Mark Anthony Spiteri

CEO, Ixaris

As an island of entrepreneurs, it’s time we champion intrapreneurs

Tuesday 29th June 2021

This month, I announced that Ixaris had entered a definitive agreement to be acquired by Nium, one of the world’s fastest-growing fintech companies. As Ixaris’s CEO I am honoured to continue to accelerate Ixaris’ growth trajectory by balancing operational diligence and strategic transformation while steering us across this historic finish line — and on to our greatest chapter yet.

Besides the contributions of our current and past employees and leaders, Ixrais’ culture of intrapreneurship has been key to driving the company where it is today. Back in 2003, Ixaris issued Europe’s first virtual card. This ubiquitous piece of payment technology is now so commonplace as to be somewhat unremarkable — but remarkably, it started right here in Malta. Ixaris would go on to achieve global success in the travel payments sector, and today we continue to make waves as one of Malta (and the world’s) great tech success stories.

Malta is unusual in having become (of necessity) an island of SME’s, built on a strong culture of entrepreneurship. This has served us well, contributing to the country’s remarkable growth and quality of life. However, as our economy and businesses continue to mature, I argue that — particularly for Malta’s tech industry — it is time for us to champion a culture of intrapreneurship as much as we do that of entrepreneurship.

The term intrapreneur was coined by Gifford Pinchot III in 1978, and later described by Pinchot as, “employees who do for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for his or her start-up." Perhaps Richard Branson best frames why intrapreneurship remains the secret sauce of companies that achieve enduring success: "While it's true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it underway, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.”

Intrapreneurship is a bottom-up approach to developing radical innovations in-house. Ixaris had a strong track record of supporting a culture of intrapreneurship, and this has set us up to be particularly resilient during this past, extraordinary year. Constraint breeds creativity, and in 2020 intrapreneurs at Ixaris took this opportunity to develop radical innovations in-house, relying on our existing relationships and the many tools already at our disposal to create novel, disruptive solutions. The result? Innovations like the Ixaris Card: a brand new virtual card for airline payments powered by UATP, which is upending the traditional model for airline payments.

In 2013, Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Any CEO can tell you that finding ideas is not always the problem. The real issue is selecting and spreading the best ideas, testing quickly, and executing flawlessly.” Nearly a decade on, this statement still holds true. Finding ideas is not always a challenge. In my experience as CEO and COO of Ixaris, selecting, spreading and implementing the best ideas is the real challenge. That’s what makes intrapreneurship so critical, particularly for tech companies in Malta that want to achieve success beyond our shores.

People drive intrapreneurship. A culture that supports intrapreneurship isn’t created by writing a strategic plan, or by a CEO declaring it on a company all-hands meeting. It’s built gradually, over time, through leadership’s approaches and actions. It’s a long haul, to be sure. But it’s never too late to start. The first step is finding and recognising intrapreneurs from within your team.

Not everyone is (or can become) an intrapreneur, and that’s not a bad thing. In my view, the most successful organisations actively make space for voices that are traditionally silenced. That’s critical for nurturing a culture of intrapreneurship because intrapreneurs are not always the loudest voice in the room. What’s much more essential to spreading and implementing new ideas is resourcefulness, pragmatism, and a healthy dose of confidence. Spot individuals within your organisation who fit this profile, and support them with targeted financial investment and rigorous processes that swiftly test and scale their ideas, and you’re on well your way to accelerating your company’s healthy growth. Even (and perhaps especially) through seismic shifts in culture and commerce, as COVID-19 undoubtedly has been.

In their same 2013 article, Govindarajan and Desai describe intrapreneurship as “an organization’s capability to think and invest in long-term opportunities along with the competence to drive continuous innovations for top-line growth each year.” Following Ixaris’ recent acquisition by Nium, I am more confident than ever in Ixaris’ ability to do just that. As part of the Nium family, I look forward to continuing to spot and support intrapreneurs (or as Pinchott also referred to them, “dreamers who do”) as they shake up the payments industry.

I hope more tech companies in Malta will achieve the same global success and scale that Ixaris has modelled. I suggest that embracing a culture of intrapreneurship can a means of doing just that. Innovation can and increasingly must come from within, and as Ixaris’ story proves: the scope of our ambitions needn’t be limited by the size of our island.