10.05.2006

The Incubator Analogy

I had never heard of a business incubator when I started working for
one eleven years ago. But the analogy wasn't too hard to understand:
just like an incubator for babies or eggs is a perfect environment for
growth, a business incubator is intended to be a perfect environment
for business growth.

The usual business incubator amenities include small office space,
conference rooms, shared office equipment, and a professional
address/location (i.e. not your basement). Good business incubators
also throw in networking events and training opportunities, and even
better ones go to bat for their fledgling businesses, in terms of
getting them meetings with local big-wigs and potential customers.

But there's something about just being part of a larger group of
like-minded people that creates an intangible benefit oftentimes
greater than any tangible resources and services. Physically and
psychologically, you don't feel alone. Rubbing elbows with people who
are the same yet different sharpens you. Your confidence, motivation,
and courage grows when you feel there are others with you, doing the
same thing, cheering you on as you cheer them on.

Earlier this year, I was talking to a colleague of mine who runs a
national association and who also has some experience in business
incubation. He and I agree that running an association is like
running a business incubator, in that there are tangible services his
organization can provide its members, but they are far outweighed in
value by the intangibles of fostering a community of like-minded
individuals and agencies engaged in a common cause.

Also earlier this year, I spoke to another colleague of mine, who used
to run a downtown association and now works for a foundation. When I
compared both his previous and current job to running a business
incubator, he also concurred, as he elaborated to me that his vision
in both cases was to create a camaraderie across tenants/grantees, and
not just build the relationship between his organization and them
individually.

After these two conversations, I was left thinking how ironic it was
that my experience running a business incubator was so relevant for
understanding the nuances of running a completely different type of
organization. What are the odds, right?

Yet the more I think about it, perhaps the incubator analogy is more
widely useful than I had originally imagined. Do not educational
institutions hope to foster a common spirit among their students and
teachers, such that there is stimulating discourse and cooperative
venture over and above the formal, one-to-one interactions in the
classroom? Should not religious entities seek a similar empowering of
their members, so that there is a "priesthood of believers" serving
one another and others and not just being served? Would not parents
be pleased to know they have provided the perfect environment for
their children to grow, such that they are owning and practicing the
right values in their relationships with their siblings and friends,
and not reliant on the constant nagging of their parents to do the
right thing?

Everybody has a framework or frameworks for viewing the world. Until
this year, though, I don't think I realized how useful and versatile
my business incubator framework was for me.

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