Friday, April 5, 2013

Need for More ProActive and Accountability-Based Business Incubators/Accelerators

Over my eleven years offering sales strategy and long-term growth guidance to business owners I have had several opportunities to work with start-ups located within the communal walls of a business incubator/ accelerator/co-working space.  An increasingly common experience I recently had with a company in such an environment made me wonder.  Are we really helping these start-up companies by simply giving them encouragement (cheer-leading), access to mentors (which are rarely called upon), discounted office/bull-pin space, refrigerators full of Red Bull, pin-pong tables, good WiFi and conference rooms?  Is this enough to make a real difference, to lessen the high failure rate (40% first year) typically experienced by start-ups (hi-tech or otherwise) or create good jobs through growing enterprises? Or are we just being enablers, offering a site (albeit discounted) other than say home or a more expensive office space (like Regus) from which they will still unwisely burn precious cash on an questionable idea without a well vetted plan or realistic sales strategy.

I will argue most of these start-up sites (whatever you want to call them) would see dramatically different results (jobs, success, revenue) by (a) being more selective with whom they welcome (have the basics of a business plan and ability to say how they will make money (don't laugh, it is sad how many can't answer this question))  and (b) are more pro-actively engaged with those housed in their facilities (periodic mandatory reviews with ramifications).

I became a better engineer, salesperson, pilot, program manager, and leader because I had bosses who were motivated to hold me accountable, teach, challenge, measure and coach me (whether I liked it or not) because they too were expected to achieve aggressive performance goals.  I can vividly remember both how much I had to prepare for and how nerve racking it was to undergo a top to bottom program management review of a project I had P&L responsibility over or a "black-hat" review of a international sales campaign I was leading or even a check-flight while in the USAF.  These intense sessions in front of company leadership could be career making or career ending events. Did I have a choice on whether I participated? No, of course not, this was a condition of my job - these were my bosses. But I will tell you with absolute certainty I grew with each one.

Those who have started companies and failed one, two or three times before succeeding are walking encyclopedias (look it up) of valuable information that can be used to PREVENT others from experiencing the same pain and waste of valuable resources. Unfortunately there is a pervasive belief by those sponsoring or operating these co-working/accelerator/incubator spaces that failure is the best teacher, and further, that forced performance/strategy reviews will poison the collegial "creative," "stimulating," "nurturing," environment they are trying to foster. I say "nuts" to this notion (stealing a line from General Anthony McAuliffe during WWII when responding to the German's insistence that he surrender because he was clearly surround by an overwhelming force).

Let me share the most recent experience that prompted this outburst.  A partner of a two-person software start-up housed in an incubator called and asked for a two-hour sales strategy consult. That partner had already experienced one failure and didn’t want to be involved in another. (I was later told the principal was resistant to the idea up until the very moment I arrived.  After all, he felt they were just fine, that this was an unnecessary use of $400.) In those two-hours we discussed the product and what was unique about it, the characteristic of their current customer (just one) and why they purchased the product. Then I let them explain and I provided feedback on their sales strategy - who they were targeting and how.  Here is an email I received from the principle the next day:

"That was a great session and extremely helpful. Your no BS approach is what a lot of startups should be getting. Problem is most people advising start-ups don't know what they are talking about. In 4 years I have not had one person advise me that my approach sucked and was a waste of time...when it did. That's the right advice to really help someone. I think our new strategy will be (emphasis on will be --- because we have some homework to do) extremely simplified and measurable based on our conversation. Time to build the war room."

Left alone I am certain, based on the course they were on, they would have run out of money and folded. Not because they didn't have a good product, in fact it's a great product. In just two short yet intense hours we discovered the shortcomings of their approach and set them on a new course.  How many other start-ups in these settings could be saved from this experienced and regular scrutiny? Are we doing them a disservice by sitting back and waiting for them to seek help (usually too late) or should we do like my bosses did to me and insist on regular reviews? Wouldn't it make for a better story if those who entered sites like ATL Tech Village or FourAthens are say 50% more likely to succeed because of these mandatory tough love reviews? I bet it would improve the attractiveness and PR of these sites as well.

About the author. Mike Gomez is President of Allegro Consulting, a growth specialty firm helping start-ups and established businesses alike wrestling with issues of growth. He formerly sold military fighter jets to international allies for the largest aerospace firms Boeing and Lockheed. Under Allegro he grew his very first client’s business from $8M to $35M in just two years. Mike is also a prolific speaker, writer, three-time marathoner, a former military officer and pilot of both aircraft and helicopters.