This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 15: Startup Attitude
You know that feeling when you’re buying a car and suddenly it seems that there are thousands of people out there driving that car, even though you hardly saw any before that point? That’s how I feel about “incubation” right now.
I haven’t struck out on a new career in chicken farming, in case you’re wondering. Incubation is the term I seem to hear everywhere in business, both in my own backyard and in industry articles. I can’t find a dictionary that has defined it well, though I think the Collins definition (which is talking more about the traditional scientific process), is quite apt:
Incubate (verb): to develop in favourable conditions.
Incubation can mean several things, but it’s most popular when referring to a “business incubator”, also known as an “accelerator.” Dedicated to startups, these organisations are designed to bring together the resources required in order for fledgeling outfits with big ideas to succeed commercially. So what is it about business incubators that make them special, and what can those of us not about to launch the next Facebook learn from them?
Create an Inspirational Environment
Sitting at a gray desk staring at a gray wall isn’t likely to stimulate your finest creative moments; This is why business incubators and creative agencies do their best to create a physical environment that is light, airy and filled with different stimuli in order to trigger those eureka moments.
No two incubators will be alike; Some will favour the “bean bag and blue sky” format whilst others take a more minimalist approach. What’s important is that the startup members feel a resonance between themselves and the space they’e occupying.
You can’t just give someone a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.
This applies equally to more mainstream working environments and most crucially, your own home. If, like me, you work from home regularly you’ll appreciate the bizarre but undeniable psychological barriers a non-optimal space can present. For whatever reason, I feel less ‘professional’ (and less motivated) when I’m working opposite a basket of laundry or the leftovers of my kids’ recently abandoned lunch. I don’t have the luxury of a dedicated room to call my “office”, but when I’m working from home I take steps to clear out the physical distractions (pro tip: don’t work in a room with a TV) and then declare it a family-free zone for the duration of my “office hours.”
I feel less ‘professional’ when I’m working opposite a basket of laundry or the leftovers of my kids’ recently abandoned lunch.
Surround Yourself with People who Inspire You
When I think of an “incubator”, I have a vivid mental image of a cluster of chicks, climbing over each other under a warm lamp, enjoying each other’s warmth and becoming accustomed to the outside world. In the same way the chicks benefit from each other’s body warmth and company, so startup companies and their teams benefit from sharing in the culture of ideas and innovation that exists within a business incubator “bubble.”
I’m sure most people have experienced that sensation when your energy and drive abandon you, but seeing others around you push forward with enthusiasm and excitement lifts you back up; Likewise just having someone to listen to your idea or ask a “stupid question” can be all that’s needed to trigger a eureka moment. It’s not impossible for these to occur spontaneously, but the chances increase manyfold when you design an environment in which lots of like-minded, driven individuals are in close proximity. In such environments there’s always someone to look to for inspiration when you’re feeling low yourself.
Outside of the startup world, knowing where to look for inspiration is key to keeping momentum. It doesn’t always have to be people who are in the same physical space either; I’ve lost count of the times where a message between Bojan and me has spurred one of us into action from a creative funk of some kind. Design your routines with an “accountability buddy” in mind – someone who’s going to be your conscience when you’re feeling inclined to slack off, and who will inspire you to greater things with their own example.
Talk to the Customer
I spent two days in a business incubator environment last year, not as a startup but as part of an ideas Hackathon organised within my organization. As we took our idea from inception to prototype, the part of the process that I found most surprising was when we spent a few hours running our ideas past some potential customers. It was quite a shock; They didn’t care about the parts of the idea we thought were amazing, and they gave us incredible new ideas we hadn’t even considered. Through the course of those discussions, our idea morphed from a cloud of loosely-connected concepts to a distilled, coherent concept with a clear customer need in mind.
They didn’t care about the parts of the idea we thought were amazing, and they gave us incredible new ideas we hadn’t even considered.
