What Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Startup Incubators

Can these 'innovation hatcheries' help you take your great idea to market? A professional entrepreneur weighs in.
startupincubator
Looking for guidance? Find a business incubator that will help you get your business off the ground. (Photo: KiryuSan/Shutterstock)

For most people, the term “startup incubator” brings to mind images of tech bros in hoodies trying to make their mark on Silicon Valley.

But incubators aren’t just for technology startups. Whether you’re a retailer, restaurateur or service provider, almost any entrepreneur can benefit from the coaching and guidance provided by a reputable business incubator as they’re building a new business.

To learn more about the world of these “innovation hatcheries” and how they can help any small business get started, NCR Silver spoke with Travis Lindsay, primary entrepreneur in residence for the Center for Entrepreneurship at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). As one of the founders of the CSUF Startup Incubator, Lindsay has helped dozens of entrepreneurs develop their business concepts into actionable plans. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: What is a startup incubator? How do they work?

In general, incubators are a physical place for entrepreneurs to work with their teams, and a source of mentoring and education for the entrepreneurs, as well. A good incubator can help
increase the odds of your startup’s success by helping entrepreneurs focus on what is most important for starting their businesses, and providing them with connections and services that they otherwise would not have access to.

Travis-Lindsay

“Incubators are a physical place for entrepreneurs to work with their teams, and a source of mentoring and education for the entrepreneurs, as well.” -Travis Lindsay (Photo: Travis Lindsay)

At Cal State Fullerton, we launched the CSUF Startup Incubator in 2015 to help entrepreneurs go from concept to launch. We do this by connecting the entrepreneurs that work at the CSUF Startup Incubator with the right resources and startup strategies for their specific situation.

Q: What types of businesses can benefit from joining an incubator?

Every incubator is different. Some focus on specific industries while others focus on startups at different stages of launch. Entrepreneurs must do some research and introspection to figure out which incubator would be the best fit for them.

At CSUF, we are generalists, which means we will work with all kinds of startups. The important thing for us is the startup process, not what kind of business someone is launching.

Q: Could you share any examples of a business launched from CSUF’s incubator that isn’t a tech company?

One of the success stories from the CSUF Startup Incubator that comes to mind is Pascual Productions. Founded by CSUF student Geoff Pascual, the company was formed as a vehicle to sell Geoff’s pop art.

As you probably know, making a living off of an artistic pursuit is a difficult thing to do, but Geoff has been able to leverage the education and connections he received at Cal State Fullerton and the CSUF Startup Incubator to help make his business into a success.

Related: Why Your College Years May be the Best Time to Start a Small Business

Q: What are the pros and cons of joining a business incubator?

The primary advantages I see to joining an incubator would be: mentoring, education and workspace. Of those three, the one I think entrepreneurs should value the most is the mentorship aspect, because no matter how experienced an entrepreneur is, there is no way that he or she has seen everything that can happen. But by participating in an incubator, chances are he or she can find a mentor who has seen something very similar and can advise on the best approach.

“The primary advantages I see to joining an incubator would be: mentoring, education and workspace.” -Travis Lindsay

I think the biggest disadvantage of any incubator is the perception that some entrepreneurs may have of them. Incubators do not do the work for the companies that are working in them; instead, they help entrepreneurs work smarter and in a more collaborative environment.

Q: As an entrepreneur, how would I determine if an incubator would be a good move to help launch my business?

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Research different incubators and meet with potential principles to find the incubator that best fits your business plan. (Photo: imtmphoto/Shutterstock)

One of the keys to being a successful entrepreneur is the ability to make decisions. When determining whether or not an incubator is right for you, do plenty of research online about the various incubators you are considering, set up meetings with principals at the incubators, and try to find and talk with past clients of the incubator. Then create a matrix of the various incubators you are considering and rank them based off of your key metrics.

At most incubators, including the CSUF Startup Incubator, entrepreneurs must apply and be accepted by incubator staff, which only occurs after multiple meetings and submission of appropriate documents.

Related: ‘Shark Tank’s’ Mark Cuban Shares His Advice for Entrepreneurs

Q: What types of things should I look for when exploring different incubator options?

First, you need to figure out what is most important to you. Do you need a physical workspace? Do you need mentors with a particular industry background? What stage of the startup are you in? — and whatever other questions you have. Write all of these down and rank them in order of most important to least important, then compare various incubators based off of that as your criteria.

That’s one way of figuring out which incubator is right for you. Another way would be to go out and talk with the leaders of the various incubators that you are considering. Keep in mind, these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Your best bet would be to go through this ranking process then interview your top contenders.

Q: What are some things an incubator provides that I can’t get elsewhere?

Theoretically, nothing. I think where an incubator excels is in bringing together all of these different services. Well, that and the networking opportunities that come along with working with incubators.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Co-working Spaces

Sure, you can find the office space elsewhere, and you can get an education on the difference between a balance sheet and income statement. But the main thing an incubator provides its entrepreneurs that they can’t get elsewhere is connections. Not just connections to service providers, but good incubators also work to connect their entrepreneurs with potential customers, partners, investors, potential employees and subject matter experts that can serve as mentors or maybe even on the board. Here at the CSUF Startup Incubator, we connect all of the entrepreneurs that work with us to the whole Cal State Fullerton community of alumni, professors and current students.

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