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On Pirates, Privateers And Corporate Innovation

Alex Osterwalder, best-selling author and inventor of the Business Model Canvas, hates it when innovators refer to themselves as pirates. This is because pirates originally operated outside the law and if they were ever caught they were killed. In one sense he is right. When you are working in a large company, innovation succeeds when intrapreneurs collaborate with other key functions. So operating like a true pirate is not really an option.  

But being a pirate is super cool and it seems such an apt description of innovators. Even Steve Jobs thought it was better to be a pirate than to join the navy. He raised the pirate flag for the Macintosh team and inspired them to do great things. I have often found it difficult to reconcile the need for innovators to be a bit rebellious and the importance of collaboration with others in the company for innovation to succeed. So how do we reconcile these two competing ideas?  

You Don’t Want To Be A Pirate, You Want To Be An Explorer

I was struggling with this question until one day I was having dinner with Shachaf Snir, an Israeli innovator based in Tel Aviv. He was saying exactly the same things that Alex Osterwalder had said, but he added a new twist. He pronounced clearly that as an intrapreneur you don’t want to be a pirate, you want to be an explorer. This is because nobody cares what a pirate does. But when an explorer returns from their journeys, there are institutions ready and waiting to hear about their discoveries. 

The difference is simply that nobody sends pirates to do what they are doing. In contrast, explorers are often sent by a group of investors who are keenly interested in what they are doing and are rooting for their success. So the question for any intrapreneur becomes; who within the leadership in your organization is keenly interested in what you are doing and rooting for your success?     

Privateers Ahoy! 

For innovation to succeed, we need to destroy the notion that intrapreneurs should view the company they work for in an antagonistic way. Instead, what we want to do is make innovation a core part of how our company does business. After the conversation with Shachaf Snir, I started digging into the history of piracy. The question I had in my mind was whether they were any famous pirates that transitioned to become explorers. What I learned was fascinating. I learned that not all pirates are the same! 

People typically use terms like pirate and privateer interchangeably. While both words describe pirates, they do not mean the same thing. A pirate is a person who commits theft at sea. This involves attacking ships, often without discrimination. In other words, a pirate is essentially a criminal. This is exactly what a corporate innovator cannot be. As Steve Blank likes to say, startups can do anything but large companies can only do what is legal.  

Contrast this with a privateer, who was a pirate that had been granted a licence by a government to attack from ships belonging to an enemy government. This licence, also known as the Letter of Marque, meant that when the privateer returned with the proceeds of their adventures, these would be shared between the government, the ship owners and the privateer. In other words, a privateer had backing from their government to do the work. 

It was even better when privateers secured commissions to become explorers. Privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Thomas Cavendish would get commissions from their governments to explore foreign territories and claim some of them for their home countries. This meant that when they returned with their findings, there was interest from their governments to further invest in the enterprise. This is what Shachaf Snir was talking about over that dinner we had in Tel Aviv!

Legitimate Innovation

The goal here is not to celebrate the criminal behaviour of pirates. It is to use the distinction with privateers as an illustrative tool for intrapreneurs to understand their context. What matters is that we are trying to make innovation a key part of how companies do business. This means that intrapreneurs have to focus on developing strong relationships with leaders within their organization.

If you are just a pirate, then the leaders inside your company do not really care about what you are working on. If your idea is found, it will be made to walk the plank. But if you are a privateer or an explorer, the leaders in your company care about your success. This is because they have essentially commissioned the work you are doing. As such, the innovation projects you work on are much more likely to get the support they need to succeed. 

Getting leadership support is not easy work. There is a lot of political inertia inside large companies and any efforts at transformation will trigger resistance. But if we succeed in getting support, we will have made innovation a legitimate part of our company. This will make it easier for our innovation projects to succeed going forward.
This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at


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