Working with early-stage founders has been my focus for the past three years. After running a startup in New York, I started holding a roundtable series that grew into a bootcamp and then a funded accelerator program in Hong Kong. I’ve advised or had as clients that are startups from early-stage revenue to millions of users. I’ve learned what helps entrepreneurs as they work to figure things out and build successful businesses. It’s been challenging and fun.
Recently I was hired by USC’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Marshall School of Business to build a new university-wide USC Incubator program. Running a program like this at such a large institution — USC has 41,000 current students and 360,000 alumni — provides a way to have impact on a large scale.
The Marshall-Greif Incubator is an experiential program that gives USC’s top student and alumni entrepreneurs the resources and guidance to do more faster.
Here is how we think about this Incubator program in terms of vision and what Incubatees should expect. (This is a work in progress.)
The program is inclusive.
As long as the team or company includes at least one USC student or alumnus/a, they are eligible to apply. We look forward to seeing teams from all across the university participating in the Incubator. Apart from the USC student or alumni requirement, there is no other requirement for belonging to a specific school within USC. We expect to see companies with founders and employees across different USC schools and also outside the university.
We know how to work with early-stage entrepreneurs.
We’ve done this before and have experimented with several different models and formats in the programs I ran earlier. Since there are diverse needs at USC, we believe that there is value in selective workshops, based not on a standard curriculum for the group, but instead based on participant needs. We believe that there is incredible value from continuity rather than one-off events. We currently bring in continuity in the form of office hours with each team and tracking what they learn, rather than focusing on one-off generalist events. We also believe that challenging, encouraging and pushing have their place as we get the Incubator companies to do more faster.
We build strong connections to alumni.
This is an area to build out more as we grow. USC has a large alumni base of successful entrepreneurs and we’d like to expand our current mentor, advisor and Incubatee customer lists with more alumni. When it comes to alumni involvement, we favor selective connections to exchange specific domain expertise, rather than generalist group presentations and meetings.
We add support structure.
To work with teams at different stages in their businesses, we operate a small intense group which meets weekly (in addition to office hours and mentor visits in between) and a less intense part-time group. The admitted small intense core group meets Fridays at 3pm, starting January 16, 2015. The less intense group meets monthly as well as office hours as needed.
We work with any university department and external group where there is benefit to our Incubatees. This includes connecting talent with opportunities at Incubator companies, collaborating with existing courses taught at USC and connecting founders with first customers, advisors, legal and other support, potential investors and people in industry.
We believe in providing enough time.
The Incubator program lasts up to a full year (for those who are making progress and qualify), which provides the time to go out meet customers, learn, build and make progress. Earlier programs I ran and the industry standard tend to be only three months long, which may be good for intensity but is too brief to allow for true experiential learning and changes in direction. At this time we are accepting people on a rolling basis.
We take no fees and do not take equity in Incubator businesses. On a case-by-case basis we do set teams up with grants, stipends, access to free resources and bring in investors.
We provide workspace.
Those who need it can qualify for workspace at the Incubator.
You should expect to develop these skills in the Incubator.
- Bootstrapping. The skills of getting people to pay you and building a sustainable business will carry you through any economic climate or investment fashions. Bootstrapping also allows you to get started immediately, rather than waiting to raise capital (often before it is a good use of your time).
- How to run experiments that help validate your business. This includes variations on tools like the Minimum Viable Product as a way to test hypotheses, collect primary data, draw conclusions and learn what to build.
- Customer interviews and observation. A common problem I see with early-stage entrepreneurs is that they miss opportunities to learn from their target customers when they interview them, often actually missing the point by asking leading questions or otherwise skewing results. I workshop these customer interaction skills and also occasionally employ what I call “gonzo interviewing,” which is when I go out into the field with the company (pretending I belong to the team itself) and then give feedback afterward on how they can improve their skills.
- Presenting and pitching. These skills are essential but take time to acquire, alongside someone who can give actionable feedback. Rather than just comment on what was good or bad (the reaction you see in many time-strapped pitch events), I believe in giving feedback and then practicing again and again with the presenters. It takes months (at least) to become good. As a comparison, I occasionally do my version of how I’d present their business. We focus on what it’s like to present to customers and investors.
What we look for in Incubator companies.
- Coachability. This is good for the company as it shows that the founders will be engaged, will do the work required and will be flexible when it’s required to change direction.
- Have the capability to build. This capacity is determined by the type of business being built. There are some businesses that have high technical requirements and others that are marketing-driven. Entering Incubatees should have the ability to build what their business requires, with small exceptions that fall outside the core of the business.
- Commitment and Drive. Founders that are committed and driven — especially about a problem or target customer — will stick with and be more creative and resourceful than others. Note that falling in love with an idea rather than a problem or target customer is not the same and is actually a negative factor.
- Those who will be engaged members of the Incubator. They will share with and help out Incubator companies. They will also engage with the opportunities offered by the Incubator.
To apply for the incubator program, fill out the application here. The first intense, core program meets Fridays at 3pm, starting in the spring semester (from January 16th, 2015 for three months). There is also a parallel less intense track (same application). Any questions, email Paul at porlando at usc.edu.