March 2008 Archives

Incubation 201: Should You Incubate?

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My last post Incubation 101 went over basic concepts which I think are essential to the success of any incubation operation. Basically, I think that risk of failure increases exponentially if you don't follow these concepts in their entirety.

In this post, I want to bring out some subtle points mentioned in the previous post which refer to whether or not you SHOULD incubate at all. I assume that if you are thinking about incubating, that somehow you've reached a point in your career/life where you CAN incubate. But does it mean you should?

What are YOU personally willing to do?

Self-examination and knowledge is very important. You need to figure out exactly HOW you can contribute to incubation and the nurturing of ideas into businesses. Then you need to figure out what really motivates you and how you gain satisfaction, relative to the kind of participation you're willing to give.

Are you willing to jump back into the startup life of working 24/7?

If you're not in a position to go back to startup life, then you shouldn't incubate your own ideas. Remember, the idea originator has the resonance with the idea, and is best poised to take an idea to a successful conclusion. If you're not willing to do that, that's a clear sign you shouldn't incubate. Transferrence of an idea to someone else is nearly impossible and substantially decreases chances for success. Incubating at arm's length is still possible.

Do you have incredible, kick-ass product ideas and want to see them flourish?

This is better than having dumb ideas, or ideas that others are working on, or no ideas at all. You shouldn't incubate your ideas if you don't have great ideas to begin with. Again, maybe you should incubate at arm's length.

Being the "Guy at the Top"

The most dangerous thing you can do with incubation is try to be the "guy at the top" who directs things but doesn't get involved in the day to day of any incubated operation. You generate great ideas, and then hire a team to execute that idea, and then think you can sit back and watch the idea flourish, grow big, and you reap the benefits while being able to kick back and just manage it all.

Incubating Your Own Ideas

So you have great ideas and are willing to go back into the startup world. Incubation is a great way to figure out what to do next, if you have the resources to work on many things simultaneously. You will need to be personally involved in the day to day of each incubated idea, and you'll most likely max out at around 3-4 ideas, perhaps less.

Follow the principles in Incubation 101 and you'll do great.

Managing Incubation at Arm's Length

So you don't have great ideas, OR you aren't willing to put yourself back into startup mode regardless of whatever ideas you have.

My advice to you, is to let go of any notions that you be the "guy at the top" and find another way to help others with their ideas. Reorient your values and take great pleasure in watching others' flourish with their own ideas, but contribute in ways that allow you to be involved.

This can be through advisorships and/or investments. Provide value to your entrepreneurs as you invest money in their ideas and they will come to you for help. Create a positive relationship and you can gain some satisfaction in knowing that you contributed to the success of their idea.

Raise a venture fund and support people more through cash, if you aren't so helpful in other ways. Keep the incubated ideas and companies at arm's length as much as possible to maximize incentives and reduce your exposure to ideas that aren't going anywhere. Again, follow the principles in Incubation 101 and you'll minimize risk and maximize your chance of finding something great.

My Personal Experience

Back in early 2006, I attempted to raise a venture fund with an incubation component. I was having a hard time raising it, and ultimately this caused me to get involved with startups in a different way. Looking back, I was glad that I didn't fully realize the incubation operation as I think it would have gotten to a bad place.

In my self-examination, which happened much later, I discovered:

1. I was not willing to put my personal time into any one idea. This would have lead to a bunch of ideas run by me, the "guy at the top". This would have been a risk increasing move.

2. I really didn't have great ideas. I had some, but none that were earth shattering. I didn't have a way to generate great ideas but would have tried to execute some mediocre ideas, again increasing risk.

3. I realized I was much better at taking someone else's ideas and making them even better.

Thus, I am today at something-like incubating at arm's length. I feel that I have yielded a much better risk profile through my work with startups across a number of great ideas and entrepreneurs, and leveraging my personality preference for making an existing idea better versus coming up with a great idea myself. I also have higher personal satisfaction working in this fashion.

