Keeping The Entrepreneurial Spark Alive In A Big Company

As a serial entrepreneur in Israel, Vitaly Vainer built and sold several successful businesses. But after the birth of his first child, he wanted a more stable, corporate environment and joined SAP in 2007. That doesn’t mean he left behind his entrepreneurial spirit. While spearheading product development for flagship products like SAP Fiori Cloud, he mentored outside startups.

Now, almost 12 years later, Vainer is the General Manager of Dabra — a startup within SAP.

“We worked on different ideas for about a year, all focused on the future of work,” said Vainer.

The team of four people, all based in Ra’anana, Israel, submitted a proposal to SAP.iO to create an application that would foster stronger workplace relationships, which included a chatbot integration with Slack.

SAP.iO is an organization within SAP that supports internal and external innovators. Its Venture Studio arm provides funding and other resources for SAP intrapreneurs (an entrepreneur within a larger organization) like Vainer. Once accepted into the program, the Dabra team received seed funding, executive mentorship and, most importantly, the ability to focus 100 percent on creating a meaningful solution that was adopted.

“We created the chatbot on Slack within 45 days but there wasn’t significant usage,” said Vainer. “So we shut it down and came up with the idea to bring a bot into Outlook email and calendaring functions.”

The team also refined its audience, focusing on users who have a lot of 1:1 meetings like chief operating officers.

Since its release in October 2018, the Dabra application has attracted almost 1,300 users, one third of whom are outside of SAP. With almost 6 months left of support from SAP.iO, Vainer hopes Dabra’s funding is extended so that they can keep growing adoption.

With successes like Dabra and Ruum (a project management and collaboration platform), SAP.iO understands how to keep the entrepreneurial spark alive in a big company. The organization recently held a series of educational events for its innovators and executive mentors. Below are some tips from participants about how larger organizations can nurture intrapreneurship.

Empowerment, Autonomy and Accountability

Max Wessel heads up the New Ventures & Technologies unit at SAP and is managing director of SAP Silicon Valley. After starting his career in product development at three venture-backed startups and a stint as a venture capitalist, he moved from Sapphire Ventures (an independent venture capital firm, funded by SAP) to found the SAP.iO Venture Studio.

“In the valley, there are a lot of conversations about investment and funding rounds,” said Wessel. “But supporting intrapreneurs is really about empowerment and autonomy. It’s about creating an entire system to give authority to the CEO, with some checks, and a system to empower employees to own their business.”

Wessel explains that it’s not capital and personal wealth that motivates people, it’s the drive to solve a big problem. He designed the Venture Studio to give employees the runway to do that — but they are also held accountable to a board of executive advisors (who act like a board of directors): they must meet targets and provide transparency into their progress.

The Studio Model: Nurture With The Right Resources

Graham Ratcliffe came to SAP two years ago through its acquisition of Abakus, which helps companies optimize marketing spend. Ratcliffe, who co-founded Abakus, took the reigns as the new General Manager of SAP.iO at the start of this month.

He believes the studio model employed by SAP.iO helps support emerging ventures within SAP and turn them into sustainable enterprises.

“Once we invest in ideas, we have a studio team to give them a leg up and help with design, product development and engineering,” said Ratcliffe. “Those are hard things to hire early on, so our studio provides them to entrepreneurs to help them get going until they’re able to build their own team.”

Full-Time Intrapreneurs

As Wessel points out, Google’s famous 80/20 mantra (employees can spend 20 percent of their time on innovation) for entrepreneurship was not sustainable.

“People still had their day jobs, so it turned into 120 percent.”

Wessel set things up differently at SAP.iO. When teams are accepted into the SAP.iO Venture Studio program, employees can dedicate themselves 100 percent to creating a new product and launching their company.

That makes all the difference for many employees. Vainer says, “Working full time on Dabra allowed us to create our solution much faster. We had time to develop, fail and then come up with new solutions.”

Protect Innovation and Innovators

Finally, for intrapreneurship to flourish in a big company it’s important to provide a haven for innovators that is separate from everyday business. Dabra operates separately within SAP.iO, and as a result Vainer says, “Compared to innovation in the regular product development cycle, it is a huge change. We can use any technology we want and we’re able to make financial decisions much faster.”

Rooly Eliezerov is an advisor for Dabra and entrepreneur who co-founded Gigya, the customer privacy company acquired by SAP in 2017.

“The only way to maintain a startup mindset is to have an organization that’s walled off from the bigger company,” said Eliezerov. “That’s why SAP.iO is great because it helps foster the startup mindset where it exists versus teaching it. You can’t teach a startup mindset, but you can help nurture it.”



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Work for #SAP communications telling stories about technology and people. Transplanted NY-er living in Oakland. Have one fab daughter & two dogs.