National Business Incubation Association
 

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Staffing

This incubator’s staff are qualified to assist emerging companies, with the skills needed to help companies grow and succeed. [View]

This incubator has sufficient staffing to meet client needs. [View]

Top incubator staff excel in managing incubator operations and finances. [View]

This incubator makes use of community mentors, business advisors and other experts to supplement services provided by staff. [View]

This incubator’s staff are appropriately compensated. [View]

This incubator invests in professional development and training for the program’s manager/staff. [View]

 

This incubator’s staff are qualified to assist emerging companies, with the skills needed to help companies grow and succeed.

Often the first staff member hired—typically early in the incubator’s development—is an executive director, manager, or CEO who hires and supervises other incubator staff and oversees the incubator’s operations and finances. (In some cases, the incubator is managed by an outside firm that contracts with the incubator’s board.) No matter what the title, this individual must be dynamic and have business experience in the industries the incubator will support. Other desirable characteristics include:

  • Ability to effectively market the incubator to potential clients, sponsors, and stakeholders
  • Ability to identify clients’ needs, coach clients effectively, and facilitate their access to outside resources
  • Ability to work with the board to impart the incubator’s vision and mission to the general public and, through the selling of that vision, enlist support

It’s unlikely that a single individual will be fully knowledgeable in all aspects of entrepreneurship. Therefore, the director must recognize his or her own weaknesses and be able to bring in outside assistance when needed and, if necessary, to enlist mentors to help build capacity. Additional staff may be hired as the incubator develops, depending on the program’s budget, the level of services provided, the number of clients served, and the support provided by the board and stakeholders.

While some programs are generously staffed, many make do with just a few people. Large programs may have a director who oversees all operations; a facility manager who focuses on the building; and entrepreneur support staff who deal directly with clients. But that situation is likely the exception, not the rule: In NBIA’s 2006 State of the Business Incubation Industry report, average full-time-equivalent staff at responding North American incubation programs was 1.8—down from 2.8 in 1998.

Nearly all incubation programs have a full- or part-time administrative assistant or receptionist who handles duties such as light bookkeeping, scheduling, responding to inquiries from potential clients, and assisting existing clients with basic services and information. About two-thirds of incubation programs have a full- or part-time assistant manager or client services manager who focuses primarily on working with client companies. However, the majority of incubation programs—97 percent, according to NBIA’s 2006 State of the Business Incubation Industry—call upon outside service providers to assist clients as well.

Excerpted from Colbert, Corinne, Dinah Adkins, Chuck Wolfe and Karl LaPan, Best Practices in Action: Guidelines for Implementing First-Class Business Incubation Programs, Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2010, p. 21. Also see in this book: "Staff Qualifications," "Entrepreneurial Personality Tests," and "Aligning Staff Evaluation with Operating Goals," pp. 21-24. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

A critical factor in the success of every business incubator is its staff, who must be qualified to help companies grow and handle the incubator’s own business functions. Because incubator staffs tend to be small, hiring individuals—particularly managers—with the qualities necessary to fulfill this range of needs isn’t easy.

An incubator manager is called upon daily to be landlord, accountant, teacher, recruiter, psychologist, and public relations executive, so it’s important that he or she bring diverse experience to the job. Many incubators require their managers to have expertise beyond the “basics.” For example, the manager of a technology incubator might need a doctorate in a particular science along with knowledge of intellectual property issues, while an arts incubator might look for someone with a business degree who also has a background in theater or dance.

Staffing an adequate number of people also is essential to an incubator’s success. Studies show that the more staff an incubator has, the more impressive its impact. Given everything that goes on at an incubator, that should come as no surprise. But no matter how many people an incubator employs, the majority of staff time should be devoted to client assistance services rather than building or administrative tasks. A manager must prioritize staff time “to place the greatest emphasis on client assistance, including proactive advising and guidance that results in company success and wealth creation,” an idea NBIA recognizes as an incubation best practice.

Excerpted from Cammarata, Kathleen, Self-Evaluation Workbook for Business Incubators, NBIA Publications, 2003, p. 32. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

Selecting an incubator manager who is committed to the program and has the right mix of business savvy and community connections isn’t always easy, but the investment of time and resources it takes to find the most suitable person can pay off in the long run.

There are plenty of idealistic people out there who truly want to see businesses succeed. But business incubation programs need highly committed managers who also have the hard-and-fast business program management and coaching skills that are necessary to help clients succeed. Susan Matlock, manager of the Innovation Depot in Birmingham, Alabama, equates the search for an incubator manager to that for a for-profit business executive. “Venture capitalists see a lot of excellent opportunities,” she says. “But if the leadership isn’t there to pull it all together, they won’t have the confidence to invest in the company. The same can be said for incubator managers.”

Last but not least, once that person is in place, he or she must be afforded ample time to help companies grow. Mark P. Rice, former Murata Dean of the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business and the Jeffry A. Timmons Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has managed and studied business incubators since the 1980s. Rice has found that the single most critical factor in the effectiveness of an incubator manager’s efforts to help clients be successful is the amount of time spent working directly with client companies. However, all too often, duties ranging from fundraising to facility maintenance to marketing to public speaking detract from a manager’s ability to work directly with clients. Incubator development teams and boards of directors should set policies and encourage practices that enable the manager to prioritize time spent providing one-on-one help to clients. If the incubator has a small staff, it may be necessary for board members or other stakeholders to take on responsibilities such as organizing capital campaigns or forging important community or political relationships.

Excerpted from Knopp, Linda, “Critical Factors for Success,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp.84-88. This chapter is available as a Quick Reference PDF document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).

For further information on incubator staffing, see:

  • Erlewine, Meredith, “Incubator Staffing – The Basics and Beyond,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 108-113. This chapter is available as a Quick Reference PDF document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).
  • Knopp, Linda. 2009 Incubation Industry Compensation Survey, NBIA Publications, 2010 (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)
  • Boyd, Kathleen, Developing a Business Incubation Program: Insights and Advice for Communities, NBIA Publications, 2006, pp. 113-115 provides information about when to bring a manager on board at a new incubation program. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)



This incubator has sufficient staffing to meet client needs.

As with any organization, appropriate staffing is critical to an incubator’s performance. The results of the analysis suggest that additional staffing beyond the manager is positively correlated with a number of measures of client performance. Furthermore, the number of hours the staff works per week is related to success. Similarly, there is a positive relationship between the average number of hours per week the manager is engaged with the program and outcome measures. It is not just the size of the staff that matters, though. Resident client-to-staff ratio also is strongly correlated to the success of client firms. What activities the manager focuses on matters as well. The three activities most correlated to measures of client success are the delivery of client services, developing networks internal and external to the incubation program, and fundraising. 

The positive relationship between improved client firm performance and the manager’s experience in the incubation industry and her/his tenure with the current program suggests two critical points. First, more experienced managers are more effective. Second, the incubator manager’s stability (length of tenure with an incubation program) creates the opportunity to develop networks with key stakeholders and enhance trust, both of which contribute to boosting client firm outcomes.

Adapted from Lewis, David A., Elsie Harper-Anderson, and Lawrence A. Molnar, Incubating Success: Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures, University of Michigan, 2011, p. 53.

Staffing an adequate number of people also is essential to an incubator’s success. Studies show that the more staff an incubator has, the more impressive its impact. Given everything that goes on at an incubator, that should come as no surprise. But no matter how many people an incubator employs, the majority of staff time should be devoted to client assistance services rather than building or administrative tasks. A manager must prioritize staff time “to place the greatest emphasis on client assistance, including proactive advising and guidance that results in company success and wealth creation,” an idea NBIA recognizes as an incubation best practice.

Excerpted from Cammarata, Kathleen, Self-Evaluation Workbook for Business Incubators, NBIA Publications, 2003, p. 32. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

Incubation programs must have an adequate number of staff delivering business development services to clients. These individuals have such a pivotal role in the incubator, they must have the liberty to give companies the most attention. Any incubator that staffs itself too sparsely will necessarily pull attention away from company development in order to accomplish stakeholder management, fund-raising and other tasks not directly related to client assistance. A staff bordering on anorexic will pay the price in overwork, sacrifices and to-do lists that never quite get done – the most discouraging fallout. Hiring teams that place too little emphasis on staff are setting the stage for struggle, turnover and – an increasingly familiar scenario – incubator staff who leave to work for a client or graduate company.

The purpose of an incubator and its staff is to serve clients. As one of its 10 best practices, NBIA members have adopted the following standard for the industry: Prioritize management time to place the greatest emphasis on client assistance, including proactive advising and guidance that results in company success and wealth creation. A high percentage of an incubator's payroll must go toward direct service to clients and other activities that bring in additional business assistance from the outside. Studies show this will make a difference in your companies’ success. Any time you see an organizational chart with positions and duties weighted toward building and administrative tasks, you’re seeing a chart that needs correction. Careful attention to delivering a top-drawer business development program is the only way to sustain a successful program.

Excerpted from Erlewine, Meredith, “Essentials of Hiring Incubator Staff,” Human Resources – Finding the Right Staff for Your Incubator, NBIA Publications, 1999, pp. 7-11.

For further information on incubator staffing, see:

  • Knopp, Linda, 2012 State of the Business Incubation Industry, NBIA Publications, 2012. (Current information on incubator staffing levels.) (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

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Top incubator staff excel in managing incubator operations and finances.

NBIA best practices rely on two extremely important maxims:

  • The incubator must be staffed by people who have the skills to grow companies and help them succeed

  • The incubator itself needs to be run as a sustainable business

Thus, not only is it important for staff to have the expertise and coaching skills required to help grow companies, but they also must have enough business savvy to operate the incubator as a business. This means management must excel in managing incubator operations and finances.

It stands to reason that an incubator manager who is a poor business manager isn’t going to be able to help entrepreneurs grow successful businesses. This would be like asking a mathematics professor to administer a fine arts program. This is another reason that it’s necessary to hire incubator management that has entrepreneurial skills, understands starting a business, comprehends financial statements, and is accomplished at diversifying revenue streams and, if necessary, raising new revenues. New incubators are, after all, start-up businesses themselves.

Further, you wouldn’t expect somebody who wasn’t a good business person and who couldn’t run the incubator as a sustainable business to serve as an adequate role model for start-up and fledgling firms. The incubator manager must obtain the respect and support of client companies as well as the regional business community, and this means having the same skills that he or she proposes to teach others.

NBIA research* on rural incubation shows that incubator sponsors or developers that don’t invest in qualified management actually get less return from their investment than those that hire top-notch managers. They provide greater subsidies without getting the ROI. Our takeaway from this is that if you hire somebody who doesn’t have the skills to be a good incubator manager, you’ll end up with a concierge (somebody who answers the phones) rather than an individual who can grow companies and increase community wealth. But investing up front in hiring the right manager will result in greater return on investment from successful graduate companies, and in the long run, sponsors can get that ROI on a lesser subsidy.

Dinah Adkins
NBIA President & CEO

*Adkins, Dinah, Hugh Sherman and Christine A. Yost, Incubating in Rural Areas, Challenges and Keys to Success, NBIA Publications, 2001. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

Incubator financial management involves a lot of careful monitoring of cash flow. With the constant flow of companies into and out of the program, income from rent and service fees is in constant fluctuation. Many cash flow problems can be avoided with detailed, disciplined, no-assumptions-made projections and planning, incubator managers say, both for the short term and the long term. This means doing a line-item annual budget, broken down month by month and based on previous fiscal years, with flags on anything that may need adjustment.

Cash flow analysis requires tracking annual and monthly inflows and outflows of cash, as well as being clear about what constitutes a truly reliable source of income, says Lisa Ison, president of the New Century Venture Center (NCVC) in Roanoke, Virginia. Ison says incubator managers should never assume that grants will always be available. “[Look] at your actual line items and possibilities for income that you can generate without using those sources,” she says.

The value of conservative planning also applies to estimating occupancy, managers say. An incubator that assumes a constant high level of occupancy – and budgets around that assumption – is setting itself up for a rude awakening, says Devron Veasley, director of the Bessemer Business Incubation System (BBIS) in Bessemer, Alabama. Even though BBIS regularly maintains 80 percent to 85 percent occupancy, Veasley says he would never budget that high.

“I base my projections on my break-even point based on my expenses,” she says. “For me to break even, I need to have about 74 percent occupancy, so I make my budget out based on 75 percent. Anything that comes in after that, I consider gravy.”

What is true for income is also true for expenses, managers say. Incubators should assume that utility bills are going to go up and that repair expenses could be higher than anticipated. Veasley, for instance, averages his utility bills from the previous year and adds 5 percent to arrive at a projection for the next fiscal year.

To take as much variance as possible out of expenses, Veasley also recommends getting as many of them as possible into the “fixed-cost” category of the budget. For BBIS, this means negotiating fixed-rate, long-term contracts for janitorial, telephone/Internet, equipment repair and maintenance, and other services. It also means negotiating labor and replacement costs into service contracts’ regular payments in the event equipment must be replaced. Although adding this insurance against costly equipment replacement raised BBIS’s monthly payment to $300 from the $184 it was paying for a maintenance contract that didn’t include replacement parts and labor, Veasley believes the contract pays off in peace of mind.

Excerpted from Boyd, Justin, “Incubator Cash Flow Management,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 128-129. This chapter is available as a Quick Reference PDF document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).

Collectively, a few themes emerge: (1) Variables related to program capacity to deliver services – also a proxy of program stability – (incubator revenues and expenses; manager’s hours, tasks, and experience; and client-to-staff ratio) are among the best predictors of successful outcomes; (2) Having written planning documents contributes to success; (3) Regularly evaluating different aspects of the incubation program matters (reviewing budgets, service providers, and program effectiveness); and (4) Having entry and exit criteria can boost program performance.

Excerpted from Lewis, David A., Elsie Harper-Anderson, and Lawrence A. Molnar, Incubating Success: Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures, University of Michigan, 2011, p. 65.

For further information on incubator financial management, see:

  • Knopp, Linda, “Saving for a Rainy Day: Prudent Planning Helps Incubators Weather Financial Woes,” NBIA Review, December 2006. This article is available free to members in the NBIA Archives or as a PDF Quick Reference document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).
  • Weinstein, Stanley. The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management, 3rd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  • Colbert, Corinne, “Pricing Space and Services: Or, What are You Worth?” NBIA Review, October 2005. This article is available free to members in the NBIA Archives or as a PDF Quick Reference document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).
  • LeHere, Michael, “How to Maximize Operating Revenues in the Early Years," A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 62-64.
  • NonProfitExpert.com
    Nonprofit Budget Basics
    Information about building a budget for a nonprofit with links to more specifics
  • Free Management Library
    All About Financial Management in Nonprofits
    Information about various aspects of financial management and links to more resources
  • All Business
    Successful Cash Flow Management
    Tips for managing finances wisely and links to other helpful articles


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This incubator makes use of community mentors, business advisors and other experts to supplement services provided by staff.

The service provider network, or professional services network, is a collection of experts from the region who provide services to incubator clients but are not paid staff of the incubator. These experts typically include:

  • Senior-level accountants
  • Attorneys
  • Marketing specialists
  • Venture capitalists
  • Academic researchers/professors
  • Experienced entrepreneurs
  • Technology specialists
  • Human resource professionals
  • Insurance professionals
  • Drug approval process experts (for life science incubators)

Because these individuals are not typically available to or affordable to early-stage ventures, their cooperation with your program offers great value to your clients—and they are a great marketing tool for your incubation program.

The types of providers you line up will depend in part on who your clients are. For example, artists and designers will need to be versed in the legal aspects of trademark and copyright laws, while those who are commercializing new technologies will have additional needs involving patent law. Food businesses and biotechnology enterprises, on the other hand, will need guidance through industry-specific government approval processes.