Read Incubation 101, do the self-discovery, and do incubation the right way for YOU.

Incubation 101

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Over the last few months, I spent some time interviewing a whole bunch of people about incubating businesses. It was very enlightening not for the information I uncovered, but the fact that it just brought to the forefront of consciousness things I already knew.

Incubation has had a bad reputation over the years, especially the large ones like IdeaLab and Internet Capital Group that raised enormous sums of money but didn't return nearly what they were supposed to. When I tried to raise my own venture fund 2 years ago and wanted to include an incubation component, I was advised unilaterally to not call it an incubator or else I would get nowhere fast! Investors had been burned way too much on the incubator model in the past to trust new ones.

Yet incubation is sexy. Generate new, cool ideas. Create new businesses. Find the next Google. Unbridled innovation, unlimited success! Wow!

If only it were that easy or certain. Incubation is really hard, but in my research I've uncovered some guiding principles which make incubation viable and possible as a strategy.

Here are the highlights:

Incubation works nicely for internet projects
Developing products and services for the internet has gotten so cheap and easy that invested capital can be very small relative to other industries.

Incubation is HARD
It's not easy to come up with a great new business. Attempting it is not for those wishing for a quick win. You have to be patient, focused, and be able to let go of projects that aren't getting anywhere or waste too much of your time and resources.

Go cheap
The less money you spend, the less money you need to properly incubate. Testing ideas as cheap as possible reduces overall investment. Don't invest a ton in infrastructure liking buying a pretty building and cool office furniture. Outsourcing can help with being cheap especially in the international marketplace for talent.

Build fast
Get your concepts out there fast and test. Being slow means competitors can get into a space before you can test properly. Also, the more ideas you can generate and test, the more chances you have of hitting on something worthwhile.

Fail and remove fast
If something is failing, close it down fast! Have the discipline to kill projects that aren't working. Throwing money at failing projects doesn't solve the problem either. The ability to let go of bad projects is extremely important. Otherwise, projects that are sitting around languishing just waste money and effort to keep afloat.

Go wide...Carefully
Risk is reduced if you cast your net wide of ideas to try. Throwing all your eggs into one or a small number of baskets increases risk substantially of failure. But go wide carefully, meaning don't stretch your resources too thinly.

The founder of an idea needs to go with that business
It is nearly impossible to properly transfer an idea to someone else. Trying to do so raises risk tremendously. To reduce risk, the person who comes up with an idea should stay with that idea, should that idea blossom into a business. This is because the originator of an idea typically has some intrinsic resonance with that idea as a business, and is the right person to build, innovate, and nurture it.

If you are not willing to take an idea through to its proper conclusion, my advice to you is to re-examine your life and what you want to do. If you're not willing to jump back into a startup, then I would tell you to just let others develop their own ideas and let go of your own. Take pleasure in nuturing others and their ideas into great businesses. Raise a venture fund and help others do well.

The team members also should go with that business
Shared resources developing an idea is a nice concept, but to reduce risk, as soon as an idea starts taking off, the development and product team should immediately be deployed on that project. Switching people on a project is hugely problematic and wastes time in education, learnings, and experience.

Any resources working in an incubator should be told beforehand that if they work on an idea, they can't just sit around and keep coming up with new ideas; they need to see the blossoming idea through to its conclusion. If anyone can't buy into that model, then they should find a job somewhere else.

Keep resources at arm's length
The more resources you can keep not on recurring payroll, the better. It's easier to remove people who aren't working out, or shut down projects. Hire the teams on projects that are flourishing to the corporations in which those projects reside.

Build a rolodex of resources you can deploy at a moment's notice. Find great people who are willing to give you great rates and can do great work.

Be disciplined in a process for evaluation
Set clear checkpoints for your incubated projects. If they do not reach basic minimum levels, then they should be shut down ruthlessly. Budgets, time, goals all can be used to create checkpoints.

