Incubate or Accelerate?

I once found myself standing upon a small wooden platform at a great height above the ground, willing myself to trust the harness I was attached to, and step into the void. I was attempting  the zip line on an adventure weekend, which is an exhilarating and wholely unnatural activity involving pulleys and wires. As I stood there, cerebral cortex wrestling with limbic system and otherwise paralysed, the staff member manning the platform performed his solitary function: he pushed me.

Zip LIne

Only one month previously I had done something far less scary – I had quit my PhD to start DemonWare, coaxed (but not pushed) by Dylan Collins. My decision was an easy one, when it came time to make it: my college strategy was to hang out with smart people and do interesting things, and DemonWare was like that on steroids. With no debt or obligations, and a lifestyle suited to my salary of student stipend plus side projects, there was nothing to lose and the only way was up.

That’s my story, but I was lucky in various ways. In another life, starting up could have been an intimidating change. There may be debts, a young family or maybe just a lavish lifestyle. Sometimes you need someone to push you from your secure platform into the exciting unknown.

Many of my former college colleagues continued into business after their PhDs, getting their push in programs as diverse as NDRC and Y Combinator. When we meet up for pints (which is often) I can’t help but explore what it is that I might have missed out on. Many conversations later, I’m ready to be opinionated. With so many new startup programs on the Dublin scene (I can count at least 10), I want articulate my angle.

Dump The Training Wheels

I’m afraid that the majority of programs feel they add value by providing desk space, internet connections and coffee machines (kind of like Starbucks, actually). They want to take care of the administrivia of starting a business, so that the founders can get on with what they do best – having great ideas. I believe this is subtly dangerous, because starting up is less about great ideas than being fully empowered to execute a single idea excellently.

Although there’s no harm in having good facilities, it is dangerous if a startup never learns to handle these details for themselves. Founders are often reluctant to leave the fully-managed environment they’re in, and stay longer than they need to. They feel lacking in confidence compared to other “real” companies who have their own addresses. They may get stuck in a cashflow limbo where with no money going out, and no money coming in, every €10 expense seems significant and is agonised over. The most expensive cost – the founders’ time – remains unaccounted for and spirals out of control. Finally, the cushioned cocoon of the startup space removes a valuable acid test that measures the basic resourcefulness of founders.

Collaboration space is super cheap. It may be an empty room in a friend’s company, your garage or in Starbucks. When you decide to rent, it will be one of your smallest expenses, easily dwarfed by the cost of your time. If you’re in Dublin, office space starts at free, and caps out at about €150 per desk per month. Running an office is simple – it’s home economics without the cooking. Everyone should be able for it.

So, I’m clearly in favor of dumping the training wheels, and (mixing metaphors) diving into the deep end (which is actually fairly shallow).

Move Over, Incubators

Even the name “incubator” is quite condescending towards startups, who by implication are premature and unable to survive without the nurturing care of the establishment. In the worst instances, these incubators have atmospheres more akin to retirement homes than maternity wards, a kind of company purgatory haunted by advisers paid by one quango or another. One should always be careful of the competency of advisors, but those that make a career out of it are by definition not practicing what they preach.

In the age of the Lean Startup, the role of the incubator must be re-examined. If the first rule is to fail fast, then why keep your idea on life support?

If this Quora contributor is correct, the incubator is dead. If so, I believe we’ll be just fine, because the kind of mentoring that founders need is available for free from their peers and elders in the startup world. All it takes to get advice from the most successful entrepreneur in your space is that you buy the coffee and that you continue to impress.

Enter the Accelerator

New startup programs are identifying themselves as accelerators. Every program is different, but I think the common link is the shift of emphasis away from training wheels and towards networking and mentoring. For example, Startup Bootcamp launched this week in Dublin, and will graduate its first batch of companies in 12 weeks. Meanwhile, mentors (including me) are unpaid volunteers and all active in the startup scene, which is to say that they practice what they preach. Eoghan Jennings, who runs the accelerator in Dublin, described the first two-day session between teams and mentors as “startup speed dating”, which was very accurate. By the end of day one, everyone knew each other, were talking about each other, and were excited about one another’s business ideas. The most recent Launchpad program, under Gary Leyden’s orchestration, also had a 12 week time frame and was a great success.

I already have a clear view of what the Bootcamp startups are going to get out of the program: they are going to build personal networks, with each other, with their peers around Dublin and with their mentors. After 12 weeks they should all have personal connections throughout in the startup community. The accelerator will perform a unique role, building people’s confidence to jump into business for themselves, and ensuring that they have a strong support network when they do.

I believe that as soon as each startup is ready to make this jump, they should jump as soon as possible – even if it means paying rent for the first time. They will find full independence and control of their environment will influence their general attitude and embolden them towards business generally.

But skip both if you can

Although I think the Startup Bootcamp model can play an important role, and I think it’s worth dedicating time to support it, I don’t think it’s right for everyone. More so than any time in the past, it is possible to start a profitable company by yourself from your bedroom. Dublin is an amazing place to do so. It is the city that connects the US and European business worlds, and the technology scene is exploding. When I walk to work I can’t swing a cat without hitting someone from Google or Facebook. There is a tech meetup on every night, so many they often clash with each other. Meanwhile, prime office space in the city center is practically free.

In other words, if you’re a tenacious techie in Dublin, there’s nothing in your way. Why not just do it? Build apps in your bedroom, and demo them in Starbucks. Then say hi to the crew from the accelerators when you see them at the tech event in the evening.

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Posted in Enterprise, Ireland, Tech
4 comments on “Incubate or Accelerate?
  1. Nick Hawtin says:

    Thanks, Sean.
    Terrific point about colaboration space being cheap. In a world full of free wifi and great coffee shops, it is indeed the least important element.
    There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s about going for it – and occasionally about listening to the right advice along the way.
    Good luck!

  2. Hi Sean
    Interesting blog and a great description of how things work in the real world. Provides a great insight to the practical side of business incubation. Enjoyed it greatly and look forward to more.

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