Incubatoritis: Prognosis and Cure

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The Batavia Industrial Center, which opened its doors in 1959 in Batavia, New York, is commonly recognized as the first business incubator in the United States.  Since then, and more recently in the last 15 years, there has been an explosion of incubators focusing on everything from Tech to Biotech, Social Enterprise to Green Enterprise.   The ‘incubator’ is becoming an institution that in many fundamental ways is trying to teach people how to operate outside the traditional institutions because we recognize that the traditional institutions more often than not lead to traditional outcomes, and if we are looking for innovative outcomes we need something different.

The challenge for the ‘incubator industry’ is that it not become a traditional institution.  As people, we are scared of the unknown.  We would rather sit through the structure of a class with a professor, turn in our homework when we are told, and then wait to see whether we did “good” or “bad” based on our grade.  The problem with that paradigm (the one we spend our whole lives in) is that it does not represent, at all, what the real world is like.  So for incubators, we like the comfort and security of thinking “I’ve made it – I am now at the prestigious incubator that I applied to”, but just as a Harvard degree cannot in and of itself deliver the answer or a successful future for you, neither can an incubator.

This won’t be an easy thing to fight.  After all, those entrepreneurs out there who naturally start things on their own won’t even necessarily think to apply to an incubator or an entrepreneurship program – they are too busy building the product, testing an offering, starting their business.   The risk, for incubators, is that they just become the newer, cooler, cheaper version of the MBA program (with a major in entrepreneurship) where being ‘accepted’ there is confused with success itself.  This is the condition known as “Incubatoritis”.

Take this as encouragement that for those of you who have been rejected to incubators that you never really needed them in the first place. Nothing – no degree, institution, or incubator – can give you that except for you and your efforts.  The antidote to Incubatoritis is to be clear about your success definition, which for those looking to start a business, starts with having a prototype and a customer.  Worse yet, we might even waste valuable time trying to find and then gain traditional acceptance (like spending 2 years in an MBA program, or a year in a prestigious accelerator program) when what we really could have been doing was the work of getting customers.  Nothing, and certainly no program, stands between you and your business.  Press forward.