George Whitehead, head of Venture Partners at Octopus Investments, reveals how to make the most of a golden opportunity.
As employment figures continue to look less than impressive, the idea of starting a business has become an increasingly attractive prospect. According to Simply Business, the number of young people choosing to start a business has increased by a third since 2008. This surge in start-up enthusiasm has given rise in recent years to a number of UK incubator programmes. Seedcamp, Springboard, Wayra and Find Invest Grow are just a few of the specialist incubators that have sprung up recently, and that’s just in London. Designed to offer work space, mentoring and often investment to early-stage companies, these start-up hubs present an excellent opportunity to ambitious entrepreneurs. Such an opportunity does not come around every day, so it is vital that you make the most of your time there.
Know what to expect
Before applying to enter a business incubator, hunt around to find the right scheme to suit you, as each has its own unique style. It is a good idea to speak to alumni companies who have been through the process, as these start-ups will be able to share their first-hand experience. Taking this step will ensure you go in with a clear idea of the cost (in equity and time), as well as the benefits that each programme offers your business.
Once you’ve found the programme for you, the hard work really begins. Even before you get into the incubator, you should expect a demanding and competitive pitch where you’ll be up against other equally enthusiastic, ambitious founders. After all that hard work, it is essential that successful applicants put every effort into maximising the experience. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to concentrate on building a genuinely disruptive business with the support and advice of A-grade talent. Approaching this with a half-hearted attitude will be a waste of your time.
Become a people person
One of the biggest benefits of entering an incubator is the fantastic opportunity to gain insights from experts including business mentors, investors and seasoned entrepreneurs. As an early-stage business owner, it may not come naturally to make introductions at every opportunity, but if you don’t make these critical connections, others will. Be confident and push your luck – it might be a long time before you have the opportunity to be in the same room as these people again and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. As well as learning from experienced individuals, you should also embrace every networking opportunity as a chance to seek out your future team. Building a team capable of growing a business is an essential part of your journey. If you can partner with impressive people in the early stages, future customers and investors will be more inclined to pay attention later down the line.
It is also important that you do not ignore the other start-ups within the incubator. You may have been in competition with them when applying for your place, but once you are in, these early-stage entrepreneurs are an asset. Learn from their experiences and mistakes and do not rule out partnering possibilities. Ensuring that you talk to all the right people and make the right impression will require some organisation, so go into this with a plan for managing and categorising your new connections. Pick up contacts, make them your own and keep in touch.
Take the time
Many accelerator programmes are time intensive, so don’t treat them as a part-time activity. Clear your diary of all other commitments and immerse yourself in the environment. After all, the mentors you work with will want to see evidence of real progress and development.
Most applicants will enter the incubator with little more than an idea, so some things may not work out exactly as planned. These programmes are intensive courses designed to rapidly accelerate your business and may involve a radical overhaul of your entire business model, so it is crucial to be flexible and open-minded. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that you are the boss and when all the mentors melt away it will be you who has to drive the new strategy.
Life after the incubator
After the buzz and excitement of months spent with other enthusiastic start-ups, it can be a shock when the time comes to enter the real world. Without the encouragement of mentors, the reality of running a business can be tough, so it is important to build strategies to maintain the same energy.
This is where your connections will come into play. If you have used your time in the incubator effectively, you will be able to call on these for advice and may even already have exciting business propositions planned with them by the time you leave. Incubator programmes certainly give start-ups opportunities that would not otherwise come their way, but they are only effective if you are prepared to work hard. With the right attitude, careful planning and 100% effort, these programmes can be the push your business needs to accelerate to success.