My First Big Failure: 4 Pieces of Advice for Intrapreneurs


The stories of dot-com swashbucklers had reached near-mythological proportions in my second year of business school at New York University. Students swapped tales of overnight startup sensations the way kids once traded baseball cards. And despite the fact that this was 2004 and the stock market was still rebounding from its crash, many of my peers still wanted to chase the startup dream. I was no different. 

I was a full-time market researcher by day and a part-time entrepreneur by night. Over a period of three months, my co-founder and I spent countless late nights brainstorming and designing. The concept was simple, yet elegant: a technology platform that enabled local merchants to connect with local customers. A kind of Yelp before Yelp. With a 30-page business plan in hand, an expensive wireframe mockup, and a rehearsed pitch deck, we ventured out into the New York merchant community to pitch. Only, it didn’t go the way we planned.  

Merchants were reluctant to take meetings with us. When they did, features we thought would woo them were received with complete ambivalence. We retreated and redrafted the concept. But after several months of retooling, we were still unsuccessful at convincing merchants to sign on. With our funds dwindling and our confidence shaken, I reluctantly abandoned the startup dream in exchange for my MBA diploma and a familiar, corporate role. 

Seewald at Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan. (Photo by Julia Robbs for InnoLead.)

Fast-forward nearly a decade. I found myself in charge of constructing an internal innovation program with a focus on accelerating internal startup concepts. But before I embarked on the journey, I knew that I had to revisit my own startup experience and re-evaluate where it all went wrong. After all, if I couldn’t honestly assess my own experience, how I could write a playbook for budding intrapreneurs? In doing so, four pieces of practical wisdom emerged that I would share as guiding principles for intrapreneurs.

Don’t Fall in Love with Your Idea 

Love the process more than the idea. Otherwise, you will end up heartbroken. Most people believe that startup success is premised on a single flash of genius. But most great ideas are an evolution. Your initial concept is merely a commodity and should be treated as a creative muse. Where I went astray is that I believed so fervently in my concept, I was unwilling to compromise and pivot. When peers and customers critiqued the idea, I took it personally. I dismissed criticisms by reciting Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If I asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me it was a faster horse.” By falling in love with my idea, I stunted its growth. Years later, when I trained our internal startup champions, we put an emphasis on testing and learning rather than ideating. In fact, we tracked the number of iterations that a team produced and celebrated the teams that could show the greatest shift in their concepts based on a series of experiments.  

Listening Versus Pitching

When my partner and I set out to test our concept with customers, we spoke at them rather than with them. By doing so, we missed the most important part of the experience. Getting to “yes” is essential if you are a sales representative. But if you’re an intrapreneur, your job should not be to sell, but rather to actively listen and learn. When our initial classes of intrapreneurs were trained, we put a significant emphasis on interviewing and applied empathy skills. Many organizations outsource these capabilities. But I’ve found that the ability to interview and listen, without becoming defensive, enables intrapreneurs to build products that truly delight customers. One example was a treasury team that was certain employees across the globe wouldn’t understand or care about a complex rebate process. However, by listening to internal customers, they discovered that they not only understood the problem—but would eagerly volunteer to participate in collecting rebates. 

Mixed Thinking Styles Enhance Team Performance 

When I set out to find a business partner, I found myself looking for someone just like me. In the world of Myers-Briggs, the famous psychometric assessment of personality, I wanted a business partner who was an “ENTP,” or an innovative leader. But what I quickly discovered is that having two people with very similar thinking styles created a tension and, in our case, introduced several blind spots that contributed to our undoing. Borrowing from this experience, I made it a priority to build balanced teams with a high degree of cognitive diversity. Our internal startup teams were designed with different thinking styles in mind. Team members explored other team member’s thinking styles through game play and exercises. They learned to value what each team member brought to the table. But perhaps most importantly, we discovered that the most nimble teams were the ones that were most balanced in terms of thinking styles. 

The Power of Small 

We started out too big. From the outset, our plan was to build a high-resolution prototype in order to test it with customers. When I presented our concept to customers, I ended up testing the whole idea rather than the riskiest parts of the idea, or the killer assumptions. When customers rejected the idea, it was very difficult to pinpoint the precise weaknesses. As a result, when we redrafted our concept, we were left to speculate on which changes were most important. We would have been much better served to have tested individual, risky assumptions and adapted as we went along rather than building the idea in its entirety. 

With this wisdom, our intrapreneurial teams were encouraged to take a very different approach to their product development. Skip the survey. Leave the pitch behind. And in its place, design small, fast behavioral experiments that connect to the actions that you are trying to influence.  One team that was proposing an app for pediatric patient education eschewed building out any technology, and instead tested the hypothesis that game play on an app could lead to more significant behavior change than patient brochures. Small behavioral tests like this provided rich insight and a step-wise approach that enabled many of the intrapreneurs to launch their internal startup concepts in small and disciplined ways.

Regardless of what people say, it is painful to fail. It took me nearly a decade to confront and accept my own first startup failure. But growth happens when we allow for the breakdowns to occur. Failure can be a powerful instrument for learning, as long as we don’t sweep the experience under the rug. Today, I am not only teaching other people to be entrepreneurial, I am yet again chasing my own startup dream. By applying these principles to my pursuit, I plan to make my next story about a startup success. 


Daniel Seewald is a Contributing Columnist and Former Head of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer.