by Meredith Erlewine
Not long ago, NBIA revisited some of the staffing data we had collected for the 1998 State of the Business Incubation Industry survey. The fresh number crunching revealed that incubators with more than two staff also graduated more companies, and those companies created more jobs than their lean-staff counterparts. Now before you say, "duh," understand that the better results at larger-staff incubators don't appear to be a mere multiplier effect based on the number of clients served: While most create jobs at double the rate of small-staff incubators and graduate clients at five times the rate, they serve only about a third more clients. The bottom line is that helping clients achieve their highest potential takes people as many of them as possible.
The bad news is that more than half of the respondents had two staff or fewer and as a result must hustle to keep up the quality of service they offer clients. The average number of incubator staff was 2.8, but the median a more telling number was just two. The good news is that resourceful incubator managers have come up with ways to parlay two staff into 20, bringing in outside assistance to clients while they work to grow their programs and staff.
This resourcefulness also helps explain a strange anomaly: At incubators with the same amount of staff no two job descriptions look alike. While there is hardly a cookie-cutter approach to staffing, regardless of an incubator's focus or staff size, there are tasks that must be accomplished every day. So when you're looking at how to structure (or restructure) staff, studying job titles and descriptions from other incubator programs may be a good starting point, but it won't tell you everything you need to know. A better way is to look at the many tasks that need to be accomplished then begin to formulate how many and what kind of people you need to get the jobs done within budget constraints.
"When you conceptualize what you're doing around processes instead of organizational structures, you're much more prepared to serve clients," observes Paul Wetenhall, venture coach at Lennox Tech Enterprise Center in West Henrietta, N.Y. The list on pages 8 and 9 identifies tasks that are accomplished on a regular basis in incubators. The headings identify job duty groupings rather than job titles. Staff at some incubators work within clearly defined areas, such as reception or marketing, but staff at other incubators have job duties that hop all over the job-duty map. With these duties in mind, a manager or board of directors can decide what tasks the staff needs to accomplish and what division of labor is the best approach. But first it helps to understand some basic differences between small and large staffs.
Generally speaking, incubators with two staff have a CEO (manager) who often is backed up by a full- or part-time assistant. Two people obviously can be spread paper thin if they must do everything that is to be done. Before drawing up either staff person's job description many incubators first find out what existing resources can be prevailed upon.
For instance, if a sponsoring agency or umbrella organization will roll some clerical and property management duties into the job descriptions of existing staff, the incubator assistant's job description can encompass what is left. Or, if the pool of existing community service providers can provide some client assistance or help market the incubator, the CEO's job description can emphasize networking and fundraising ¬ two roads that can lead to more staff. Relying on volunteers to perform these key tasks necessitates that those volunteers be reliable, consistent and top notch.
At the Edison Technology Incubator and BioEnterprise in Cleveland, Ohio, Director Ellen Blahut feels fortunate that she and her incubator assistant don't have to spend time on facility upkeep such as grounds maintenance, changing light bulbs or repairing leaky faucets. Nor does she have to budget for the repairs Case Western Reserve University owns the building that houses the incubators and covers many facility-related costs. When a piece of equipment breaks down in Blahut's facility, the fix is just a phone call away.
The makeup of an incubation program's board will affect what staff must accomplish. Bob Thomson, manager of entrepreneurial programs at the Ben Franklin Technology Center in Bethlehem, Pa., counts on his eight-person advisory board to bring in experience and expertise in certain areas. "I can provide general help, but when we get into a specific issue, that's where these people come into the picture," he says. The board includes a seed venture capital specialist, a management consultant from the banking industry, an accountant, an intellectual property attorney, a marketing consultant and an entrepreneur-in-residence from a local university who successfully ran his own company for 30 years.
Thomson also augments his total staff of two by utilizing the help of interns from nearby Lehigh University. Students help Thomson monitor clients by assisting with financial statement reviews, and sometimes work directly with clients, providing assistance with financial spreadsheets or marketing. "They certainly are helpful, because they typically are very bright people. It's amazing, when you have this third party perspective, the things they can come up with," Thomson says.
"Staffing" with as many high-level volunteers as possible frees an incubator CEO to forge relationships with more potential service providers and program sponsors. At CALSTART's Project Hatchery Alameda in California, Director John Huetter spends about a day each week on networking activities. "I wish I could spend more time on it, because it's also a source of funding, support and sponsors," he says. "Over the last couple of years, we've been very fortunate to have name-brand service providers. It's important as a marketing component to be able to tell potential clients that they'll be able to call a lawyer, ask a question, and not get a $250 bill."
Sometimes even clients can help lighten staff's workload. If any of your client firms or anchor tenants provide a service the incubator needs, you may be able to barter reduced rent for services such as cleaning, accounting or property management. At Lennox Tech Enterprise Center, Wetenhall has an anchor tenant that hosts and maintains the incubator's Web site. "We [installed] expensive wiring and in exchange they agreed to provide Web site services as well as information services support to High Technology of Rochester (the incubator's sponsor). The downside is we're a little lower on their list than a paying client [when it comes to customer service]," Wetenhall says.
Using valuable staff to perform tasks that are far from their realm of expertise can be a waste of resources that would be better used in another way. Hiring contractual help in the fields of maintenance, facilities management or cleaning, for instance, frees up time for staff to focus on delivering quality client assistance without adding another salary or more human resources problems.
At CALSTART, Huetter's 17 clients have access to a specialized machine shop. He found it too expensive to keep a machine shop operator on staff, and notes that you can't expect your cleaning staff to be able to repair a $250,000 machining tool. "We've done this on a contract basis, which has worked out really well," Huetter says. "We have two independent contractors who have been able to respond as needed, in 24 to 48 hours."
