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back to lean

A neon Google logo at the company’s office in Toronto, Nov. 13, 2012.Mark Blinch/Reuters

The technology giants that rule their industry – from Apple to Google, Twitter to Facebook – were once lean startups, making bold decisions that helped shape their identities.

As they became multinational corporations, elements of the entrepreneurial spirit were diminished, a trend many companies are trying to reverse by hiring entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs).

"The No. 1 thing right now is they want to stay innovative, so there's a lot of pressure to constantly innovate and be competitive, and a lot of that needs to come from within," said Dan Schawbel, managing partner at Millennial Branding, a Gen-Y research and consulting firm.

In his new book, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, Mr. Schawbel describes how the big players in technology are trying to maintain the entrepreneurial culture that got them to where they are today. He says the organizations initially hired entrepreneurs-in-residence to help with acquisitions of new companies, but they soon recognized the benefits of having top entrepreneurial talent working within their organizations.

"A lot of them use the EIRs for investing in startups, but I think that the role of the EIR is going to be more central in how to push the company forward entrepreneurially," Mr. Schawbel adds.

Google, for example, started its entrepreneur-in-residence program shortly after the acquisition of a company called GrandCentral in 2010, which is now known as Google Voice. During the acquisition, GrandCentral's CEO, Craig Walker, was asked to work out of an office and spend time on Google's venture fund.

"Google Ventures was a relatively young startup, it was new, so I got to kind of shape the (entrepreneur-in-residence) role and be the first guinea pig of it, and I really enjoyed the experience," he says.

The founding of Google Ventures was symbolic of the company's attempt to act more entrepreneurial, he adds. "I think they realized that it's hard to continue to be super innovative when you're a $300 billion company. They, more than anyone, have taken steps to keep that bold edge, and starting that venture fund was a big step toward that."

As Google's entrepreneur-in-residence, Mr. Walker had the freedom and the resources to come up with innovative ideas, without the pressure and stress of running a startup. "This was in 2010, the iPad had just launched in April of that year, and we were looking at a bunch of industries where the advent of tablets would be really disruptive. It gave us the ability to do that without having the burden of any business goal or anything to precondition us to find one result or another."

When Mr. Walker's one-year term as entrepreneur-in-residence expired, the resources he had available at Google helped develop his next startup, Firespotter Labs. "UberConference, one of the products we created, is built almost entirely on Google infrastructure," he says, adding Google Ventures was a first- and second-round investor in the company.

Competition between technology companies in Silicon Valley has since led others to follow in Google's footsteps and hire entrepreneurs-in-residence of their own.

"In a lot of these places like the Valley, there's so much competition for high-level talent, and anything that these companies can do to be more attractive or to be more appealing to those types of employees, I think they will all do," Mr. Walker says.

He expects the trend will soon spread to Canada as well.

"Frankly, in Canada, the amount of technology going on up there in Waterloo and Vancouver and Montreal, I don't see any reason why those same values and benefits wouldn't extend up there."

The position is rare in Canadian corporations, typically found in universities, and at private equity funds, business incubators and accelerators.

Jeff Dennis, an entrepreneur-in-residence with Fasken Martineau, a Toronto-based law firm, says he is "hard pressed to find anybody doing what I'm doing elsewhere."

Mr. Dennis, a serial entrepreneur, lawyer, and author of Lessons From the Edge: Survival Skills for Starting and Growing a Company, says he created the position for himself when a former law school classmate and Fasken Martineau employee mentioned the firm's new startup enterprise initiative. "(Startups) can't afford it all. It's just a reality," he explains. "They can't afford to hire the whole team they need, they can't afford the office space they need, and they can't afford the full range of legal services they need."

Fasken Martineau provides startups with a number of affordable options to help get them incorporated and organized, and with it they also receive mentorship from the company's entrepreneur-in-residence.

"When you meet with a typical lawyer they'll ask you things like 'do you have a shareholders agreement?' 'Have you filed a patent?' 'Do you have a licence agreement for your customers?'" Mr. Dennis says. "When I meet a client it's 'tell me about your business.' 'How have you been funded?' 'What's your go-to market strategy?' I just come at it from a very different perspective."

Mr. Dennis says he believes the success of Fasken Martineau's entrepreneur-in-residence program may soon lead other Canadian law firms to follow suit. "I've heard other people say 'gee, we need to get one.' Our goal has been to become the go-to law firm for early stage companies and startups.

"By putting a stake in the ground and having someone like me here dedicated to that and championing that really shows a commitment."

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