Startup Incubator Best practice

What do people need from an incubator when starting a business ?

Over the last six years I have visited, be a participant of and worked in an startup Incubator. So I have had the opportunity to see it from all sides. The one thing I learnt very early on was it’s not about the physical space. Those with the most colourful, innovative decor or largest wall hanging tended to be the worst. Those that I liked focused on a few important things, so lets consider them in the right order:

Business Networking

The opportunity to network and be associated with a network is the most important factor. Entrepreneurs that do well network, it provides co-founders, investors, customers and the most importantly great staff. So having this provided on a plate to you, when starting out, is the golden egg which your business should be incubated in.

Mentoring

Most people who run incubators have never started or run a business, so having a mentor is very important in creating perspective, inspiration and raw guidance. The mentor and mentee should be trained to understand the expectations placed on the each other. The selection of the mentor should be based on the stage of the business, business sector and the location of the entrepreneur. Having more than one mentor should also be encouraged.

Flexible Space

It’s important that formal meeting space, serendipitous meetings and water cooler moments are all facilitated within the incubator. The majority of business people today expect to meet in a cafe or open space but a closed space is also needed for formal meetings. The hot desking should have great wifi.

Friendly Support

Having people who can support you when things don’t go as expected is important. The ability to ask someone who can sign post you to additional support, grants, loans and people is so important when starting out, pivoting and trying to bootstrap your business. When selecting an incubator, do the staff seam helpful and knowledgeable.

Skills Development Events

In the process of starting a business most people learn new skills naturally, but don’t know it and need reminded of the distance covered. Some people need organised session whereby they develop skills and knowledge which will be needed in the future, next month/year. The majority of incubators will have a speaker series to support this.

Funding Support

Most people don’t need that much, if you are outside London, the costs of living is less. If the office is free then it’s just some living expenses and then some Stuff to move the business forward. However access to finance at various stages is important to scale businesses and the staff should be able to support you in this endeavour.

Free or Discounted Stuff

Most businesses need a tool bag of stuff which can help them more forward their business. This may include websites, accounting software, payment solutions, discounted travel, …etc. Its also helpful if the incubator can recommend software solutions for you, saving you the research space and money.

 

The important factors in starting a business are sometimes softer that you think. Its not always Money, Staff and 1000 sq ft office space. It may just be a cup of tea with someone who has done it before and has a story to tell.

Essential Software Tools for a Startup Business

Over the last year I have either started mentoring or joined the advisory board of several technology startups. These are technology led businesses with a team of both techies and non-technics. For every startup its important to set the tools early on as it influences the culture of the business and also the pace of the business growth. Selecting the wrong tool delays development as everyone has to learn it or even stops the business as no one wants to use this tool.

There is no one tools I recommend and it depends on the team members and then the project attributes, such as the size of team, selected coding platform, use of third party plugins and also the length of the creative cycles. So below you will find at least two options for each core tool. The tools selected below all start off with a freemium model which is ideal for startups.

Another factor in selecting the tools below was they should work on multiple devices (mobile, tablet and PC) and also with multiple people (sharing, editing and also distribution).

Startup Documents

Criteria: Need to share, edit and collaborate on documents. Multiple people should be able to view documents at any time.

Evernote

I have been a fan of Evernote since it was first launched. I use it in several ways:

  • Research – I use the Web Clip extension to save web pages which then allow me to develop a collection of articles very quickly and then index them against tags and within notebooks. For early stage startups understanding what competitors are doing and how certain technology works is important. This can then be shared with everyone on the team, ensuring a similar knowledge base.
  • I have multiple notebooks that I use for all sorts of things including my task management, goal setting, lists of all kinds, photos and random notes.

Google Apps/Docs

Its taken me some time to get happy with Google Docs and still don’t put documents I want to be secure on it, but as an editor which multiple people can use to generate a shared vision its the best tool out there.

  • Collaborative Documents – The document editor is better than MS Word and has a better spell checker, it also loads faster.
  • Save As function, especially to PDF and Website is worth using as it allows you to email and share document very quickly.
  • Google Forms is the best way to create surveys. Since I found this I have stopped using Survey Monkey which has got too expensive.

Startup Internal Comms & Project Management

Criteria: A place where everyone can state what they are doing and when, any issues are discussed and logged.

