Here’s How Companies Can Win in the Age of Innovate or Die – and It Doesn’t Cost a Thing

In a recent and much buzzed about New York Times article, the CEO of a prominent American company implored his employees to take charge of their own destinies – including taking hours of online courses, often on their own time.  Explaining the rationale for these initiatives, he didn’t mince words: “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.” 

Those weren’t the words of Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Meyer, or Elon Musk, but rather Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, the seemingly staid Fortune 50 company with a workforce of nearly 300,000 employees.

When one of America’s largest companies expects its workers to spend their free time taking online courses to invest in their skills – or else, a seismic shift is taking hold.  It’s understandable why Stephenson is trying to rally his troops to transform AT&T:  the telecom pioneer’s battle to stay relevant and to compete with tech giants like Amazon and Google will be fought with human capital.

Simply put, you innovate or you die: Since 2000, 52% of the firms in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased operations. Within the next ten years, the pace of change will only accelerate, with another 40% of the current Fortune 500 expected to disappear. 

Whether you are an icon of Corporate America or a mid-size business looking to scale to the next stage, cultivating an entrepreneurial culture is indispensable to generating and executing on growth opportunities. Still, that doesn’t mean that most companies have figured out how to create an internal army of entrepreneurs. No online course, however good the curriculum or the professor, can teach you how to be innovative or entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs learn by doing, trying new things, failing, and then starting all over again.  There are no short cuts and no magic bullets. If you want to teach entrepreneurship at a company, you must find a way to give your employees authentic entrepreneurial experiences. 

The Age of The Part-Time Entrepreneur

Here’s some surprising news:  Your employees probably aren’t waiting around for you to figure all of this out.  Instead, they are creating opportunities for themselves. A recent study by Adobe found that 33% of Americans work part-time at another job in additional to their day job. A new study by Adobe reveals that other than to make more money, these moonlighters are looking to pursue a passion, access networking opportunities, or develop new skills.  This trend will only accelerate as Millennials come to dominate the workforce - roughly 40% of Millennials are currently working on side projects.  

By becoming entrepreneurs in their free time and working on projects that excite them, these employees take calculated risks, experiment, learn from their failures, and then try again. Having taken ownership of their entrepreneurial education, they bring a fresh mindset and new skills with them every day when they come to the office.  Whether they become angel investors, advisers, or founders, employees who invest their own time and resources in new ventures develop the requisite skills, experience, and mindset to make a meaningful contribution to their firms’ entrepreneurial cultures.

Best of all, this education doesn’t cost their employers a thing - these part-time entrepreneurs, or 10% Entrepreneurs, operate on their own time and their own dime.  Yet despite their engagement and their passion in their side endeavors, part-time entrepreneurs are surprisingly loyal.  Just because an employee is working part-time on another business doesn’t mean that he is looking to jump ship – more than 70% of employees with side jobs aren’t planning to leave full-time employment for the wilds of entrepreneurship. 

Leveraging Part-Time Entrepreneurs Within the Corporation

Part-time entrepreneurship within a corporate environment is not a completely new concept. The Post-it was an outcome of 3M’s famed “bootlegging” policy, which encourages employees to spend up to 15% of their work time on their own projects.  Meanwhile, Google’s corporate culture is grounded in a policy that asks employees to spend part of their time focused on projects that are unrelated to their day-to-day tasks. You can thank that program for your Gmail account.

Millions of people recognize the benefits of pursuing projects outside of work that excite them and offer them financial upside.  That’s already happening whether their employers like it or not.  Now, it’s time for corporations to take notice and harness the ambitions for the benefit of their own innovation efforts.  They can do this by encouraging their employees to learn from their personal endeavors and then apply those lessons back at work. In doing so, firms would be sending a clear message to their employees – and to the wider world: This is the type of organization that is confident and that can attract and retain talent.

In return, 10% Entrepreneurs, must make a fundamental commitment to employers to never put their side endeavors before their day jobs, especially during business hours. After all, your 10% is the part of your life that will permit you to work on your own ventures in the first place. If you fail to perform, you’re putting your 10%, as well as the other 90%, on the line. It’s just not worth the risk.  Other than that, if you’re an aspiring or active 10% Entrepreneur, go for it!  Take risks, try new things, and come back to the office with a new set of experiences.  Trust me, you’ll be able to bring things to the table that you could never have learned in an online course. 

Written by Patrick McGinnis, a venture capitalist, private equity investor, and author of the international bestseller, The 10% Entrepreneur: Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job, published in 2016 by Penguin Portfolio. As a 10% (or part-time) Entrepreneur, he has built a diverse and global portfolio of over 20 investments outside of his day job, including companies such as ipsy, afiniti, and Bluesmart, real estate ventures, and the London stage production of The Last King of Scotland. Patrick is credited by Boston Magazine with coining the term “FOMO” or “fear of missing out,” which was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Georgetown University. Connect with him at patrickmcginnis.com or @pjmcginnis.