Are Incubator Hubs Feasible for Start-Up Entrepreneurs?

David Chislett

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Saving money is typically a pressing challenge for new start-ups and while many of the finest enterprises – Amazon, Apple, Google, and Disney – all began in a garage, the day comes when hanging out with the garden tools ceases to work. Fortunately, a range of options exist for those who can’t yet afford to hire their own premises but need to enter a professional space.

The co-working office space is a relatively new trend offering tiered packages with wifi, coffee machines, fax and photocopier access, separate meeting rooms and other resources. Around South Africa, small business owners are meeting in shared spaces like Second Office (East London), Spin Street House (Cape Town), Homebru (Umhlanga) and SLOW in the City (Johannesburg). This proves the need for entrepreneurs to access a vibrant professional space, where they are able to meet with clients and sustain a sense of entrepreneurial community.

Writer, speaker, and trainer, David Chislett, shares his experience of an entrepreneurial incubator.

For the last few weeks, I have worked out of an entrepreneurial incubator, hiring a flex desk and coming and going as I please. Out of all the working solutions I have had over the years, this is unique. And I am loving it.

I have worked out of my lounge, an outhouse, a second bedroom, my bedroom, a garage and rented various office spaces over the years. What most of those solutions have in common is that in some way, I remained solitary. I wasn’t always alone at home exactly, but definitely in a room, closed off from others a lot of the time.

As a writer, this is generally not a problem. But I did sometimes go days without leaving the house, changing out of my pyjamas or seeing other people. Eventually, that kind of behavior takes its toll on your state of mind. You start going in circles and becoming increasingly anti-social.

Over the years I have observed many hubs and/or co-working spaces. Mostly though, they fail as any kind of assistance system for the entrepreneurs concerned. All the best intentions in the world just never seem to result in small businesses working together, using each other as service providers or roping big clients together.

This failure is rooted in the fact that is never any one person’s business to be setting up and running these collaborations. It’s just expected to happen. Which is over-ambitious. Everyone is too busy running their own new business to worry about collaborating with someone else. And as entrepreneur’s, these people are generally not that driven to work with others anyway… otherwise, they’d have jobs!

The incubator where I am now, Aim for the Moon, is different. There isn’t just a person there to help put business and projects together, there is a whole team. In addition, an ecology of interaction and socialisation beings everyone closer together and makes it more possible to collaborate. With regular Huddles, exercise classes, social events, learning sessions, workshops and knowledge sharing they are achieving a real sense of community. The team also goes out looking for clients for the business sitting under their roof… and brokers the deals.

Essentially, any incubator space needs to be someone’s business… not just a space wherein ‘something’ can happen. That is like giving a monkey a laptop and expecting it to eventually write a novel.

The advantage for all the inhabitants is a sense of progress and vibrancy, even for those not directly involved in the action. Speaking for myself, who has nothing to do with start-ups, corporate clients or collaborations, the buzz is infectious and motivating. I just like hanging out here, let along doing work. AND I am definitely getting more work done. Even the observer effect in a café is not as powerful as this!

But being in the middle of people doesn’t work for everyone, so how do you choose?
I suspect it has a lot to do with what you actually do as an entrepreneur. Some people require silence and solitude to do what they need to do for work, others crave social interaction, background noise and the sense of belonging. You need to be pretty honest with yourself about what you are like deep down inside and act accordingly.

If you are joining a hub or an incubator, make sure you get to the bottom of how they work. If you are moving there in order to find more work and grow your business, don’t forget to ask the hard questions about the structures and roles they have to deal with that. If they don’t have any, there will be no new work for you.

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David Chislett is a writer, trainer, and speaker who operates at the intersection of entrepreneurship, creativity, and communications. His blog is a terrific resource, offering insightful and interesting articles for writers and entrepreneurs. Watch this space for his free e-book, The Entrepreneurs Emotional Toolbox, coming soon!

Born in Portsmouth, England, but raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, he now lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Follow David on Twitter (@davidchiz).