A daily bulletin of news & opinion

20 October 2011

There are many business terms that are particularly grating. It’s become well documented that I’m no fan of ‘reaching out’, ‘circling back’ or ‘running point’. What’s wrong with simply ‘getting in touch’? Or arranging another meeting? Or just getting on with it and taking charge? Another term that’s over-stayed its welcome is incubators.

Pick up a brochure for a new enterprise zone in an emirate that’s down on its luck and there’s a good chance that well before you hit the fourth paragraph of the sales pitch about a dazzling new oasis of opportunity at the intersection of Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, the Stans and ex-SSR republics, you’ll have hit the word incubator.

Incubator. A place where baby chicks or small crocodiles toast until they’re ready to crack out of their shells? Or incubator – a place that can unleash all your business potential in a dynamic hub of like-minded businesses? I’d rather stick with the snapping little crocodiles.

Governments, chambers of commerce and developers make considerable fuss about stimulating start-ups and programmes to promote small enterprise. Much is spent on glossy brochures and little films that show a diverse mix of people congregating in these incubators. You’ll be familiar with the images – the clients looking engaged as someone scribbles on a whiteboard; the young lady in jeans and a scoop neck top sipping coffee from a cardboard cup in a knock-off Arne Jacobsen chair and making swoopy motions on a tablet device; the creative/geeky men in particularly bad denim and silly facial hair having a brain-storming session. These have become the canned photo-documentary short-hand of what happens in an incubator – people scribble on squeaky white boards, sip coffee and check their Facebook accounts and wear dated clothing because they’re far too busy to concern themselves with sartorial detail.

As governments and urban planners attempt to figure out how to get people to collaborate by delivering capital to the doorsteps of ideas, slick innovations to clever marketers and hungry customers to tasty products, they’re creating far too much work for themselves by attempting to make things look creative, or cool or even funky. What they should be focusing on is creating an air of intimacy and developing spaces that are right for people starting out. Translation: small, neutral and flexible. Budding businesses don’t need Chinese made Egg chairs to be creative, nor do they need ping-pong tables, skateboard ramps or any of the other contrived West Coast trappings that have morphed into global short-hand for fresh ideas and the next big thing.

Far too much effort is put into trying to engineer an environment when the real solution is that there should be more small office spaces for two-person legal firms, petite studios for blossoming industrial designers and tiny shops for craftspeople looking to sell their wares. The construction should be high quality for frequent turnover, the communications sound and the volumes welcoming rather than intimidating. Most importantly, these enclaves need to be located in areas that people want to work in and clients want to visit – not in wind-swept suburbs or derelict neighbourhoods that are decades away from regeneration. Good ideas and capital come together when people are at ease and not stressed about where they can grab lunch or how they’re going to get home. As for incubators, they’re best left in research laboratories.


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