I took two things away from this experience: firstly, be prepared to abandon your “greatest” ideas. If your target market is telling you it sucks (or even if they’re just not saying it’s great), you need to be prepared to swallow your pride and move on. If you don’t, you’ll spend endless time and energy trying to persuade them you’re right and they’ll never be fully bought in no matter how hard you try. Second, listen really closely when customers talk to you about what they want. Their feedback is invaluable, and hard to come by; I’d love to have a raft of customers at my beck and call to run ideas past but in reality it’s impractical and expensive to achieve. When the feedback comes, treasure it and act on it.
Set a Time Limit
Most incubators will house their current “chicks” for 2-6 months before ushering them out to fend for themselves. In that time, the startups must maximise the use of available space and resources to get their ideas in optimal shape for taking to market. This is where the “acceleration” part comes in – it’s important that the startups feel a sense of pace and momentum. As well as the practical elements of this – there’s always a queue of new startups waiting to be incubated – the time element serves a very specific purpose: It creates urgency.
How many of us put off those important jobs until the last minute because we still have time left? In the classic misallocation of time and effort to urgent tasks over important ones, we’re all guilty of making poor priority calls when deadlines feel comfortably distant.
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’
When we introduce real time constraints, we tap into our innate sense of urgency and feel compelled to act. In the case of the business incubator, the consequences of missed deadlines are failed products and empty pockets; For the likes of you and me it could be disappointed friends and family, opportunity cost (staying inside on a sunny day to finish a task) or a missed reward. However you achieve it, setting out a fixed timeframe and watching your deadline approach is a good way to cultivate urgency and stay focused on the task.
Find the Money People
Venture Capitalists (VCs), love them or loathe them, are often the lifeblood of any startup. Business incubators work like a dating service, matching prospective products with interested investors. Like any relationship, a match is far from guaranteed even when the initial fireworks look promising.
Part of what makes business incubators attractive to startups is access to a pre-formed network of interested VCs and coaching in how to make the right impression. Everybody understands the nature of the arrangement; Nobody is being hoodwinked or mislead; The startups get the opportunity to strut their stuff and the VCs are granted access to a pipeline of potential investments.
This isn’t a situation we’ll all find ourselves in on a regular basis, but it can be helpful to remember that as well as the all-important customers who can tell you so much about what differentiates a sucky product from a great one, there will always be “money people” whose commercial priorities also need to be served effectively. As I learnt earlier this year, even an idea that everybody you talk to thinks is brilliant will never see the light of day if you can’t make it work on a commercial basis. It’s a good rule of thumb: if somebody tells you they love your idea, ask them how much they’ll pay you for it. It’s amazing how quickly people will cool on an idea once they have to put their own hard-earned cash on the line.
Nail the Pitch
The harsh reality of life as a startup is that regardless of how great an idea is, how much customers love it or how commercially sound it is, without a great pitch it’s likely to end up in the trashcan. The culmination of months (if not years) of work is a short, sharp delivery of the best selling points of your product to an interested but notoriously fickle audience.
At the end of our own hackathon I had the dubious distinction of co-presenting the three-minute pitch that was to be the only reflection of 48 hours of intensive creation and collaboration. Of those 48 hours, approximately 4 were spent working on the pitch itself. Both seasoned presenters, my partner and I were initially confident that we’d sail through the pitch, but swiftly realised that three minutes is not a long time to turn a passive audience wild with enthusiasm for your product. And we didn’t even have a song to sing.
The context was artificial, but the exercise valuable. There will be many occasions in life when you have to be able to execute a brilliant pitch in three minutes or less. This might be a why should I hire you moment, or even a why should I have dinner with you one; You won’t always have the preparation time that we did and sometimes you’ll have more time to get your points across but the principle is the same: Learn how to summarize your strongest points, to deliver them with conviction and to distil them into brief, high-impact points.
Then practise. A lot.
Life in the Incubator
Most of us may never find ourselves in a business incubator, at least not for more than a passing visit. But the lessons we can learn from this intensive, creative environment can stand us in good stead to up our game in our personal and professional lives.
Why don’t you try incubating your next project?