Tips for Getting the Data You Want

Set the Expectation. Your first point of contact with a potential client should include a discussion of reporting requirements. “We try to make a case by explaining to prospective clients that The Enterprise Center is in the business of helping companies much like themselves by providing services, support, connections, etc.,” says Joel Wiggins, CEO & president at the Enterprise Center of Johnson County in Lenexa, Kansas. “We want to continue to do that and are obligated to report to our supporters the outcome of providing these services. Client data helps us do that.”

Explain How Data Will Be Used. Wiggins always explains to clients that their data will be used only in aggregate, and that no personal or private company information will be used in the report circulated to incubator stakeholders. In fact, this information will remain absolutely confidential. Often, convincing clients that their information will not be shared with anyone is the most difficult challenge to overcome. Show clients an example of a previous aggregated report to set their minds at ease.

Explain to Them Why It’s Important. Your clients and graduates are busy entrepreneurs, no question about it. Providing you data about their companies is another task on an already long to-do list. Managers say that reminding clients of the importance of the task can help. “You do have to badger them, there’s no question about it,” says Mark S. Long, president & CEO of the Indiana University Emerging Technologies Center in Indianapolis. “But they do want to support the facility, and once you convince them that this data, when shown in aggregate, is being used to get further funding for the incubator, they’re usually pretty supportive.”

Build in Extra Time and Remind, Remind, Remind. If you don’t build extra time into your schedule for collecting the data, it’s likely you won’t get everything you need by the deadline. And, don’t just ask for the information and then expect it to show up on the date you request. David Cattey, former executive director of the Business Technology Center (now TechColumbus) in Columbus, Ohio, says he routinely had to remind clients multiple times. “We had some who would respond the same day and others who would drag it out for weeks.” In Indianapolis, Long goes by the “rule of three”: “Our intern makes two calls and then I make the third. And they don’t want to get a call from me.”

Help Make It a Habit. You’ll go a long way toward getting data you want from graduates if you get entrepreneurs used to the habit when they’re still in the incubator – then it will be second nature after they graduate.

Keep Graduates Engaged. Invite your graduates back to the incubator whenever possible, and check in with them from time to time just to see how they’re doing. That way, when you need something from them, they’ll be compelled to help you out.

Make It a Requirement. Some incubators write into their lease and service agreements that clients must provide financial data about their companies during their time in the incubator and for a period of years after they graduate. The formal nature of this approach helps entrepreneurs understand that you’re serious about it. “It’s more about setting expectations,” Wiggins says.

Play to Their Sympathies. Nearly every office has a staff person everybody loves. Perhaps they make everyone’s day brighter with a sunny personality, maybe they bring in treats, or maybe they pitch in when they can to make other people’s jobs easier. This is the person you want asking clients and graduates for company info.

Offer an Incentive. When Adele Lyons directed the Gulf Coast Business & Technology Center in Biloxi, Mississippi, clients and graduates were entered into a drawing for a $100 cash prize.

Conduct Exit Interviews. If you don’t already do this, consider making exit interviews a part of your graduation process. Aside from learning what clients found valuable and not so valuable during their time in the incubator, you’ll have an opportunity to remind them that you’ll be continuing to contact them for data about their companies.