Kudzai M. Mubaiwa
Soon after election outcomes are firm, business will continue and support service organisations such as innovation spaces and business incubation hubs will resume consistent programming.
Most of them will do this in conjunction with funding partners. Wherever resources are invested, there is demand for performance and accountability by the investor. Clear milestones must guide an incubator’s activities.
Best practice dictates that there be on-going monitoring and evaluation in any credible programme. Innovation space objectives must be clear from the onset; in fact they must be written down and reviewed regularly, at the very least quarterly.
They can equally be modified when there is need such as the period after elections when major changes may have occurred in policy thrusts and leadership.
Stakeholders will take interest especially in the progress of the innovation space clients and the overall impact of the incubator as it meets pre-set targets.
Collecting and collating data, especially that which reflects economic impact stemming from the clients, is useful for tracking performance over time, comparing effectiveness with other programmes, checking or reflecting the quality of the programme, is a useful tool for client recruitment and retention.
Areas of improvement will be easily identified. There are ten basic data points that incubation programmes are to collect annually for clients and incubator graduates.
These include the current number of clients, the total number of graduates since inception of a programme, the graduate firms that have been acquired or merged, the number of people employed currently by client and graduate start-ups both part time and full time, as well as their salaries and wages.
Also required are the gross revenues for client and graduate companies for the most recent year, and the dollar amounts of debt capital, equity capital and grant funds raised in the most recent full year for each client and graduate firm.
They recommend that this data be collected for at least five years after client firms’ graduate from programmes in innovation spaces.
This means from launch, all programmes must ensure they generate tools for collecting this data regularly.
The best way is online format that can easily be completed by clients in a short time — because entrepreneurs are always busy, and the data collated in one place where it can easily be retrieved and manipulated.
Alternatively, physical forms can be completed and this done during a face to face interaction with the hub manager allowing for a more personal experience, which may also lead to an advisory session and possible references to other advisors regarding improving lagging factors.
Ideally clients should reach out to the incubator manager in a systematic way and update on progress and challenges ahead of the monitoring meeting.
A weekly update may be tedious but a monthly check in is a definite requirement. That engagement is in fact one of the important services an incubator gives. This aspect needs to be very consistent as it is the only way of checking on the innovators progress and growth.
Progress is objectively measured when parameters are shared upfront and ought not to be confused with hype and or visibility that comes once a product is launched, though that has its place.
Every box must be ticked with honest responses if the programme is to be beneficial to clients. A good programme should also have an exit point or graduation point for a client who is said to have completed the programme or done well.
For some spaces this is when the client gets an exit by acquisition or merging or when they are strong and sound enough to operate independently with a functional economic model.
Following up non-resident clients can be a headache, but simple technology tools help and sometimes it’s as easy as inviting back success stories to share their path and experiences which they will usually be happy to do.
The internal factors in an incubation programme affect the success of an incubator as well. One of the greatest threats to success is the very mission — what the space is all about.
Granted, at the beginning it may not be clear, but at some point the programme must settle on a clear mission and appropriately resource it.
A successful programme will always be well defined in terms of its focus and what is seeks to achieve. Then, it must conform to that mission, always continuously using that as a gauge in undertaking any activities, to guard against mission drift.
There are always lots of exciting things that can be pursued, but keep the main thing as the main thing! Staffing is a critical element in meeting the innovation spaces needs.
From the beginning, the correct people must be brought in, in line with the mission. If a programme mission shifts, that may warrant a change of staff and to avoid the sensitivities that come with that, due care must be taken to reach a level of clarity before hiring.
Should the complement be deemed inappropriate then remedial action has to be taken swiftly lest you force roles upon present staff who have neither interest nor the required skill.
Once they have been identified it is important to invest in them, their education and exposure because the innovation space by its very nature rapidly changes and networks are also an important thing.
Investment in the right staff and their continuing education is vital. Related to staffing is ensuring the right mix of board members or advisory board members.
This may mean sourcing them from other similar spaces and that can be a good thing if well managed, and especially when experienced persons are in short supply.
An ideal board must have representation in every administrative and technical aspect of the incubator.
Alignment with the budget is another contributor to success. The greatest investment must be in client services and ideally this means operationalising the already prepared business plan.
As mentioned before, sustainability is key, the programme will need a definite source of income which must also come it at the right time to enable progress.
Low cost and high impact activities are encouraged, and incubation spaces can also greatly benefit from the benevolence of local successful innovators and its present clients and graduates.
Volunteerism can and should be encouraged especially since the economic development agenda will benefit all in a community.
Finally, there is need to constantly check if performance goals are being met. Are scheduled meet ups happening? Do we have the number of attendees we want? Are we active on social media and how much engagement do we have? What is the quantity and quality of clients we have and are they meeting the deadlines for assigned tasks in their growth path?
Are we meeting the expectations of clients? And very important — are they building proper stuff that works, and are they generating revenue — if that is our mission. Where is the programme strong, and how do we perpetuate that? Where is it weak and how do we strengthen it? Indeed, answering such questions will require some set standard for comparison and this must be like with like — a mixed use space with a similar one and not a tech hub comparing with a kitchen incubator or maker-space.
Also important is to continue running your own race as defined upfront, than to try and be like other spaces which have different objectives. All performance goals must be aligned such that they meet the expectations of all their stakeholders.
Once you have experience in operating your specific space, you can then change the metrics to be more defined.
This information will certainly be handy both as a baseline in future years, and for informing presentations as and when you make them to potential partners. Innovation spaces should start getting their houses in order, work is coming!
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