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.
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.
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.
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.