Skype

This is a must have tool for collaborative teams.

  • Team Chat – To have a open chat box which everyone can contribute, add files and also URL links is extremely powerful. This always on and open team collaborative culture is extremely important to generating momentum for the business.
  • Team Calls – Every team has to go through the storming/norming phases and chatting on Skype for hours on getting the vision/mission/strategy right is the only way. Most of my team members use Skype of their mobile/tablet for this, so they can walk around the house, trying different rooms during each stage of the meeting.

Trello

This provides a digital kanban board for project management, allows the team to contribute and on one page see the entire set of tasks.

  • Great way to show projects, tasks and business mapping on one page which everyone can buy into.
  • The graphical interface provide a simple way to get the team to contribute and set/agree their tasks

Startup Cloud Storage

Criteria: Always on and backed up to the cloud. Low cost.

Dropbox

Keeps my working files available to me wherever I am, synched across multiple devices.

  • For one startup all their large images are shared through dropbox with all documents shared through Google Docs.
  • I also backup google docs and websites  to Dropbox
  • For another startup they use this for their business plans and external funding applications

Backupify

This is a cloud-to-cloud backup provider which enables you to draw down these resources and also edit and repurpose.

  • So backing up what’s on Flickr, Twitter, Delicious, Zoho, Google Apps/Docs, WordPress, Basecamp, Gmail, Facebook, Google Calendar…

Startup Code Management

Criteria: Version control for multiple developers

Github

This is the default repository for any startup source code plus task lists for developers.

  • It offers as standard distributed revision control and source code management functionality you need.
  • The Wiki and bug tracking features are important once development has started. A wiki can help track the outcomes of those conversations you have about “Should we do it this way or that”. As you know you one of these will be wrong and you will need to reserve this decision.

Windows Azure

This feature rich version allows expansion and future proofing.
You can get this free on the “www.microsoft.com/bizspark/” programme

  • As with a lot of Mircosoft products they are very well designed, (sometimes too over engineered), so choose the options carefully to start with and then open up additional features later on when needed. This way you can grow into the product and not be over “controlled” by the tool.

Startup Social Media

Criteria: Simple tools to tell the world of your progress during development. Management of multiple channels during launch.

Hootsuite

This is my default social media management tool, as it has Instagram, Youtube and others.

  • Management of multiple streams
  • The fact you can see all tweets from a particular Search and interact with these is very powerful

Buffer App

A simple and elegant way of scheduling tweets and posts.

  • Easy to get started and set a scheduled tweet or facebook feed
  • The sharing and timing when these posts go out is very powerful

There is lots of research on how startups work and the process. The vast majority of it states that time, finance and commitment is limited within the team. Therefore a simple limited set of tools is more powerful than having a expanded and more complete solution. The startup process to MVP and Alpha testing is a non perfect process and therefore over engineering the need for support tools just over complicates the project and therefore inserts delays.

7 Books every start-up entrepreneur should read

There is a great number of books out there which is aimed at Entrepreneurs and the skills and techniques they need. However if you are starting a business you don’t have time to read too many, so I have limited it to seven, which you should be able to read in one week. Enjoy!

Entrepreneur Revolution: How to Develop Your Entrepreneurial Mindset and Start a Business That Works by Daniel Priestley

I very much agree with the theme of this book “The age of the entrepreneur, the agile small business owner, the flexible innovator. The days of the industrial age are over.” and every student I meet, its about developing this mindset. This book should mainly provide some motivation and inspiration for your plunge into the next books.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Building a business is no longer about “the business plan” which is cast in stone, its about doing and then creating small changes or pivots to the plan as you move forward. He goes over the a number techniques an entrepreneur can use in order to create a business.

Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder

Great for the visual entrepreneur or those not interesting in writing a 50 page business plan. The book teaches us the right way to create a visual business plan and act on it. With pictures, graphs and timelines, this book is a must-have for every visionary young entrepreneur.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

This classic book will turn your relationships around and improve your interactions with everyone in your life. Business is all about relationships, employees, investors, partners and customers all need you to be the best at dealing with their interactions.

