The ups and downs of working in a tech incubator

Michael Rainsford discusses how his start-up company developed in a shared office space, and reveals the benefits and downsides of such a setup for an early-stage company.

When my company StuRents.com went full-time back in June 2014 we were looking for the perfect environment in which to grow our semi-established start-up, and when we stumbled across the newly-established Google Campus near London’s Old Street, we also stumbled across the idea of the ‘tech incubator’ (essentially an office space housing tech start-ups). We liked it and we applied for a few desk spaces, which we were subsequently offered at a relatively cheap price.

It seemed like the perfect setup for us and six months later we graduated to a different incubator within the city. But those six months at Campus had been good for us. Growing in an incubator we found to definitely have its upsides.

Firstly, most incubators are cheap. Most tech incubators (as with any place providing facilities for start-ups) are likely to offer cheap rental rates. But compared with other venues offering facilities for fledgling businesses, Google Campus offered all inclusive rates, mentoring and access to the heart of Tech City. These fringe benefits are often, in the cases of incubators, the main benefits, when all you are actually using the building for is working – with no time or inclination for creature comforts.

Many incubators also seek to keep themselves at capacity by offering flexible workspace with pay-as-you-go style pricing. At Campus these spaces were remarkably cheap; arguably too cheap. Given the limited number of spaces available, for every developer on Flex membership paying a little over £100 per annum there were tens of eager entrepreneurs (who would have contributed much to the culture and atmosphere) waiting in line for a spare desk.

Having said that, the low monthly charges we experienced really helped a cash-strapped business like us (at the time) get onto our feet.

Tech incubators are tech-focussed

As you may expect, tech incubators are composed of such a concentration of back-end developers, web designers and self-starters that they foster a sense of cohesion that any other workspace may likely lack. The atmosphere of openness and collaboration really does help to create an environment that motivates people to succeed. Hearing your neighbours celebrating a success cranks up the volume of the noise in your head saying ‘keep pushing, the next success in the room is yours’.

Being surrounded by budding accounting practices, construction firms and courier companies, while still interesting, would most likely not result in as many inter-company collaborations or as much venture capital focus as a tech-focussed environment.

Some of the mentorship is first-class. Our specific incubator was owned by Google, but something common to most incubators is the mentorship that comes with your residency. Our particular point of contact with Google was called ‘Google Office Hours’ and afforded us access to Google employees from specific departments (depending on the theme of the week).

Given the steep learning curve that the founders were on (coming from finance backgrounds), recruitment advice when hunting for developers was invaluable.

Talks and events are never in short supply. The cohesion that comes from the incubator environment is often helped along by the management as well. When not drinking and eating pizza with fellow Campus residents, we were sitting with them in weekly talks and workshops. A lot of these took the form of guest speaker evening talks which often focussed on the problems and challenges that start-ups and tech firms often face. Invitations and access to these events were also extended to us in our new building.

A collaborative environment

As already mentioned, one of the main advantages of working in an incubator is the collaboration that the environment fosters. Campus was essentially a large, open-plan building full of early-stage start-ups, high on ambition and low on employees and capital. While you like to think that you can master anything when starting out, it soon becomes clear that isn’t the case. But when you’re one start-up tech firm among a diverse many (and you see and talk to each other every single working day), help is often not that far away. In fact, we bought our telecoms solution from a fellow Techhub firm, and even ended up (as mentioned a little later) hiring one of our neighbours.

But as with so many things, the ups came with a few downsides too. The facilities and utilities aren’t always that great. There are downsides to cheap office space designed for start-up business on a budget. In Campus this meant that the facilities and infrastructure (toilets, internet, electricity etc.) were prone to breaking, reasonably frequently. Sometimes it felt like you couldn’t go a week without something going (temporarily at least) wrong. That said, the value for money we got by working at Campus meant that we easily overlooked these shortcomings.

Also, peace, quiet and confidentiality are not all that readily available. While there were a few dedicated meeting rooms and some small partitioned work spaces, one thing you can see immediately as you walk in to most incubators (with Campus as no exception) is how open plan it all is. Whatever your business, you’ll find yourself working in the same room (or at least on the same floor) as many other businesses, and sometimes you’ll even find yourself on the same desk. While again, whilst this fosters some great collaboration, it can also mean that the numerous confidential chats you need to have throughout the day to run a business effectively may not be all that confidential after all.

There are also instances where all you want to do is knuckle down and make headway through a long overdue task, only to be disrupted by someone in the room blasting their vocal cords down the telephone. Thankfully, a pair of headphones and a Spotify account can mitigate most circumstances, but sometimes you wish you had a weighty board marker you could use to silence the noise.

A confusing management structure

Many of these incubators are start-up ventures themselves (often with the involvement of a large backer and a smaller management unit). Due to the complicated set up of Campus behind the scenes (it was actually co-run by Google and a company called Techhub), it was often unclear as to who was running the show. Messages were sometimes lost in translation between Google, Techhub and us (the residents), resulting in a few missed opportunities and some poorly-timed visits from redecorators.

And finally, the most alarming of all the downsides was the fact that from time to time you’d see or hear of people serving out their notice, gathering up their things, and simply moving across the corridor to another start-up.

While collaboration between small businesses clearly has an upside, if you have any prized and/or undervalued employees routinely talking and working with other businesses, it won’t be long before the question of who they actually want to work for comes into question. We were no exception and actually hired someone from one of our neighbours!

Michael Rainsford is co-founder of StuRents.com.

Further reading on incubators

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