Expertise is not enough, however; neither are low- or no-cost services. The service provider must supply a clear benefit to your clients and have a sincere interest in giving back to the community, without expecting a guarantee of future work from either the clients or the incubator. The incubation program must clearly articulate and reinforce this point so there is no misunderstanding.

That is not to say that the service provider should get nothing. You may arrange for the expert to provide a certain number of hours per month to your program for free, with a reduced rate for services over that limit. Such an arrangement prevents clients from taking advantage of the provider and reinforces the value of the provider’s time and expertise. And, of course, you should recognize the provider’s affiliation with your program on your Web site and in marketing materials.

Finding the right experts may take time and may require you to reach outside your local community. The process will become easier as your program establishes itself as a valuable source of support for successful ventures.

Adapted from Colbert, Corinne, Dinah Adkins, Chuck Wolfe and Karl LaPan, Best Practices in Action: Guidelines for Implementing First-Class Business Incubation Programs, Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2010, p. 27. Also see in this book: "Utilizing University Interns," "Small Business Clinic," "An Internship Partnership," "Service Provider in Lieu of Staff," "Detailed Client Needs Matching" and other best practice examples, pp. 25-30. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

Part of an incubator manager’s assistance to clients is the development and administration of a service provider network. The network gives clients access to high-level (and often reduced-rate) legal, accounting, financing, and other types of business assistance that might not be available from the incubator staff. The manager’s goal in developing a service provider network should be to identify and recruit a group of experts who will be readily available and able to resolve most problems faced by client companies. By negotiating pro bono or reduced rates with service providers, incubator managers help their clients conserve much-needed capital. Beyond that, being able to tell potential clients that they’ll be able to call a lawyer, ask a question, and not get a $250 bill is a major selling point for the incubator.

Excerpted from Cammarata, Kathleen, Self-Evaluation Workbook for Business Incubators, NBIA Publications, 2003, p. 58. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

Although incubation professionals can and should be closely involved with incubator client companies, their time is also well spent finding, recruiting, and managing a strong network of service providers – consultants knowledgeable in specific subject areas who assist incubator clients on an as-needed basis, usually for free or at reduced rates. Incubator service provider networks often include accountants, lawyers, venture capitalists, scientific experts, and others who can assist new ventures. These high-level professionals typically are not affordable for early-stage companies, and without them, the value of an incubation program diminishes significantly.

But if you’re going to put your companies’ futures in the hands of outside consultants, they should be ones you trust. Service providers aren’t just the volunteers you settle for because you couldn’t afford staff to do the job. They have the potential to be the resource that makes your program exceptional.

Excerpted from Cammarata, Kathleen, and Sally Hayhow, “Managing a Network of Service Providers,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 114-118. This chapter provides detailed information on finding top-notch professionals, screening consultants, compensating and communicating with service providers, and other issues. It is available as a Quick Reference PDF document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).

For further information on leveraging outside assistance, see:

  • Amey, Herb, “Strength in Numbers: Incubators, SBDCs Partner to Help Grow Businesses,” NBIA Review, April 2007. This article is available free to members in the NBIA Archives or as a PDF Quick Reference document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).
  • Walker, Brian, “How to Leverage Volunteer Assistance,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 119-121. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)
  • Colbert, Corinne, “Entrepreneurs in Residence Bring Street Cred to Client Counseling,” NBIA Review, February 2007. This article is available free to members in the NBIA Archives or as a PDF Quick Reference document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers).
  • Gerl, Ellen, and Nan Kalis, “How Mentors and Advisors Add Value,” A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, Completely Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2004, pp. 222-227. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)


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This incubator’s staff are appropriately compensated.

Finding and hiring good staff is only one part of the equation. Appropriately compensating those staff members is just as important. Incubator boards—driven by a nonprofit, public sector mentality—often are tempted to skimp on salaries.

This is a mistake. Attracting and retaining the type of talent needed to sustain a successful incubator requires competitive compensation and benefits packages.

