Recently in Incubation Category

(originally titled, "Forcing Incubator Companies to Get Paying Customers"...changed the title because it bugged me that it was unclear --DS)

I had the pleasure of helping out at the Stanford d.school's Launchpad class this last quarter. It was a graduate level class which was the first incubator class offered by the design school (a.k.a. d.school) whereas the "b school" (business school) and the "e school" (engineering school) both already had entrepreneurship classes involving creating new businesses.

The class was taught by Perry Klebahn, a classmate of mine from when I was in the product design master's program way back when, and Michael Dearing of Harrison Metal, an early stage venture fund. They interviewed about 60 applicants and accepted 12 into the class. The goal of this class was to teach entrepreneurship from the design school's perspective, and their major objective was to sign up paying customers by the end of the class in 10 weeks. Those that did were reported to get an instant A in the class!

Those entering the class mostly started from nothing. So imagine the pressure to develop an idea into a business model and a product that was good enough for customers to want to pay for in as little as 10 weeks!

Certainly Ycombinator drives its companies pretty hard over the 10 weeks or so during the time they are in the program. Every other incubator program does similarly to its crop of startups.

But they have a slightly different goal than what the Stanford Launchpad class had. There was no requirement that their startups develop a product AND get paying customers; the only objective was only to launch, and hopefully convincingly enough to raise a round of cash to keep going. There was no emphasis on racing to a proven business model in the allotted time.

I find this very compelling in this day of economic crises, and as an angel investor trying to find great companies to fund.

Too many startups come into being with no concept of a business model; they aim to get users and drive towards that and hope that a business model falls into their lap along the way. The problem with this approach is that, at early stage, you don't have enough runway to try a few things and see what can work. You are extremely time constrained given your bank account and you have to race to making revenue as soon as possible.

Granted, this could have worked pre-economic crisis. Many startups were raising their second rounds on the promise of a business model and a strong user base. Sadly, those days are gone; without revenue, it would be extremely hard to get another round today. Investors just think that either you and/or your idea have failed.

As an early stage angel investor, I invest in the riskiest time in a startup's life. After having seen a lot of my companies trying to employ the "race for users" model and then failing to raise more money, or not raising enough initially, I really like the fact that someone is forcing startups to find customers who will pay for their product or service. This at least proves that there is some validity to whatever business model they are pursuing and increases their survivability with incoming revenue.

How would this be implemented with an incubator program? I think there is one big hiccup which I have not completely solved, or more accurately, is solved only in the context of university setting. This is the reward for being successful in the task of finding paying customers.

For a class of students, their reward is only at the end of class when they successfully find paying customers: they get their A.

For an incubator program which typically invests a small sum of money for a small piece of the company, a big portion of the reward has already been given. How would we incent them to go for a lofty goal of finding paying customers if they already have their reward in hand?

Some ideas:

1. You give them the initial money and let them run. Then you commit to investing a second chunk only in your startups who find paying customers after the time period.

2. You could set loose the entrepreneur teams without funding for 10 weeks and then only fund those at the end who find paying customers. In many ways this parallels what happened in the Launchpad class with students.

3. You could give them their initial money and then only allow those who find paying customers to present to investors at the end. Those who failed are cut loose and left to fend for themselves.

Are there other ideas?

I would love to see some of the incubator programs incorporate this into their graduation criteria. I think it would strengthen the quality of the exiting startups immensely.

Design as a Central Resource in Incubators and Funds

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In my last post, Giving UX and Design Advice, I started talking about a buddy of mine asking me about design support in incubators and described what goes on in the mind of one person (me!) who gives design and UX advice. I believe this gives clues as to how to find a person to fill the role of a design/UX advisor, or if someone wanted to become one, what they might expect.

Let's get on with the real topic, which is, if you're running an incubator, should you provide design as a central resource? And if you do, how might that work?

Also, when I say incubators, I think that we can include any investment operation, such as a venture fund, who wants to provide centralized design help to its portfolio companies.

The Problem Statement

There is recognition that for early stage startups, getting the product right has unprecedented importance over other aspects of the business. If this is true, then getting the user experience of the product right is paramount. Assuming we know the difference between design and UX, design has definitely the user facing component of the user experience of a product. Thus it's natural that helping startups find great design support is very important.

The problem with finding design support is that...there just aren't enough great designers around! The world simply doesn't have enough designers who are talented AND are great at crafting a great front-end user experience. Note that you can't just have someone who is talented because some guys are just not good UX people. So if we're lucky to find a great designer who is also a great UX person, then we'd want to utilize this person on a wide variety of projects.

However, in what form should the design/UX help take? Advice only, or actual work? Here are some examples of this in the real world now.

The Designer in Residence

About 5-6 months ago, the world saw its first Designer in Residence (DIR) at Bessemer Venture Partners. The term was first coined by Bessemer's David Cowan and shortly after the Mint acquisition, their designer Jason Putorti became the first DIR. I have talked with Jason about his experiences as a DIR and will wrap in some thoughts from conversations with him and Bessemer folks. For a more in-depth look at his experiences in his time as DIR, please look for his upcoming post at his blog.