Once you've assembled all of your non-staff players, you can find out what tasks are left for the CEO and assistant if you're lucky enough to have one. There are certain unavoidable tasks, such as answering the phone and handling board relations, which just aren't practical for volunteers to handle. At this point you can formulate job descriptions, which brings you back to the list on page.
If you have only one or two staff, you can bet there will always be critical things on the list left unassigned. At The New Century Venture Center in Roanoke, Va., President Lisa Ison has not been able to accomplish a formal marketing plan, implement an affiliate program or offer as many seminars as she'd like. Since her full-time receptionist's time is filled with answering phones and helping the incubator's 17 clients with clerical tasks, Ison must handle all administrative duties, including bookkeeping and her own typing. "Right now I work the hours, nights and weekends, to do everything. My board members are glad to help, but not in administrative-type activities. We recognize the need for an administrative assistant, but do not have the budget numbers to support another staff member," Ison says. The never-ending workload often forces CEOs with few staff to group unrelated tasks into one job description. Not only does that make it hard to find qualified candidates, but it can lead to dissatisfied employees who are ripe for burnout. At Lennox Tech Enterprise Center, Wetenhall would like to have an administrative assistant with technical expertise in database, desktop publishing and word processing skills. "You find that people who have these additional technical capabilities are not interested in the clerical aspect [but] we don't have enough volume of activity to turn it into two positions," he says.
Plainly stated, a successful incubation program needs more than two people who are permanent fixtures at the incubator, and it doesn't matter who pays the tab. If a sponsoring university or foundation can bankroll part of your staff, go for it. Counting on volunteers to do too much, regardless of their expertise or prominence in their fields, inevitably results in a piecemeal staff. It also takes time the CEO must manage those relationships.
Incubator managers who can bring on more staff even a third person are in better shape. It can allow the luxury of grouping related tasks under one job description. Here's when we begin to see a technology specialist, computer support person, microloan program manager, specialized business counselor, executive assistant, facilities manager or clerical support staff.
"Having a separation of duties is marvelous for the incubator," says Julian Webb, CEO of Canberra Business Centre (CBC) in Canberra, Australia. When specific staff are responsible for building management, tenancy and administrative issues, he says, it often reduces costs because those staff have the necessary time to focus on the issue at hand and solve the problem correctly, instead of a manager being "torn every which way." Webb also notes that staff responsible for counseling tenants "can no longer drift or get bogged down by administration and building management tasks. They have no choice but to focus on working with tenants, which can be stressful and daunting, but this is what they are paid good money to do."
At the West Philadelphia Enterprise Center (WPEC), in Philadelphia, Pa., vice president for development and outreach Lee Huang and the 16 other full- and part-time staff have their own defined areas of service, "but we all swarm around each other's projects to make them happen." WPEC President Della Clark coordinates the whole process, securing the resources and staff that are needed to accomplish WPEC's goals. "She's the one that brings home the bacon: resources, relationships and opportunities," Huang says.
Huang recognizes the benefits of having a large staff, and says the WPEC staff walks a fine line between balance and immersion. "I benefit from not having to be involved in every aspect of the incubator, so I'm glad there are others on staff to do those things. At the same time, I need to be in constant contact and communication with everyone, to coordinate my efforts with theirs, and to achieve our broader mission," he says. "If we had a smaller staff, our vision wouldn't be much smaller, but the time frame in which we could turn things around would be much longer. The name of the game in business nowadays is speed."
And so should be the name of the game in business incubation, according to Clark. To help companies win in the fast-paced race to market, incubators must be able to provide excellent assistance in the shortest possible time frame. Clark cautions against relying too much on outside help, volunteer or not. "If you only have [a manager] and one receptionist, how can you help clients each and every time they need you? You wouldn't want to go to the emergency room with your finger almost dangling off and be told, 'The doctor won't be in until Friday afternoon between 1 and 4. You'll have to come back,'" she observes.
Clark calls up her signature basketball analogy. "When a time out is called, you don't see just one coach out there assessing the situation. You see many and the head coach needs the expertise of all of those other coaches," she says.
Webb points out that his staff of nine not only is able to assist about 100 clients at once, but at three sites. "Being run together gives us economies of scale that allow better quality and efficiency. It is worth noting that while we have three incubators we do not have three incubator managers. We have been able to make better use of our resources which has meant more administrative and support staff rather than managers We do not want to pay someone lots of money to change light bulbs," Webb says.
While there's no formulaic solution for the manager who wants and needs more staff, it is clear that two people in most cases are not enough for prolific creation of successful new businesses. Incubators starting out should aim as high as possible and existing programs will benefit in the long run from working toward a viable plan to bring on more staff.
Clark asks, "How can the industry charge managers with growing businesses if they must be lean and mean with their budgets? And how can incubator clients value managers' advice on how to grow their businesses if the manager doesn't do the same thing? The industry needs to change."
So how can a manager with few staff and an even smaller budget hope to gain more staff? The frustratingly simple answer is to get more funds, either to sustain more staff or to offset program or facility costs. Even if you can subsidize extra staff for a few years, you'll gain some time to find a dependable and sustainable way to retain that staff.
Thirteen of Clark's upper-level staff are charged with revenue generation goals in order to fund their positions and program initiatives. "We do write grant proposals to seed fund these positions for two to four years, until the person is in place to generate revenue," Clark says, pointing out that now she has many minds instead of one to come up with funding.
"If you look at large corporations, they're not getting sales and producing products with one or two people. So why in our industry do we think we need to work this way?" she says. "I wouldn't want the city of Philadelphia to look to me to produce the next generation of CEO's of Philadelphia and think that I can do that with two staff people."
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Keywords: organizational structure, staffing -- incubator
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