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

Godin is one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds in the world and you should be taking a look at www.sethgodin.com. In Purple Cow, he advocates building something so amazing that people can’t ignore you and then allowing them to be your brand ambassadors. There are a lot of great case studies in this book.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

While working on his doctorate in the 1970’s, Stephen R. Covey reviewed 200 years of literature on success. He noticed that since the 1920’s, success writings have focused on solutions to specific problems. In some cases such tactical advice may have been effective, but only for immediate issues and not for the long-term, underlying ones. This is why a lot of entrepreneur books have case studies or information which is of little help to you in your situation.

Covey presents an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning oneself to what he calls “true north” principles of a character ethic that he presents as universal and timeless.

The Psychology of Selling by Brian Tracy

Every entrepreneur knows that the key to a successful business is good sales technique. Not only do you have to sell your product, but you also have to sell yourself and your idea.

This book gives you valuable information and strategies about how to make more selling by focusing on one thing – the person. Young entrepreneurs tend to forget the basics of selling and jump right over to getting results, but in order to get results, you need to know the basics. Brian Tracy goes over those major points thoroughly.

Top 10 Enterprise Movies of All TIme

During the Christmas holiday I got asked to name my top ten films and as always its hard to bring it down to just ten, but then I thought about what have these movies teaches me about business or enterprise.

So here goes…

Stardust (2007)

“having a dream, passion and a little determination is all you need”

Our hero needs to track down a fallen star, living in a small village in Kent, he heads over the local boundary wall only to find its a magically world. Its a great movie and Robert De Niro plays a cross dressing captain is just a surreal part.

Its the story of EVERY entrepreneur I have ever meet, they have a dream, some passion and didn’t really know what the end game would be, but they were determined to see it through. We celebrate those that succeed but we should encourage everyone to have a go, as these people create wealth, innovation and more importantly experience.

Godfather (1972+)

“Pivoting an established business is extremely hard, so do it early on”

Michael tries to change the business activities of his family business and even with all his wealth and influence he fails.

I have seen this so many times in my career. Motorola was the greatest mobile phone manufacturer in the world, developing first generation phones (1G) and then Nokia started developing 2G phones and Motorola never really got into the digital game. Then Samsung took the 3G market with bigger screens and apps and Apple is the current power house with 4G phones. This is not even a pivot its an upgrade to me and you, but these businesses can not do it, so learn early on in your business and get it right. It may be your only chance.

Star Wars (1977+)

“The small business has more opportunities than the larger “death star” businesses, however its in the execution”

Lean methodology is key to setting off but for today’s business small is best. Think of Arm or Superdry which are amazing companies who outsource or create business models which mean they don’t employ thousands of people installed in the “death star”. Get yourself an Millennium Falcon and just keep the hyper drive working.

Apocalypse now (1979)

“Know your enemy better than yourself”

I just love this movie, its about a journey that we all take, a physical and mental one. Each journey changes us and that change is inconceivable at the start.

The best line in the movie being “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” which alway reminds me on the business mantra “Eat a toad every morning”. This is a Mark Twain saying and aims to get you doing the worst job first every day, then the day can only get better.

This analysis of your enemy and then eventual destruction of them is a very common business theme, however the real message is that by learning their strengths and especially their weaknesses we can become better entrepreneurs. Its sometimes hard to learn other people’s weaknesses but certainly we should identify our own and seek the support they need.

Avanti (1972)

“In every business there is value”

Jack Lemmon did some great films, such as “Some like it hot” but this one is my favourite, bit of a romcom set in Italy. The comedy is just excellent and the settings are just breath taking. The story line is that Jack Lemmon must go to the Italian island of Ischia to claim the body of his millionaire father, only to find his father took more than the local spa each day.

It really shows how cultures clash and that different business methods may seem odd or just outdated, yet just taking the time to understand the culture and the business methods allows you to then extract the true value. We are very keen to adopt new technology and business methods without understanding the processes and methods which have worked for thousands of years.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

“Sometimes you need someone else to help you”

Everyone should spend time with hitmen who have a penchant for philosophical discussions, especially around the foody topic of Hamburgers. However when they get into trouble its Mr Wolf they turn to.

Every entrepreneur should have Mr Wolf, “I solve problems” who they can call on. This may be a mentor, a consultant or advisor who can come in and just sort out the issue. Everyone has a skills gap in one area, a thing that bugs them or they just can’t get their head around. You have to have one of these “Mr Wolf” people who can come in and solve it. Your’ll never look back.