The main purpose of the DIR was to help out the Bessemer portfolio from a design point of view. Any portfolio company that was receptive to help would get time with Jason, although it was mostly from an advice point of view. The startups that were receptive to outside advice really appreciated his visits and comments. Many startups did not feel the need to receive outside help and some of those probably didn't need any design advice, and some, by some viewpoint, probably could have used some even if they didn't think they needed it.

That's not to say that Jason didn't deep dive; this did occur but it didn't happen very often since his time was limited with each company.

Betaworks

As part of our operations at betaworks, we incubate some businesses. Thus, providing design help to our internal projects was deemed critical to getting those internal products out the door quickly and allow us to iterate on them, without having to waste time to find design help for every project. We hired a designer to be on staff to help us work quickly on our ideas.

In the case of betaworks, my proposed problem statement is not their main purpose for having the designer on staff; this designer actually does the work, and so therefore his time is limited because he needs to focus on projects to get design work done. Currently he works on 2-3 projects maximum, and at any one time is focused on one.

He hasn't done much at giving design/UX advice though, simply because his time would get overwhelmed helping too many people at once, and then only at the advice level.

He also has noted to me that he has extremely enjoyed the interactions and the projects, and the wide variety of problems to solve from simple sites to complex services. Such is the nature of working for an operation whose day to day interactions are always with the latest and greatest!

Parallels with Central Design Teams in Bigger Companies

The issues experienced, when attempting to provide actual work, mirror those of companies with central design teams attempting to service many teams at once. Because the teams do not have dedicated design support, they have to come to the central resource to get things done.

The typical issues encountered in these situations are:

1. Competition for design time, and the resulting tensions. Sometimes there is the threat of going outside the company for design help, which works for some companies and is absolutely prohibited by others.

2. Accounting dollar-wise for design time can be challenging, and things such as chargebacks to matrix headcount attribution have been tried to account for resourcing, and to see how much design time and cost a project has used.

3. Headcount is always an issue, and fighting to add to headcount in a central organization when it's not tied directly to any revenue generating project (instead, it's tied to all projects both revenue generating and losing) is a difficult fight to win.

4. Designers in these central teams are often stressed to finish way too much work and quality can suffer if the demands on their time exceed their ability to finish quality work.

5. Causing 4, scheduling projects is always a problem when so many people are vying for your design time. Prioritization is always an issue, and frustrations can occur when someone doesn't get support when they need it.

Provide Only Advice, or Resources to do the Actual Work?

Here you go, the pros and cons of both!

Advice Only:

PROS:

1. Can handle a lot of projects at once.

2. Can talk about issues larger than just design alone, that are related to user experience.

3. Breadth of exposure to many projects gives a breadth of experiences to bring to bear on any one given project.

4. Effectiveness is potentially at its greatest at the certain stages of the project, like at the beginning during product definition before decisions have been made, and evaluating what has been done already, especially if there is evidence that there are problems with what has been launched and receptiveness to help from the team is greatest (since it's obvious there is something that needs to be fixed, rather than not having concrete evidence before a product is launched.

CONS:

1. Only helps those who are receptive.

2. Even receptive people may ignore your advice, or simply forget about it later.

3. Advice can only be implemented if the team can internalize what is being said. If they do not have enough depth of understanding, they may not be able to implement fully, or only partially which may not be enough.

4. Lack of depth on a project can result in incomplete advice.

5. Advice can be wrong, or simply wrong for a given team. The right solution for a given problem may come in a multitude of forms; the advice a single person gives really only offers one solution but it may not be the solution that a team requires to get to success. Remember that success can come in many forms. For example, even if a product has a terrible UX, if the startup is sold and investors make money, then by many measures, the startup has reached a success despite ignoring UX advice.

6. Giving design/UX advice requires an individual who enjoys giving advice as a career and not doing the actual work. It may be hard to find skilled individuals who want to give advice and not do the actual work.

7. Giving design advice is only part of the solution; we still have to find someone to do the actual work. Designers are still hard to come by. Without anyone to implement the advice, the advice may be pointless.

Doing Actual Work:

PROS:

1. Inserting a great designer is the best way to ensure that the right design work gets implemented. Having someone on the team who is there, fighting for the right thing to do 24/7, is the best way to ensure that a great UX gets launched. It also enables depth on a project, so that the probability of the right design being implemented is greater.

2. Evidence has shown that most designers love doing the actual work, and that it is much more satisfying than just giving advice. So it's most likely easier to find designers to staff a central group that does work.

CONS:

1. Coverage of projects is extremely limited, often only one project at a time.

2. Since coverage of projects is limited, you need a lot of personnel to cover a lot of projects. Paying salaries for all these folks and supporting them can be a challenge for an operation that does not have recurring revenue (ie. a fund or incubator is not a business with revenue). Or do we charge our startups, which has its own issues given that they are most likely early stage and very sensitive to expenses?

