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Incubator programmes have evolved to great launchpads for growing businesses, says George Whitehead.

UK incubator programmes are evolving. The attraction of a particular incubator or accelerator programme is no longer based on what building you choose to work from, but rather on the type of network you tap into. Seedcamp, Springboard, Wayra, Find Invest Grow are just a few of the specialist incubators that have sprung up recently, and that’s just in London. 

Increasingly, these programmes offer tailored benefits to different companies, so it’s worth hunting around to find the right one. Speak to alumni companies who have been through the process and make sure you go in with your eyes open as to the cost (in equity, time and sweat), as well as the upside that each programme offers your business.

Once you’ve found the programme for you, the hard work really begins. These programmes are intensive courses designed to rapidly accelerate your business and may involve a radical overhaul of your entire business model. Even before you get into the incubator, you should expect a demanding competitive pitch where you’ll be up against other equally enthusiastic, ambitious founders. 

Most entrepreneurs who get through the selection process recognise that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to concentrate on building a genuinely disruptive business with the support and advice of A-grade talent. With this in mind, it’s important to maximise every aspect of the incubator experience.

People, people, people

It was Michael Jordan who said that talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships. Building a team capable of growing a business is an essential part of your journey, on top of the fact that starting a business alone is tough-going at the best of times – let alone when you are under the intense pressure of an accelerator programme.

Pick up contacts, make them your own and keep in touch. This might require some organisation, so go into this with a plan for managing and categorising your new connections. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for introductions – as an early stage entrepreneur people will want to help you out, so push your luck and soak it up. The saying rings true here – if you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Putting in the time

Most accelerator programmes are time intensive, so don’t treat them as a part-time activity. Clear your diary of all other commitments and immerse yourself in the environment. After all, the mentors you encounter will want to see evidence of real progression – and evolution (see Mark Suster’s excellent blog Invest in Lines, not Dots). Try and be open-minded enough to embrace their feedback and new ideas, and where necessary, change your original business idea. Don’t be afraid to make these changes but remember that you are the boss and when all the mentors melt away it will be you who has to drive the new strategy.

What happens next?

Clearly, these programmes don’t run forever and the time will come for you to leave the incubator and head out to the real world. This is likely to come as a shock – after a whirlwind couple of months of enthusiastic pats on the back and access to world-class business contacts, the reality of the day-to-day grind of building a business is unlikely to be easy. 

Prepare for this and build strategies to keep up the momentum. Mentors may be willing to work with you on a longer term basis, or fellow incubator alumni could be interested in future collaboration. The likelihood of this depends on how strongly you have built the relationships with people throughout the process, and how well you can communicate the exciting potential of your business. Enjoy the intensity, develop deep connections, be open to new ideas and work hard to demonstrate rapid progression and you’ll find that these programmes can be a game-changing experience.

George Whitehead is a member of Octopus Investments.

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