity to create a new “company” within the company I worked for. It was a great experience and one I’ve drawn from in my later entrepreneurial endeavors.

IBM PC image courtesy of Ruben de Rijcke via Creative Commons.
5-1/4″ Floppy image courtesy of Marcello Romani via Creative Commons.
Cocktail image courtesy of my crappy smartphone camera.

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