Incentives are key
Nothing motivates people better than survival instinct and a life or death deadline. The survival instinct is activated when they know they're going to run out of money (like their salary, their means for eating and paying rent, etc.) if they aren't successful. The life or death deadline is activated when they know they're not going to get any more resources or help beyond a certain point. So they MUST be successful or else they're gonna starve.

On the other side of the coin, it is highly motivational to know that their success is also tied to success of their project in a large and singular manner.

Paying them a regular salary from the overall incubator pool is not motivating enough; it makes them too comfortable knowing that they could fail on any idea but still are able to go on surviving. It also severely reduces their urgency, knowing that they're still going to get a paycheck whether or not it launches today or 3 months from now.

Giving them large ownership in a separate corporation formed from their project is. Tying their salary to the separate corporation is even better.

Forming a separate corporate entity per project increases clarity in ownership and process
Keeping projects internally makes it difficult to track and assign costs properly to each project. When you have a separate corporation each with its own budget and resources, tracking becomes easier.

It also makes it clear who owns what part of what corporation, and how much of it. Keeping projects internally removes that fact as you're part of and being paid by the whole.

This clarity extends to funding as well. When an entity is running out of money, you have to take an official step to put more funds into that corporation's bank account, along with all the ramifications in doing so in ownership, and why you have to do so. It really makes you think twice about funding a business that may be faltering or flawed.

As mentioned before, when peoples' salaries are tied to the corporation, then incentives are highly aligned with the success of that corporation, and not blurred with the whole incubator.

Some ideas require a sustainability component to be fully tested
A recurring theme among internet products is that ideas can be launched quickly and once it's out there, people will come and use it, love it, and it will grow. Banking on an idea to grow organically by itself is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that not many ideas have the ability to do so. We often fool ourselves that by launching a new idea live, that people will just come and use it and it will be the next Google. It might happen, but probably won't. Then we get frustrated wondering why it isn't growing, and often end up thinking that the idea sucked and we should close it down.

However, it is deceptive to think that an idea which does not grow organically is a failure. The reality is that the idea might actually be good, but just requires people, time, money, and smarts to apply to it and then it might grow. Thinking through the sustainability of a launched idea and how that can be supported for at least some period of time is really important.

Incubation works great if you're personally trying to figure out what to do next
If you have some personal capital and want to find a new idea to work on, incubation could be for you. I've talked to a number of people who have employed incubation at a personal level successfully. Instead of working on just one idea, they launch 3-4 and work on all simultaneously. Each idea gets funding and their own team. At the end of the process, the most successful idea survives. The other projects are closed down or sold, and you become CEO of the surviving, thriving business.

It could work much better than working on singular idea and trying to determine if that idea is the right one or not. Or working ideas serially. Being serial takes up a lot more time than doing things in parallel.

Yes it takes a lot of time and effort, and requires a multi-tasking brain. But if you're a startup person, you're probably used to working like that anyways.

Find great startup people
Seems basic right? It's actually harder than you think.

Find creative, hard working, caffeinated people who are smart and motivated AND can take a project to a conclusion. Too many people float at the creative, idea stage and don't have what it takes to stay with an idea over time and develop it. Discovering people who are like this is very hard, so beware.

As mentioned previously, keeping them at arm's length makes it easier to get rid of inappropriate people. Be ruthless in culling people who aren't working out.

Young people are great. They can work for long hours, live cheaply, have almost no other attachments in their lives. They will try stuff because they don't know better, unlike us old, jaded, experienced people. They're not so great because they don't have enough business experience to know how to take a business further.

Build an idea with revenue generation on the mind from day one
If an idea is generating money, its ability to sustain itself grows dramatically. Creating products which bank on the free model and gain lots of users, but have no concept or plan for short term revenue, is great for people who have a powerful investor as backer and who is willing to fund growth beyond that point. For an incubator, I would say that this is not a good path to go down and substantially increases risk of failure.

Revenue generation sustains the incubation process
Following on the last principle, if you can find a way to generate revenue immediately, then the incubation process can be self-funded and sustaining, and opens up the ability to try new ideas without deploying more outside capital.

