Lessons in Incubating Innovation

by Wayne Barz

With more than 30 years owning and managing our incubator, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP/NEP) was one of the pioneers of business incubation in the United States. Business incubators provide crucial support to entrepreneurs and early-stage firms when they are most vulnerable. The support provided can sometimes mean the difference between the companies’ prosperity and failure.

Our staff has significant experience and success in nurturing young firms in an incubator. We have received the Incubator of the Year Award twice from the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA). We lead the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Network, which began in the early 1990s. Since then it has grown to 15 member incubators throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. It is among the largest business incubator networks in the nation.

I have managed BFTP/NEP’s Ben Franklin TechVentures® for more than 15 years. Before that, I managed the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, an Allentown-based business incubator and a member of the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Network. Over more than two decades in the industry, I’ve learned some lessons in business incubation.

  1. There are no lessons.
    The word “lessons” implies steadfast rules that always apply. There are no such lessons in entrepreneurship. Instead, what you have are more like “gut-informing experiences” that need to be applied by founders to ever-changing situations and moments of decision-making.
  2. It’s about people, not things.
    You can set a chemical reaction into motion time and time again and get the same results. But selling and hiring and negotiating and purchasing do not occur in such a controlled environment. Entrepreneurship is all about the uncontrolled environment of people, and people do not behave like things.
  3. All great ventures begin with a problem.
    Invention happens to products and innovation happens to people. Entrepreneurs are people who first identify groups of people who have a common problem and then seek to invent products that can solve those problems, not vice-versa.
  4. Markets in your windshield are farther away than they appear.
    When the public becomes aware of a fascinating new technology, and it’s receiving lots of investment capital, it’s easy for entrepreneurs to get very excited. But actual market penetration among the people who are buying at that point may be extremely slight.
  5. All great ventures begin with one.
    There are many “Yee-Ha” moments in entrepreneurship: “The prototype is done,” “We closed on our first investor,” “The patent is issued,” etc. But the most important one by far is “We signed our first customer!”
  6. Your glass is full.
    An entrepreneur’s glass is neither half full nor half empty. It is completely and totally full, and it is full of two things: luck and risk. An entrepreneur is one who is keenly able to and systematically seeks to eliminate bad bits of risk in a venture.
  7. Your corporate DNA evolves with every person you hire.
    If you’re the founder, you hire the next person, and then you and that person probably hire the third person, and so on. But at some point, in the growth of the company, the founder might not make the final hiring decision.  The evolving culture of the founder still has an impact on hiring choices, though. Even after the founder is gone, there is a genetic culture that creates the core of the corporate culture.
  8. Don’t live in Dilbert’s World.
    In the Dilbert cartoon series, the sales people are often portrayed as “dolts.” Technically brilliant and technically trained people, who lead many early-stage tech companies, often do not like making sales calls. But entrepreneurs cannot live in Dilbert’s World. Without sales people, they might end up with an expensive hobby rather than a successful venture.
  9. Probe, probe, probe.
    Many founders stay inside their business, reluctant to talk with potential customers or competitors or suppliers for fear of revealing too much. This is an enormous mistake! Entrepreneurs should probe, communicate, and understand both partners and competitors.
  10. Commit Like a Pig.
    At the beginning of every venture, entrepreneurs have a lot of excitement and confidence. But then the going gets tough. A founder needs to be committed to and not just involved in the company. We call this “commit like a pig” because, in a bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

Business incubation provides a venue, setting, and culture that have become essential components of the entrepreneurial and technology ecosystem in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Business incubators fuel innovation, catalyze the regional technology economy and create the jobs of the future.

Full blog posts on Lessons in Incubating Innovation are at KeystoneEdge.com. Wayne Barz can be followed @TechonomicMan on Twitter.

Related Articles