9 things I have learned about running accelerators and incubators

I have had the chance to manage different incubation programs during the last few years at Cairo University, INJAZ Egypt. During these years, designed and implemented entrepreneurship education programs with UNIDO, CARE and other organizations since 2012. These are some of the lessons I have learned about running the accelerators and incubators. I had tried coming up with ten but that’s all I could think of, right now. It’s not that they’re irreplacebale or something but they’ve helped me a great deal throughout my short career working with accelerators.

1. Set a clear direction:

Incubators, both in microbiology and in business, differ greatly based on what is supposed to be incubated in them. As you know that one size doesn’t fit all, you need to start out by defining the type, phase, and size of clients you will be working with. Because this will guide all the future decisions.

2. Pay close attention to program design.

The difference between coworking spaces and business incubators is the extra support incubators provide to their clients, or at least it should be. This support, whether in training, mentorship, seedfunding, has to be closely monitored, measured and improved over time. A simple roadmap should be enough to get you and your team started.

3. Design a sourcing strategy.

The success of your business incubator depends on two factors:

How and where do you get your clients?
What do you do for them?

Your sourcing strategy should explain how your communication and marketing will get you the best possible candidate, while your program design should show where you want to take them and how. A strong incubator needs a good program and good sourcing. Methodology dictates outcome.

4. Support your clients without spoiling them.

It is common in an emerging ecosystem for business incubators to compete over who gives the most money, perks, best space, etc. While competition is generally a good thing, you have to be careful not to get carried away from what matters. At the end of the day, the best incubator is the one with the highest survival rate and/or follow on funding. Organizing events and bringing in sponsors is necessary for visibility and financial sustainability, but not sufficient to get you to the top, a very strong program and a relevant support network will.

5. Hire top talent.

An average employee might cost a restaurant business many opportunities, but they can destroy a business incubator. Remember that your results will only be as good as your team is, because they design and implement the support program as well as sourcing. It is also common in a new ecosystem that business incubators have to hire people without background in stratups, because there is only so much of them out there, and because the best incubators will always compete for top talent, while the rest will hire about anyone.

6. Be clear about collaboration and competition.

Start by mapping out who is who in your ecosystem. This should help you both acquire an understanding of the environment and redefine your offering. You will find many opportunities for partnership with organizations that you need involved in your support system. It is also very important to define your unique value proposition and how you stand among others.

7. Learn about the context and how it affects your work.

In Egypt, for example, it is not yet very common for entrepreneurs to be supported by families to work on a startup. In fact, more often than not, they will be pressured not to. Even though it might not be your job to help your clients through this specific challenge, you need to be aware of it and consider it while planning your intervention. For example, in risk-averse environments, it is better for an idea-prototype phase incubator to plan evening events so that people can keep their day jobs while working on their startup ideas. Knowing that this will not work after a startup reaches a product market fit, which will require full dedication.

8. Use what you have to get what you want.

Don’t aspire to be perceived as the most exclusive and top performing program if you and your team are too nice and would work with anyone. But do position yourself as an incubator for the creative startups if this is aligned with how you and your team work. It is not just about practicing what you preach, but standing for it. That’s how you know you have the right strategy; when everything just makes sense.

9. Design for change.

Startups, and essentially the business of support them, change everyday. So you need to continue learning and improving systematically. It is not enough that you are in the right network and occasionally read popular books and attend popular conferences. To stay on top of your game you need to have systems in place to ensure that you and your team are getting stronger everyday. Your program next year, should not be the same as this year; not if you are doing a good job.

Ibrahim Mahgoub
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