Good luck with your incubation efforts, and I'd love to hear how you're doing if you are going to incubate new businesses.

Exploratory Products vs. Utility Products

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Over this last year, the topic of exploratory products versus utility products has come up so many times. And I've always felt uncomfortable with products that engage users because it helps them "discover" or "explore" something.

"Discovery" and "exploration" are always so alluring terms. Throughout human history, we've always envied the explorer. Christopher Columbus set out to discover the New World. Lewis and Clark went looking for a way to the Pacific Ocean. Neil Armstrong sets his foot on Lunar soil and declares, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Even watching Star Trek with the Enterprise on their 5 year mission to explore new worlds, we can't help but wish we were on the Enterprise alongside Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. It sounds so wonderful, so romantic, and speaks to our ingrained cultural tendencies that achieving, discovering, and exploring makes us feel that blazing new territory like pioneers puts us out of the comfort zone and sets our senses afire, and takes us out of our normal, boring lives.

First, I think that there is a segment of the population with a natural "gene" for exploration. I personally know people whose first inclination every morning right when they get up is to go to click randomly on news articles or websites, like StumbleUpon or Digg, or Del.icio.us. They always do this before doing anything else.

Second, I think there are differences in the manifestation of the "exploration gene" based on age. Young people seem to engage in more exploratory behavior. But once young people grow older, they get more responsibilities, their time gets occupied by a whole bunch of things, their lives get so full that there is little or no time for exploration unless you have a natural "gene" for exploration.

To me, exploration is either an activity relegated to a small population relative to the whole, or one that does not sustain itself as a person ages. Given this belief, I think there is a tremendous amount of risk associated with products that depend on "exploration" and "discovery" as the main reasons why users would want to and/or continue using a product.

What's the difference between an exploratory product and a utility product?

Utility products are those which depend less on exploration and discovery as primary tenets. Instead, utility products work their way into our lives because they are essential and we gain continual value from our usage and interaction with the product.

Here's an example. News sites like NYTimes.com are utility sites. We consume news every day and find value from that by being informed. But they also introduce exploration to keep things interesting with their Most Emailed Stories module. But it's not the focus of the site; it's secondary.

Another example: StumbleUpon. I consider StumbleUpon a classic exploration site. You go there because you don't know what you'll find. You have to like discovering new websites and are ok with spending your valuable time doing so. But yet traffic over the last year has been dropping.

Here are the Alexa graphs for NYTimes and StumbleUpon:

Do you want your product's graph to look like NYTimes.com or StumbleUpon?

My basic tenet is:

If you want a chance at success, you must make your product essential from a utilitarian point of view. You can use exploration to make your product more interesting, but if you make exploration your main purpose, you'll reach a topping out point of users and potentially decline over time.

Is it a perfect rule? No, of course not. I am sure if we thought hard enough, we could think of some sites who are successful at employing exploration as their main purpose. However, I'm talking about risk reduction of failure and increasing the probability of success dramatically in my opinion. Wouldn't you want to reduce the risk of failure by a great amount?

My Book is Being Written!

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After all these months, I finally am moving on my book! I found someone to help me extract all these facts out of my head, which is a critical starting point. I'm not a natural writer; I can't sit down and just regurgitate tons of text on demand. It takes me effort. But having someone who is knowledgeable AND able to editorialize and write extract all this information from my mind is a godsend for the book's process.

She interviews me, digs into areas to find out more information, makes notes on things that require more research. Having a "brain extractor" work with me has also helped me think through how this book should be formatted and ultimately end up. My next step is to get a few paragraphs written and then finalize how I want to publish this book...

Loudwater Labs at Sunshine Suites NYC 2-27-08

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Loudwater Labs all packed in at Sunshine Suites in NYC:

Their decision process is a spin board that says, "What Would a Pirate Do?" Startups sure can be strange sometime (haha)!

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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