Unleashing Your Inner Entrepreneur

Do you possess the "entrepreneur gene"? That's a common quandary for people I know, especially those who work at large companies.

It's a myth that innovation is only valued and encouraged at small companies, a fact reinforced by IBM's (IBM) 2010 CEO Study, where more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries said that creativity—not management discipline—will help navigate today's volatile and complex business environment.

Creativity is key to being a successful entrepreneur—from how you run your business with slim resources to how you think about new business models.

But creativity isn't enough. I've learned over the years that entrepreneurship takes more than a vision, a business plan, and funding.

When I began exploring the possibility of starting up a "smart" water management business at IBM, very few around me ever dreamed that our company would get into that business. But there I was, learning about the market, studying the competition, talking to academic researchers and city managers about what the technology play for water management systems would look like. Then I had to sell the idea internally.

Lessons for Entrepreneurs

There was no example to follow, no ecosystem to plug into, because the market for these smart systems barely existed. But I learned about the market and how it was evolving, and realized we could make a difference. I am now leading a growing business unit delivering solutions to this market.

The lessons I learned in the process can help budding (or frustrated) entrepreneurs in big companies, whether they are leading a project, creating a product line, or jump-starting a new business unit:

Create the market, don't chase it.

Being an entrepreneur takes energy and a lot of homework. It's important to research industry developments and demographic trends because society is always changing. You need to understand what the market is doing and what events are influencing it. That will give you insight into business needs and how the market is responding so you can shape it. It's all about creating first-mover advantage, whether you are at a big company like IBM or at a small startup in Silicon Valley.

I did this myself in smarter water management. I discovered that changing demographics in cities and increased population growth mean more stress on water systems, which will have to be better managed in the future.

Or consider another example: It took less than a year for social media to morph from a way to communicate with friends and colleagues into a critical marketing tool for just about every industry. Organizations that anticipated and responded to these changes were the first to capture the benefits and new business opportunities that social networking offers.

Test your idea with other people.

The last thing I want is an echo chamber of agreement. I've found it helpful to vet my idea with two or three people who don't think like me and who will be brutally honest.

It's also a good way to build a network of allies. If you can convince naysayers, they will become your fiercest advocates and help you sell your idea through their own network and management teams. They will also force you to answer hard questions you may not have thought about.

Earlier in my career, I had made a proposal for a new business investment for my company. My senior managers supported my idea but my peers were skeptical, if not downright negative. One of my mentors (who was particularly unconvinced) gave me terrific strategic advice that helped me navigate through technical reviews and business approvals. Thanks in large part to constructive criticism, that little project grew into a $1 billion business.

Be self-aware and know what skills you lack.

If you are an idea person, surround yourself with financial and operations experts. If you are an "execution" person, seek out visionaries and market analyzers.

I am good at recognizing a big market opportunity. But when I have a business idea, I make it a point to surround myself with people who challenge how it will stack up against competitors and be perceived by customers. I go out of my way to build a network of experts from sales, marketing, and other lines of business to fully understand and internalize the client needs so that we have our best shot at market success.

You have to be a risk-taker and believe in your gut that it is the right thing to do—but don't ignore market signs.

You will always find people who will try to convince you that you are too early to market, too costly, or off the mark. If you have done your homework and have sufficient market information to make a decision, then you have to trust your instincts and keep moving forward.

Don't move forward with blinders on.

Keep an eye on market trends and unexpected events that may influence your chances of success.

While the safety net at a large company may be bigger than at a small startup, the inherent qualities of entrepreneurship remain the same. It is hard work and you must be realistic about the demands on your time. Take risks and believe in yourself and your vision. Be aware of how your idea fits into the competitive landscape. As a mentor once reminded me, a new product or line or business has to be relevant and compelling: relevant to solving your customers' problem, and compelling enough for them to pay for it. That's simple, but sage, advice.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.