For me, the ingredients that made me into a full-time entrepreneur were one part hating being told what to do, plus two parts not feeling like I was contributing anywhere close to what I was capable of and a heaping dash of reacting to being told "you are doing it wrong."
Early in my career, I was content to let others pay the bills while I recruited the resistance to go off in a dark corner and create something new.
At the third company I worked for, my intraprenurial ventures were none too ceremoniously shut down in four days. Compounding to this was the way my fellow minions and I had been managed. Something inside me just snapped and I decided then to start my own company -- to prove I could do things the right way. In short, I left working for others.
With this step, I had just made the leap from being an intrapreneur to an entrepreneur.
Being an intrapreneur is no risk, but high reward. If she fails with integrity, she's gained visibility within the company and an audience with executives who may have otherwise handed her the keys to their cars to get them washed. If she succeeds, suddenly every one of those same execs wants to claim her bandwagon as their own.
Psychologically, being an intrapreneur is the least demanding role one can imagine. All that's needed is the chutzpah to make things happen while the profit- (and politics-) generating machine continues to whirl all around him. He keeps himself out of the muck, gets to do good work and has the chance to operate far more autonomously than he previously dreamed was ever possible inside the Big Corporation.
On the other hand, being an entrepreneur and leading one's own company requires confronting inner demons every single day. An intrapreneur may believe the feedback he or she is told. An entrepreneur won’t. The difference between the two is that inner belief and the willingness to just keep going.
So what makes one person more inclined to be an entrepreneur versus an intrapreneur? The academic literature on the topic is scattered but, to me, it seems that there are three key differences:
1. The will to do stuff. Predicting the future is always hard. But a person's knowing that he or she can control the future simply by being engaged and willing to adjust to change is intoxicating. That’s the mentality of entrepreneurs, who are very action oriented. The very act of doing is the only way to validate (or invalidate) their ideas. They have to get their hands dirty and start building.
Essentially, entrepreneurs have to be willing to dive into something even when being unsure of the outcome because they know that the future ultimately will look different with their product in it. They just doesn't know how.
For intrapreneurs, this is nearly impossible. The next intrapreneur who convinces the higher-ups to let him or her just take time to figure things out without a plan of attack will be the first.
2. Evangelism. Entrepreneurs are able to paint a picture of the future with words. For example, they will say something like “Yes, I know it’s 100 degrees outside and this looks like a mitten-sized ball of fire. But if you hold it long enough, we’ll figure out how to turn into a refreshing snow cone that makes you look like a Hollywood starlet.”
Intrapreneurs also try to paint a broader picture but for the people who hold the keys: Quite frustrating for them, intrapreneurs have the task of waiting around to hear whether they have the freedom to move forward with their ideas. In the off-chance that intraprenuers are allowed to proceed, they have to learn to take in stride the possibility of being smacked down or put on hold.
3. People skills. Lastly there's the relating to people, part. Intrapreneurs have the choice of working with many capable people. Truth be told, they usually have a pick of the best folks imaginable.
Entrepreneurs, though, do not just have to convince others of their outlandish ideas but also must convince some folks to promote their ideas for dimes on the dollar. Recruiting the right people is quite the challenge.
Without having traction and a brand name to attract fantastic talent, they constantly must have a Groucho Marx filter; the comedian once told What's My Line, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." Anyone who offers out of the blue to work for entrepreneurs is probably not somebody they'd want to work with.
All in all, the difference between being an intrapreneur and entrepreneur isn’t necessarily related to the level of risk tolerance. It’s bound up with the desire to maintain control of one's own destiny, a willingness to deal with other people’s shenanigans and a burning inner belief in oneself. Whether that belief comes from ego, ignorance or obstinance, it has to get the entrepreneur through all the doing, convincing and hard conversations. But trust me: It’s worth it.