However, if the entity that provides design support has deep pockets, then either design support can be provided for free, or at a steeply discounted cost to the marketplace.

3. Running a central group which does work is like running a design consultancy. It will have the same issues as any consultancy in managing the work and client. Having worked at frogdesign, I can tell you that running a consultancy is not an easy thing; keeping deliveries on schedule, maintaining happy customers and quality of work all takes experience.

4. How do we know that the designers on staff can maintain quality? What if the best design support can be found outside the central group? What if the design talents that the startup needs are not found within the group?

5. Finding designers to hire is still tough. How much time is required to even build the team itself?

6. Central group design support is still very discontinuous; the group comes in, does work, and then stops for a while. In the space between projects, a lot of learning is accomplished which may not get back to the designers. At some point the startups will require their own dedicated design help which is continuous and 24/7.

One might notice that in either case, the list of cons exceeds the pros. I would say that the brevity of the pros doesn't minimize their importance. Each of those pros has tremendous value for each path. It is the cons that we must watch out for and be OK with, when setting up design support for an incubator or fund.

Footnotes:

a. As I was finishing up this post, I got word that the venture group at Google provides design support on contract, and on a limited basis to its portfolio companies. I hope to meet with the designer to get his take on how this works and how it's going for him.

b. One of my reviewers pointed out that this post ended kind of open ended and left him feeling the need for some firm conclusion. Yes I bailed on giving a specific conclusion because I believe that the direction an entity takes is highly specific to the situation and its own needs. I do not think there is one size fits all in providing either type of design support. I wanted to point out what the pros and cons of each direction were, and let the reader create his own solution based on his own requirements.

Many thanks to James Cham @jamescham, Jason Putorti @novaurora, and Neil Wehrle @neilw for reviewing this post!

Still Lots of Interest in Incubation Out There

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In the last few months, I've encountered at least 3 people who are thinking about incubating. On the one hand, it's amazing that the topic still comes up, but on the other hand, it's not so amazing.

Clearly the news about the spectacular failures of incubators during the last Internet bust hasn't deterred anyone from trying to build incubation operations. We can even find examples of incubation-type operations that are arguably working like Ycombinator and similar operations in other locales, like Techstars and LaunchBox Digital.

People keep wondering themselves why they can't just build stuff, and keep building stuff until something works. Or setup something like Ycombinator/Techstars/LaunchBox. It seems so cheap and easy to build a web site/service and get it out there. Why not just build lots of things quickly and try them until something works?

I believe the answer is YES you can. But before you do, I would point you to my two blog posts about incubation, which were gleaned from conversations from many incubator operations both personal and groups in the present and in the past. At betaworks, I took on the project of finding out as much as about incubation as I could, to inform betaworks about the best way to go about coming up an idea (or ideas), how to get them built, and set them up for later success. I then went out and talked to people incubating and distilled what I learned into these two posts:

Incubation 101
Incubation 201: Should You Incubate?

Words of wisdom/caution to those who want to do this:

1. Generally, professional investors run away from people trying to raise money into incubators, because of lot of them were around when the dot-com incubators all collapsed and they remember that. So calling whatever you're doing an incubator has been found to be a detriment to fund raising.

2. Find your benefactor, woo someone who believes in you and what you're going to do and has cash to fund your operation.

3. Be aware of destroying incentives that will hinder people from working their butt off on their projects. These are things like paying people full salaries and benefits, and not tying the ownership of the project deeply enough to the people working on them, among other things. Keep people hungry and motivated, that they think their entire future and life depend on the project they are working on.

4. Transferrance of an idea is SUPER HARD. Don't think it's easy to just be able to explain an idea to someone else and they will understand it as intuitively and viscerally as the idea originator.

5. Keep costs as low as possible. This will keep everyone's runway as long as possible. It will also add to the hunger.

6. Figure out what you're good at, and leverage that in developing the incubation operation. Paul Graham loves smart hackers and is really good at filtering for that. So Ycombinator teams are always composed of super smart hackers because his strategy is based more on having super smart hackers around than just the idea, because often times where you start is not where you end up, and smart people will find a way to success no matter what. What do you believe will generate success and how will your strengths help that strategy?

7. Following on 6., I would advise you not to compete with Ycombinator or any of the other incubator type operations out there. Don't call yourself Ycombinator 2.0 either in name or messaging. Only Paul Graham can pull off Ycombinator in the way he is doing now. Be yourself and build your own brand.

8. Out of respect for the kind folks who shared with me their knowledge and wisdom which cost them a ton of time and money in legal fees to figure out, I am not publishing anything about what I learned about company structure or legal matters. You should go find a law firm who has worked in this area before and they can help you figure things out. As a hint, some of that has to do with the SEC Investment Company Act of 1940.

I wish you well in your incubative endeavors. May you build something truly great!

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.

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