Incubators have been a secret weapon for hundreds of businesses. They offer a huge promise: take an entrepreneur’s idea, nurture it, support and educate the founders through the early stages, and at the end produce an ideal result: a viable company.
Still, receiving the benefits of incubators has a few major hurdles, such as being accepted into a “class” or program, and setting aside existing parts of your business to work full-time on only one idea.
Though developed by experts and geared towards giving startups a boost, they aren’t always right for all businesses, especially companies that aim to grow slowly or don’t want to scale. Still, incubators offer some valuable lessons that anyone starting a business or launching a new product from an existing business can benefit from. Whether you have a vegan bakery or a digital marketing shop, here are some ways to “self-incubate” based on what the pros are doing.
Seek Field Expertise
Incubators immerse you in an environment where people familiar with your business model and industry point you toward resources and information that will help you. These materials could cover anything from financing to staffing to buying equipment, but the angle on each of these is specific to what you do.
To do this yourself: Sit down and identify the areas where you’re light on experience, or where you’re unsure how to proceed. It may be bookkeeping, or hiring, or handling expansion—identify your knowledge gaps in as much detail as possible. Then look for experts who have written or spoken about those topics. The Internet is alive with white papers, websites, live lectures, and more. The information is available to you, it’s just a matter of knowing what you need and then locating it.
Make Time for Networking
Knowing the right people can be the difference between success and struggling for a small business just starting out. Your network could open the door to potential investors, potential customers/clients, marketing opportunities, people with knowledge of vacant office or location space, and on and on. Granted, it’s easy to network when you’re in a co-working space with 100 other entrepreneurs and regularly scheduled happy hours, as is the case at incubators.
Still, even a busy small business owner can carve out a few hours a week to devote to networking. LinkedIn is a great hub for meeting people, with over 400 million members. Search by category for people who are in your neighborhood and area of interest. Don’t be afraid to cold-email people you haven’t met — plenty of great connections are made by reaching out online and saying, “Hi, I’m really interested in what you’re up to.” Tell friends and colleagues you’re looking to make connections; they may have folks they wouldn’t have thought to introduce you to until you asked.
Find a Great Mentor/Coach
Granted, it can be difficult to “self-mentor”—the point of mentorship is that you’re gaining outside perspective and expertise. But incubators aren’t the only game in town when it comes to finding a mentor. Resources like SCORE have been created specifically to provide small business owners with top-quality mentors and coaches. Also check with your local SBA office to see what sort of mentorship programs are available.
Also, just because the most well-known incubators are aren’t a good fit for you doesn’t mean that there aren’t smaller, focused programs that might be able to help out your business. The National Business Incubation Association has more than 1,400 members in the United States—and a total of 1,900 members in 60 nations. The NBIA also has a search engine, not to mention a directory of state business incubation associations. You can also try calling the local colleges and universities in your area to see whether they have business incubation programs.
Incubators may not be for everyone, but they do offer wisdom into the skills and steps needed to be successful in starting a business. Fortunately, several of their features are easy to DIY if you’re looking to grow a new company.