Metaphors Run Amok: Business Incubation

There’s nothing worse than a metaphor gone rogue. We’ve been doing a lot of work on business incubation lately, and it’s amazing how much liberty is taken with that idea. The idea of hatching new businesses like fertilized eggs entered business jargon in 1959 when Joseph Mancuso created the Batavia Industrial Centre in Batavia, New York.

If you convert the metaphor to a simile it would work like this: Like a henless clutch of eggs, you can bring new businesses to life by creating the right conditions in a controlled environment. An egg needs only warmth and protection for its critical gestation period. Every start-up business is different, but the menu of needs is generally longer than an egg’s. Nevertheless, the metaphor conveys the idea of gestational vulnerability and the need for a protective and nurturing environment.

Perhaps the strength of the metaphor is the reason why it is so carelessly applied to every kind of support available to business start-ups today. However, it is clear that incubators are places, structured and programmed environments in which promising entrepreneurial talent and ideas are refined, tested, capitalized, and put out into the marketplace.

A seminar on business planning in a community centre is not incubation. Even if the seminar is part of a complete business start-up curriculum, delivered by recognized experts, those seminars or workshops in their aggregate are still not providing business incubation, and the provider is not an incubator. This practice is analogous to taking your fertilized eggs, rolling them all out on a carpet, and hoping that no one walks in the door and crushes them before they start to hatch. Whatever the result, it’s not as good a strategy as putting them safely together in an incubator and closing the lid.

Incubation happens in incubators, it’s as simple as that. If this wasn’t a clear distinction, incubators couldn’t claim to produce an 87% survival rate among graduate companies, compared to 44% among unincubated companies. If “incubator” didn’t mean anything particular, the claim simply couldn’t be made.

I was in New York looking at NYU Polytechnic’s Varick Street incubator a few weeks ago. It is an utterly pragmatic response to the need of small businesses that need and deserve a better than even chance at success. The unadorned office is full of bright young people trying to make things happen, availing themselves of more experienced practitioners, and learning from each other’s mistakes. There should be no mystery about how to create these environments, nor confusion about why they are more valuable than isolated business training opportunities.

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