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The worst mistake I ever made!: Rowdy college students took over my facility!

November/December 2009

Imagine this scenario: You have an empty space at your incubator facility. A young entrepreneur asks if he can rent the space for three months to coordinate a summer employment program for college students. He is working for a national company and has been referred by the local chamber of commerce. It’s money in the bank and no worries, right?

Well … maybe not.

What Gina Harper got at the Southeast Missouri State University Innovation Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo., was an incubator full of rowdy college kids who apparently didn’t realize or care that they were in a professional place.

“It felt like a dorm — parties in the halls, sleeping in the chairs, yelling up and down the halls,” Harper says. Some workers even threw up in the bathrooms after overindulging.

The company in question hires students to run satellite sales offices around the U.S. each summer. The student manager then recruits, hires and trains other students to make sales calls all day. At 9 p.m., the sellers return to the satellite office to report their results.

Because it was a summer employment program in line with her incubator’s mission, Harper welcomed the group and even offered a 50 percent discount on the space, since overhead came out of the student manager’s pocket.

“We weren’t renting that room that summer, and I figured some income was better than none,” she says. “For the absolute pain and agony they caused me, I could have triple-charged them and it wouldn’t have been enough.”

As if a lack of professionalism wasn’t enough, the students would prop open doors to make entrance easier after hours — a violation of campus and incubator security procedures. Even worse, laptops and cash disappeared from client offices; theft had never been an issue at the incubator previously, Harper says. “How coincidental is that?” she asks.

When she confronted the student manager about the issues, all she got were excuses like, “My secretary is supposed to take care of that” or “I didn’t do that.” “He took no responsibility at all,” Harper says.

The final straw was the loss of a client. The company had other issues, Harper says, but she believes she might have been able to work things out had it not been for the constant distractions and disruptions caused by the students.

Harper breathed a sigh of relief when the summer was over and the office shut down. And she was flabbergasted last spring when she got a call from the new student manager selected for 2009. She turned the student down flat; when he asked why, she told him what had happened the previous year. Horrified, he promised not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes and even brought in his parents to meet with Harper.

Mollified, Harper established clear and precise expectations for the students’ conduct and procedures. With that and a firmer presence at the incubator — her office had been on another floor in the building in 2008 — Harper had no problems this past summer.

“[The 2009 manager] and his staff were much more professional,” she says. “I guess they were just a different caliber of student.”

“The moral of the story is, just because you have an empty room and your superiors would like to see a little income doesn’t make it a good idea,” she says. “And assuming that everyone is professional is not the way to go.”—Corinne Colbert

Keywords: client selection/admissions, entrance policy, incubator management – general

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