Do corporate incubators accelerate or distract?
Written by Rowly Bourne
Four years ago, Rezonence was three guys chasing a dream. We boldly took a meeting with Tom Bowman, head of advertising at BBC Worldwide for sites such at BBC Top Gear & Good Food to start using FreeWall®.
Tom was an excellent first meeting, he was very generous with his feedback and areas of improvement required before we could look to work with the BBC, namely we would need to commit to brining a certain amount of AdSpend to justify the tech integration work. And then as the meeting concluded, with a wry smile, “of course you can bypass this all, by joining BBC Worldwide Labs, where the team have a mandate to support upcoming UK media tech”.
One quick application and a phone call with the now famous Hannah Blake, and we were in, and in with an amazing cohort of companies.
We were given six to twelve months of free office space, access to all the different teams inside BBC Worldwide, a quick route to trial and the potential to win the BBC Worldwide as a client. All of this would not cost us a penny of cash – and more importantly equity.
Costs aside, do corporate incubators work, or do they just distract?
The short answer is yes – they must work.
Of six start-ups, three are still going strong and continue to work with the BBC Worldwide – and with 90% of start-ups never getting to a million pound investment or annual revenue – three of the six companies achieving at least one of these is pretty good.
But there’s more to it than just stats. After all, there are many zombie start-ups – still going, but not scaling and yet to find market fit for their product.
Getting in is easy, but making it work for you is harder.
Success is driven by how much the founders put in – just because you’re in the big corporate’s office, doesn’t mean anything will happen. All the employees in the big company have their day jobs, and whilst a start-up is a curious fascination to corporate employees, they still have their commitments.
The success stories were driven by founders who were never willing to wait until next week or month.
After all, you’re on the clock!
Beware of good intentions & advice.
You will get lots of feedback from lots of impressive people, with great experience – and often their feedback recommends you change strategy or focus. This can send you into a tailspin, as we’ve grown up being taught to trust people with more experience than us. But if they were always right, there wouldn’t be any successful startups – all the solutions would already exist.
It can be incredibly time-consuming, and if not 100% aligned to your strategy, you can waste a huge amount of time trying to make the accelerator work for you. Remember, like a romantic relationship, you may have liked the look of each based on first impressions – but you don’t get married on a first date. Don’t assume that the dating period of an accelerator results in marriage.
Make sure every other target clients knows about it.
PR is one thing, but you have no budget. LinkedIn is great, but you have no network.
But guess what, the big corporate has a big PR team, and all the employees you are targeting inside the corporate have amazing networks.
So drive the network effect from your core clients, ask employees to write notes about working together. Get their PR to publish your case studies together with the corporate – this looks great for them as well.
We used the BBC Worldwide offices to help credentialise our £0.5m seed fund raising. The brand helped us to win speaking slots at events, and access to brands such as Unilever – who were initially interested in how BBC Worldwide labs worked, and went on to test with us.
Treasure your newfound relationships.
Just like the consumer world, in every organisation you have early adopters. These people are to be treasured. And the great thing is while everyone moves companies they often stay in the same industry, so you can quickly grow your customer base just through people you know moving.
When is the right time to join an accelerator?
In short, pre product market fit – when you should be scaling from one to ten customers in the world of B2B, but after you have built a Minimum Viable Product.
This is really important, because you are the vision behind the product and business, and you need to be singularly focused.
Feedback from many sources can dilute your vision, and ultimately dilute the quality of the product.
Finally, a few words of warning.
If you won’t get married on a first date, and the company is not paying, then please please please don’t hand over your equity to them. They won’t value it, you are far too small, and in the long run, you will end up having to report to their financial requirements, which could be every six or twelve months.
When it comes to getting official sign-off on corporate documents (e.g. an equity raise), finding legal teams after you have left can be impossible. Also when the staff who supported you have left, or if the programme closes down, you could find yourself being an annoyance to the new management team – and end up chasing your tail, at a time when you need to focus on accelerating wider client adoption.
So, in answer to my question, do corporate incubators accelerate or distract?
They can do both. The important thing is not to see them as the silver bullet to accelerating your business growth. If joined for the right reasons, and most importantly with an incubator that is the right fit for your business, they can provide an invaluable tool to accelerating your growth. But join for the wrong reasons, or with an incubator that doesn’t fit with your business, they can become a costly distraction.