Hairspray (2007)

“You don’t have to ever grow your business”

Everyone loves a musical, a man playing a dame and a dance off. Its the secret ingredient for a great movie. Mr Wilbur Turnblad has been running his joke shop for a lifetime and yet he is still enjoying every day of it. Making it bigger will take the real fun out of it and also create a set of issues which he doesn’t want to present to his family. So small is beautiful in this case for him.

The incredibles (2004)

“Family businesses are stronger”

Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl never worked together as superheroes until they have to protect the family. Each family has a different super power which enhances the whole team to beat off Syndrome. This is true for every team, everyone have something to offer, sometimes mundane is the most important skill to have. (e.g a good cup of tea when sailing in a force 10 gale is just awesome)

The best quote from the movie is “Everyone can be super. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.” which shows we need everyone to be different otherwise we have nothing special.

Avatar (2009)

“Go in prepared”

You can have the best trained soldiers, biggest guns and latest technology and you still may lose the fight. Sometimes its more about the hearts and minds which win the battle, so you need to prepare these to fulfil your goal. Just don’t forget it.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

SELL SELL SELL

This movie shows you can create a business which is solely focused on sales and there are still a large number of these around, the modern day call centre is an example. However the loyalty you get from looking after you staff is a major mantra for this movie.

The number one thing you have to do in a business is sell, no matter what business it is, a Charity, Religion, Social Enterprise or PLC. You have to get people to part with their cash on a regular basis to ensure you are solvent.

Also it shows that the name of your business is everything “Stratton Oakmont”. These people travelled across on the Mayflower and thus can be trusted.

Hopefully you have enjoyed hearing my top 10 enterprise movies.

Selecting the Correct Startup Mentor

Introduction

Our experience has highlighted the matching of mentor/mentee pairs as the most important factor in the success or otherwise of effective mentoring. Every person who starts a business should have at least one mentor, these people are there to a devil’s advocate and support in development of the business. They are not business advisers or life coaches and therefore are not making decision for the business owner. The business owner is 100% responsible for their own actions.  We would typically assign at least two mentors based on the following criteria. The two mentors would be from separate criteria to ensure we provided diverse mentoring support.

Key Criteria

  • Methods of Working
  • Sector Knowledge
  • Area of Expertise
  • Stage of Business
  • Location Network
  • Peer or Near Peer Mentors

Methods of Working

Both parties should have expectations and they should set out the process they will follow in dealing with each other. When will they contact each other? What is the communication medium SMS, Email, Telephone or Face to Face, What response time will the other person provide? When is out of hours? What support will they get and what is expected from the mentee? Use the GROW model for mentoring sessions.

Sector Knowledge

Many people want someone to mentor them who has already done it. Someone in the same industry has the network contact to help them move forward faster. They may be diversifying into a new sector and need introductions. The approach that mentors take within a business sector will also have to been taken into account. We find this is one of the fastest ways to develop the mentee’s understanding of the benefits of mentoring.

Area of Expertise

People starting a business may require help with one field, e.g. sources of finance, marketing, IPR, logistics, operations, sales, office, international sales, production, TAX, bookkeeping, website SEO, etc. This field will require mentoring over period of time when the mentor is no longer required and another mentor can be assigned to deal with their new needs.

Stage of Business

Our mentoring solution works on a six stage business growth model which is detailed in Appendix A.  It is particularly important to ensure that the mentors understand the importance and nature of each stage and do not jump into suggesting solutions before they have fully appreciated the context and needs of their mentees.

In moving the business forward, the better the foundations within the early stages the better the business opportunities in the later stages. Therefore having specialist mentors for these stages provides the best results.

Location Network

One of the core resources needed to grow a business is access to a network of like minded people who may be customers, competitors, investors or collaborators and a mentors can be the fastest way of accessing this network. We also find that certain industries have a culture that lends itself to a sustainable network of experts who are willing to ‘put something back’ into the system in the form of mentoring, such a lawyers, accountants and educators.

Peer or Near Peer Mentors

Peer-based activity is regarded as the best way to transfer tacit knowledge critical to business success. This is a very powerful and meaningful proposition in a entrepreneurial social context with the opportunity to develop a sustained and long term relationship.