February 2016


I have been an avid follower of the incubator/startup movement since its inception nearly 20 years ago.  Up to then most people with an idea and a committed drive would venture out and find ways to make it all happen, some won but most lost.  But loosing was not without the benefit of understanding and developing new ways that employed an new found awareness of what things should be avoided.

My ‘Brief’ History

Not to belabor or hold myself out as a poster child but I have a long life as a serial innovator.  Tradition to me was something to advance and not something to accept as without opportunity.  To many this made me a critique and not viewed as someone who cared enough to walk a different path for the mutual benefit of all.  Needless to say my success stories did not achieve the acclaim that others had, all to their credit for having that magical combination that pushed it beyond the normality.  But having said this I have learned immensely about what works, what doesn’t work and how decisively flawed the incubator/startup model really is.  For these reasons I decided to write about this topic and how advancement remains to day a topic in question.

Problems on the Home Front

What does a incubator/startup look like and behave?  Almost all are a meeting place, initially a form of group meet up to share, lament and build enthusiasm for the journey they are one.  Most still holding on to their full time jobs to fund their pursuits while a small number are living off of some meager fund has not been allocated for specific purposes.  This lack of underlying plan often forces the startup into spending on necessities and avoiding, to their demise the promotion the so desperately need to build following and visibility.  Whether this following is customers or the all important investor community that can provide seed funds to advance the introduction.  The positive vibe however is essential, a sense of hope and community bring forth a ‘can do’ attitude while providing an all important sounding board for the rationalization of concepts, ideas and approaches.  It also builds connections where to some it may mean two heads are better than one, and not simple a feux collaboration where both parties remain committed to self and not to the collaboration.

The bigger problem and the reason why I decided to discuss the incubator/startup realms is the lack of professional and experienced leadership.  I have seen a churn of leadership comprised of shallow one hit wonders that are allot on bravado and less on capability.  The good news they continue and build upon the informal meeting community as mentioned previously.  They might even bring to light some big name success stories and the occasional road trip to some recognized base of innovation, knowledge and startup success.  However, when we look back we remain with the same sad story of spot successes and a large number of failures.  Were the spot successes the result of the incubator/startup endeavor or would it happened because of some other things like timing, luck, the person, the idea or a hidden talent that is not readily available to all?   In lies a serious challenge to overcome, the lack of skilled business leadership for the incubator/startup enterprise.

Who are You?

How would you describe yourself?  Obviously you have an idea and want to get rich from it and possibly along the way it might provide some sort of social good.  Not wrong to be in the situation, but getting from Start-to-Finish isn’t about randomness (which most would later call coincidence) but its about assessing who you are, where you need to get, how to get there, what it will take, how much it will cost and what enablers you need to be working on right now.  Unfortunately most of you that are in the incubator/startup culture have attended workshops and talks on a wide variety of topics.  I would say most are good, but one must understand they are but a single piece of a much larger puzzle.  If you don’t even know what kind of puzzle you need to assemble these pieces become devoid of usable and applied value.   I recently had the occassion to talk with a bright young person who had an idea and was all excited about his innovation and was looking to get funding for manufacturing his idea.  Yet he didn’t even have a budget on what he needed to package, promote, sell or distribute.  More important however was no consideration had been considered for the production beyond the initial release.  Looking at this I dug deeper into why he felt he needed funding and it was quite typical; idea but not source of funds and a talk that presented the sources of investor funding.  Had he continued I would suspected he would have allowed his passion to give away what had great potential, all because he didn’t have his needs in order.

Beware-Beware

Sharks circle the source of blood, and the incubator/startups are no exception.  We see sources of packaging, marketing, manufacturing and even guidance that offer very attractive deals.  They don’t often direct their attentions on the new entries, but certainly if there has been some funding provided to the incubator/startup they can smell the blood of opportunity.  This isn’t something new in business nor unique to the incubator/startup enterprise it has been around for much longer than can be remembered.  An earlier example was contract opportunities for newly formed Business Process Outsourcers (BPOs) and these suppliers smelled the blood of opportunity.  For a small placement fee they would provide contracts, some of them never existed and others had such a high threshold for performance compliance that it could never be attained.  The same is happening in the incubator/startup culture.  You may have even seen some come and talk about their services under the guise of education and not for it really is…. a smartly crafted scam.

Why This?