NBIA research has shown a correlation between outcomes—such as incubator sustainability, job creation, and graduation rates—and adherence to best practices such as appropriately compensating incubation program management and staff. While it is impossible to provide causative links between staff compensation and incubation program performance, there can be little doubt that paying low wages limits a program’s ability to hire talent that has the skills and expertise needed to grow companies—or the incubator itself. Incubator sponsors that hire a program “concierge” rather than a qualified professional will forgo the positive impacts successful programs can generate and may doom a project to failure. For example, a poorly paid and ineffective manager could fail to develop or maintain a financially sustainable program or provide appropriate services to emerging companies.

Median salaries for full-time incubator executives in all sectors reached $79,325 by 2009—more than double the median in 1990. Still, that figure is significantly lower than salaries for similar positions in private firms. Although some individuals will be attracted by the pure benefits of working with early-stage ventures, contributing to the community, or the recognition and prestige attached to the incubator, many talented people will eventually be drawn away by more lucrative offers.

Salary levels within the incubation industry vary by incubator type. In NBIA’s 2009 compensation survey, full-time executives of technology incubators averaged $92,151 per year, while full-time biotechnology incubator managers earned an average of $131,800. In contrast, full-time leaders of mixed-use programs reported an average salary of $76,500. Geography plays a role, too: Managers of urban incubators reported average salaries of $88,217, while their rural counterparts were paid an average of $82,119.

In addition to salary, incubator staff compensation often includes vacation, paid holidays, and health insurance. Some incubation programs also make contributions to a retirement account for their managers. In 2009, about one-third of U.S. incubation programs offered bonuses to executives; in most cases, these bonuses were linked to incubator performance and financial sustainability measures.

Excerpted from Colbert, Corinne, Dinah Adkins, Chuck Wolfe and Karl LaPan, Best Practices in Action: Guidelines for Implementing First-Class Business Incubation Programs, Revised 2nd Edition, NBIA Publications, 2010, p. 24. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

How can a program attract and retain such high-level professionals? Competitive compensation packages are essential. A limited budget can make this difficult, but it’s even more difficult – and potentially more expensive – to continually fix problems resulting from underqualified staff or a high turnover rates. A program might even fail for these reasons. The bottom line? Salaries are not the place to economize. NBIA accordingly recognizes the needs to “recruit and appropriately compensate management capable of achieving the mission of the incubator and having the ability to help companies grow” as an industry best practice.

Excerpted from Cammarata, Kathleen, Self-Evaluation Workbook for Business Incubators, NBIA Publications, 2003, p. 32. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

For further information about staff compensation and benefits and the link between adequate compensation and program performance, see:

  • Knopp, Linda, 2009 Incubation Industry Compensation Survey, NBIA Publications, 2010. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)
  • Adkins, Dinah, Hugh Sherman, and Christine Yost, Incubating in Rural Areas: Challenges and Keys to Success, NBIA Publications, 2001. (Available from the NBIA Bookstore.)

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This incubator invests in professional development and training for the program’s manager/staff.

Nobody earns a college degree in incubator management. Although some incubator managers have experience as incubator staff members, the majority come to incubator management from other fields. Some are former entrepreneurs themselves; others have worked in economic development or technology transfer, or have corporate or financial experience. And a few come to incubation from completely unrelated fields. As a result, incubator managers and their staff get their training on the job.

The incubation industry has changed significantly since 1959, when the first program was created in Batavia, New York, or since 1980, when only 12 to 15 programs operated in the United States.

For one thing, the role of incubator manager has become more sophisticated and demanding. Entrepreneurial firms expect more from incubation program staff than in the past, and the manager must have the respect of the local business community and other stakeholders for the program to thrive.

Another sign of the industry's evolution is the variety of incubation programs in operation. There are incubators in urban, suburban and rural areas serving clients of myriad backgrounds who run companies in diverse industries. Incubator management and staff must be prepared to meet the precise needs of their unique clientele.

And because of the breadth of the industry's reach, client services have expanded and deepened. The first NBIA State of the Business Incubation Industry report in 1989 listed only 16 types of “management and technical assistance” services. The 2006 SOI report listed 33 distinct types of services offered by incubation programs, ranging from help with business basics to in-house seed funds.

