Before You Begin
Before implementing or refining a data collection effort to determine program impact, you must make sure that program staff, board members, and sponsors are on the same page.
Avoid Conflicting Expectations
NBIA has found that an incubation program charged with pursuing conflicting
(or too many) goals can get off track and never succeed in achieving
its mission. For example, it is likely too much to ask any incubator
to encourage low-income entrepreneurs and bring new technologies
to market. These types of conflicting goals have afflicted some programs,
whose sponsors expected that low-income, low-skilled individuals would
gain employment in technology businesses that needed highly skilled
employees. Such expectations can set incubation programs up for failure.*
It is therefore critical that, prior to implementing a data collection process, the incubator board and management revisit the program’s mission statement and goals to ensure that all aspects of the mission are realistic and achievable and that there is consensus in that regard. If an incubator’s mission is unrealistic or includes conflicting objectives, any measurement of results will not demonstrate success.
Have a Conversation With Your Stakeholders
David Cattey, a former chairman of NBIA’s Board of Directors
who for sixteen years managed the Business Technology Center (now Tech-Columbus)
in Columbus, Ohio, puts it simply: “Know your customer, know what
it is that they want, and make sure that you provide it to them.”
If your incubation program has more than one substantial sponsor, you might have to track very different things for each sponsoring entity. For example, if you receive city funding each year and your city council wants to know how many jobs your clients and graduates have created, they might not care how many technologies you have helped to commercialize. But if you receive funding from a local university as well, they might be interested in technologies commercialized and jobs. Keeping stakeholders engaged in your program is a lot easier if they are hearing about your program success on their terms.
Having this conversation with your stakeholders also provides you the opportunity to offer input on outcome metrics. Representatives of sponsoring organizations might welcome your opinion on the most valuable way to measure your incubator’s impact. Sharing this toolkit with sponsors is a great way to start this conversation.
Set Expectations Inside the Incubator
Before you begin collecting outcome data from clients and graduates,
it’s important to have a conversation with those entrepreneurs.
Those of you who are developing incubation programs have the luxury of beginning your tracking with a fresh slate. You can decide on metrics and set up a way to store and track data. With each incoming client, you can have a conversation about your expectations in this regard both during their tenancy and after they graduate. Be sure to give clients a list of the data points you’ll be requesting and a sample of the survey instrument. That way they’ll know ahead of time what you’ll be asking for and can set up their books accordingly.
If your program is up and running but you haven’t been tracking impact data, have a meeting with clients and representatives of graduate firms to explain why you’re starting and how important it is that they participate. Provide them the survey instrument ahead of time so they know what you’ll be expecting of them.
In addition to setting the expectation that you will ask for this information, be sure to explain to your entrepreneurs that the data they submit will be used only in aggregate and that no personal or private company information will be disclosed.
* Adkins, Dinah, “A Report: Summary of the U.S. Incubator Industry and Prospects for Incubator Model Globalization.” Athens, Ohio: National Business Incubation Association, 2001.