I recently thought about the status of the incubator/startup concept.  As mentioned previously the leadership has been right for community building and holding out hope. What remains is still a unfinished raw material, you the innovator/entrepreneur.  Whether out of desperation or dispair you move on and attempt to go it on your own without the benefit of the culture.  If successful, you will point to yourself and if you fail you will point to the ineffectiveness of the incubator/startup organization as a systemic reason.  The reality is that you ‘get what you pay for’.  Its no longer to go about this in an amateur fashion.  Countries and enterprises need to invest and do so where it matters, leadership.  This includes not just the organizational leadership but in the boards that direct them.  You simply can’t take a few success examples and expect them to have the requisite skills to do it again, and again and again.  It requires people who can not only do that but understand when to take risk and when not to.  It requires people who understand what needs to be developed and what needs to provided, not withstanding an appreciation for shared service opportunities coming from the incubator/startup as well.  You cannot expect these sources of opportunity to have sufficient funds to do this, it has to come from outside.  One might view this as an investment opportunity for the future and not simply the clinical thinking of ROI.  With failure rates at 50% plus the ROI for the remaining will double the time needed to achieve that ROI.  So while a positive return can be achieved, it can also re-channel lost ventures to productive ones and help to reduce the recovery period to something that is more reasonable.   This will not happen by luck, a pretty face, a smart campaign, a cheer leading mentality it will take strong executive management skills.  However, my concern remains as to whether the excitement can be retained from the cult atmosphere that exists?  Is the older authoritative presence going to drive them away or will they be attracted to the ancient oracle that may be the new leadership?  Obviously allot will depend on the person and how they provide leadership.  Key however is the need to demonstrate value to them, even if they have nothing more than their time to invest and no money to do it with… there remains perceived value.  For some it will be a transitioning exercise from prior popular regimes, some from failed lost confidence endeavors and others that are moving from the ranks of informality.

Incubator/startups are essential to the life blood of nations.  It is often the tipping point for those emerging to new world global enterprise countries.  If these are left to fail or pass as a ship in the night as just another attempt we will never know whether it was a lost opportunity.  Things cannot continue as they have been.  Tedium is important for prepetative tasks but a killer to the free thinking that exists in this community.  Those that are empowered to promote, support and develop free enterprise pay notice, the ball is in your court whether you want more of the same or whether you want to bridge the gap between the incubator/startup community and commerce.

Thinking is a horrible thing, it forces us to look at our present realities and make decisions.  Most would probably prefer to take each day as it comes, others may retreat into an even more passive reality and there are those that take action.  Some may even question why action at your age when ‘you should’ be taking the time to enjoy life.  My retort, since I’m in that group is that I have always enjoyed life.  For me, at least, my life has been fully committed to allot of different things, not the least of which has to improve on the lives we have.  It was point out recently that I act bold and critical, to which I agree.  But those that would agree with this assessment are dealing superficially and without giving thought as to why.  Early in my working career I was an auditor, and as auditors our apparent role is to find fault with things.  When this eludes us we don’t feel elated but become a bit cynical and believe that things can’t be so right.  As we often discover there is a much bigger issue that exists than the jubilation which we are seeking to have.  This forces us into a mindset of ‘happy path thinking’ and not the realities of the all so common ‘sad path of life’.   When I think of my recent critic I see ‘happy path’, the ‘popular’ and the one that others will gravitate to as a result of position, stature and physical attractiveness.  What I also wonder is when these present day virtues will play out, because they will.  Society is not so kind as to allow a forgiving heart whether even when strongly defended by results provided over a course of years.  I wonder at that point where they will go, will they accept realities, slide into despair or stand solidly to defend their position as a member of the elder community.

PASSING THE TORCH

Every cinematic production always has the leader passing the privilege of  leadership to someone else.  Usually this is passed as a result of impending death and the readiness of the replacement to accept the responsibility.  They aren’t always ready but what they show are the virtues of leadership and committed boldness.  But this is all in movies with a smartly crafted story line that permits for a sequel to be played.  This is our human thinking that there will always be the next chapter and that next chapter will go to illustrate that main characters ability to achieve and overcome.  Subordinate to this the question of doubt that goes unfulfilled from the closing episode as to whether they can make it a reality.  The reality is that had the main character (the replacement) had not been there that the elder leader would have least given comfort a continued stable state.  What seldom gets illustrated in these chronicles is the uncertainty that exists or the fool hearty thinking that exists in every new leader.

Stepping forward into reality 2016 version, society as a whole seeks leaders.  Anyone or anything that society deeps a success in the present day reaches a level of leadership recognition.  It might be a technological accomplishment, commanding an uprising, award received or a contest won.  Are these leaders or are they simply points in time.  What comes to mind is a term that occurs in the music industry called a ‘one hit wonder’.  The person has all of the traits and all of the abilities but is unable to deliver continuity.  There are far more one hit wonders than the emergence of leaders.  The outcome isn’t always pretty, some fall into the abyss of drugs and substance abuse, some will disappear into obscurity while others will continue their craft using what little bit of notarity they have been able to  accumulate.  The elders are allot like the one hit wonder but on a much larger scale.  Their one hit wonder may be the 20, 30 or even 40 years of commitment to their profession and their society.  Is society willing to simply accept this contribution and push them to pasture, allow them to fade into the past (even the most popular will fall into that state) or is there a reason to continue involving them in ‘the today’?  It is a personal choice for the elder but it is also a responsibility of society to determine how it wishes to react.  The East has a long standing respect for its elders but I would also say that the outcome remains the same as with the West.  Both East and West do not have a commitment to engagement of the elder community.  As a result, the resource is not utilized and as a result society continues to create mistake on mistake that could have been avoided or resolved using the best of minds crafted on years of applied experience.

