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.

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