All these factors point to the necessity of investing time and money in professional development for incubator management and staff. Some allowance for professional development should be put aside each year. Simply put, a best practices program (or even a moderately effective one) cannot afford to forego all forms of professional development. And incubator sponsors should be warned that failure to invest in professional development results in incubator programs that do not provide sufficient return on investment. Stinting on professional development is as bad as failing to compensate management sufficiently to attract professionals who have the skills to grow companies. It is penny wise and pound foolish.

In the broadest sense, professional development encompasses skills and knowledge obtained from personal development and career advancement. In the incubation industry it can be obtained through consultation with others, coaching, reading, mentoring, and networking.

All incubator developers and managers should attain knowledge of the best incubator models and practices and develop networks among these programs’ managers, with the goal of creating in their own communities the best possible incubation programs. Only if we follow this rule will we be able to raise the quality of business incubation and service to our client companies.

How to do that? Primarily by becoming an active participant in NBIA and other associations that can keep you fresh in your job and up-to-date. NBIA sincerely believes that everyone involved in the incubation industry should join the association. Incubator developers can learn how to avoid mistakes that can cripple a program from the outset. And those who work in operating programs — regardless of their level of experience or market niche — will benefit from membership because NBIA is the primary source of information and professional development for incubator managers.

NBIA offers a number of incubation-specific professional development opportunities. The most obvious are our training programs and International Conference on Business Incubation, as well as our publications. But we also facilitate professional development by connecting members to one another via the NBIA listserv and online forums dedicated to specific incubator types, such as kitchen, biotech, or mixed-use incubators.

Programs often get in a rut because management isn’t open to new ideas, or because they mistakenly think the field of business incubation has become stagnant. This is hardly the case! Longtime NBIA members — even those who have years of experience helping companies — note that they particularly enjoy conferences because they give them the opportunity to network with other experienced managers, to solve or get fresh perspectives on immediate issues and to re-energize themselves professionally.

NBIA recognizes that some incubator managers have limited resources and they must pick and choose books and training events or attend irregularly depending on the proximity of the venue or other costs. However, I urge all incubator sponsors and incubator managers to budget for NBIA membership fees, publication purchases and attendance at training events or conference.

Lest you think these statements are purely self-interested, let me note that everything I know about business incubation and all the valuable contacts that I have made have come from close association with industry practitioners who belong to NBIA. These resources are incomparable. I cannot understand why anybody would fail to avail themselves of these riches in one way or another.

Dinah Adkins
NBIA President & CEO

You don’t necessarily have to step away from the job to recharge yourself. Sometimes immersing yourself further into the industry and plugging in to the current of new ideas can rejuvenate.

Bonnie Herron has been executive director of Gwinnett Innovation Park (formerly the Intelligent Systems Incubator) in Norcross, Ga., for 17 years. She says attending incubation industry events helps her keep things fresh on the job. “Really, things like the [NBIA] listserv and going to conferences and training are hugely important in terms of re-energizing every year,” she says. “You always come back with two or three ideas that you can apply right away. The more you’re in the industry, the more important it is to continually hear what people are doing.”

After attending a session on business plan competitions at an NBIA conference, Herron and her colleagues decided to start their own, which is now in its second year. As a result of the competition, Herron says, “we get a lot of local press, which has brought us more awareness and increased the number of potential incubator clients.”

It doesn’t even have to be other incubators you’re surveying for new ideas. “We look for models in other industries that can be applied to core activities of incubation,” says Karl LaPan, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., “We bring those best practices back and modify them into things we can do to make a difference.”

Excerpted from Yavorcik, Carin, "Keeping Things Fresh: How Incubator Managers Stick With Demanding Jobs,” NBIA Review, June 2007. This article is available free to members in the NBIA Archives or as a PDF Quick Reference document from the NBIA Bookstore ($5/members; $10/nonmembers). It covers a variety of strategies to help incubator managers.

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