The Plan

As an elder I’ve been sitting here for the last couple of weeks considering ‘the next’.  When we are young we look at things in terms of the journey traveled and when you become an elder you start trying to figure out how much forward history remains.  Many decide to take it slow, although slow sometimes seems quite fast, clinging on to each and every second.  Others fade in the discourse of society’s use of their talents and abilities, to which this becomes a painful torturous process.  And then there is the remaining few, the “me’s” that want to grow more.  For me, its found in the development of my 20 year plan.  I started off thinking 10 years but then realized that if it was too short that I would have to add to it.  Now in the concept of sprint planning (an agility terms used in software development) we are more than happy to add more because it provides the stakeholder with added perceived value.  But I’m not doing this for the benefit of anyone else, but for self and knowing that I was stretching small would be a personal letdown on myself… so I’m going to stretch big and  anticipate that this won’t be my last plan during the course of my life legacy gifted to me by my parents and the natural course of creation.  For those that think that I should hang it up, sorry to disappoint you but go on with your lives as though I don’t exist (they have been doing a pretty good job at that… so be it).  For those that think I should slow down, I am in slow mode (haha, I bet you thought it was all out, sorry… I live the life of a race car).  But more importantly for those are sitting at that same cross road as I did, and still haven’t got the answer I want you to consider building your next plan.  A plan not based on a goal but one crafted on a basis of service to society and your own mental well being.

This plan is like to other, its a plan based on enjoyment.  It reaches deep into our past and becomes a testimony to sharing.  Some of you may have seen my tidbits of thinking (I like to think of it as wisdom but I’m sure that would be up for debate) posted in my social media outlet Facebook.  They are shown with hashtag #JEDyear, since I started doing this in 2015 and have continued on this track into 2016 they are prefixed by those two years.  I did this for two purposes; the first was to leave something behind for my child to have as a guide (since most were driven on real life situations that have happened) and the second reason was to serve as a yard stick on my continued mental well being (in other words not losing my sanity but if I was to determine the extent of loss…. thus far so good, I think).  Our elder plan should be made up of both personal and professional goals.  Each of these categories made up of a series of explicit objectives.  Its sort of the elder’s form of bucket list, probably perceived by many as a ‘Leaky Bucket List’.  The items should not be about the how, otherwise you will never get started, but the what.  Once you have defined the what then they ‘why’ and in this case its okay to be a bit selfish and have some reasons that are purely for you and no one else.  Mental health and sanity are important because as elders time has a way of eroding away sanity even when the physical is entirely healthy.  With this in hand we can then start to craft how we are going to go about doing it.  The one wonderful thing about elder planning is that we know the sense of urgency, in our youth we would prefer to procrastinate and let life lead us where it may.  Oh my goodness, I wish that life had left me alone on more than one occasion and forced me into having a better road map.  But alas, this is history and the time is now.

My Plan

As I said its for ‘me’ not for you or for society.  No, you won’t have to call up the FBI or other law enforcement agency to come and retrieve me.  My plan is about building the next.  Its not about the internet of things, its not about innovation or some other present day catch phrase its about torch building.  Where you don’t come, I will come, and where I come I will show and guide.  I have done this for a good part of my life, often in the shadows of the ones who today are either dead or struggle by the loss of their appeal.  They are a small part of what they once were and their mental state although statesman like is inside a frail vulnerable being.  So for me let me at least outline what my plan is (and you can decide for yourself as to whether I’m sane or not).

Personal

  • Stabilize Friendship and Connection Base
    • Purge where you must, repair where you can, build what you need
  • Next Generation Preparation to Accept the Torch
  • Achieve New Avenues for Enjoyment
  • Recognize All Wrongs without Justification

Professional

  • Complete Existing Projects
  • Form One New (or Renewed) Startup Enterprise
  • Capture Life Experiences and Seek to Fill Gaps of Opportunity
  • Continue Reading, Research and Study
  • Abandon Contacts who Involve Effort Exertion

Unlike most plans I believe this has to be examine and adjusted regularly, possibly as frequently as monthly.  I am also planning to share this with some other fellows (men and women) who should be or are in the midst of a similar exercise.  Although many are not in the mode of writing it down but living it, like they did in their youth its important to share in order to get a sanity check as well as to build psychological strength.  You might think you have all the answers after 20 years but you don’t even have it at 30 or even 40.  Life isn’t about an ending but about a beginning.