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What I Learned At A Silicon Valley Start-Up Incubator

Definition: A startup incubator is a collaborative program designed to help new startups succeed. Incubators help entrepreneurs solve some of the problems commonly associated with running a startup by providing workspace, seed funding, mentoring, and training. The sole purpose of a startup incubator is to help entrepreneurs grow their business.

I recently spent some time sitting in on a start-up incubator for technology firms in the San Francisco Bay area.

This particular cohort of nine companies covered a range of financially related products and services, with the common thread being a requisite to use data as a tool to disrupt an area of financial services.

Here are some of the key messages I brought home with me.

Lessons Learnt

1. No Fear Founders

I always think that if I had my own start-up, I’d constantly be in fear of getting found out. Which is why I’m not an entrepreneur.

If these guys are scared, they’re not showing it.

This can’t totally be an American thing, as I’d previously thought, because not everyone on the program was an American. There was European representation but, sadly, no Australian input in this group.

But where I’d be surely displaying nerves and jitters, there’s nothing but stone-cold focus and assuredness here.

It’s not really a question of ‘if’ the business will take off, but ‘when’.

2. Code Is King. Mostly.

During breaks or even during some of presentations, if a laptop flipped open, then there was an above average chance somebody was writing code.

Or, at least, I assume that was what they were doing because I CAN’T WRITE CODE and therefore assumed that was what they were up to.

It’s a view I’ve had for a while but has been reinforced during the week. Coding should be taught in the same way that arithmetic or reading is taught.

And yep, sure, I’ve done some basic coding in HTML or CSS for the blog, but, really, who can’t drop a Stripe line into a website? They basically do it for you.

Nope, it’s back-end coding that’s really needed, and it’s fair to say that if you’ve got this skill in your talent-stack your future suddenly looks a lot brighter. Like, infinitely brighter.

3. VC Gorillas

Presenters and experts came from start-ups, consulting firms, law firms, recruiters, but the one that both scared and excited me in equal measure was the venture capitalist (VC).

There’s probably some bias in this given that VCs have probably disposed consultants as the ‘Masters Of The Universe’ and I’m widely exposed to them in multiple areas of my life.

But still…

Maybe it’s the unsettling mix of being extremely personable (and often funny) blended with somebody who could be casually ruthless in dissecting your business or idea. It’s a strange and beguiling combo but one that leaves you in little doubt as to who the boss is.

Regardless, VC backing is the only real end-game in town and the mix of VCs at the cap table is critical. One founder revealed that he kicked out an investor at the eleventh-hour to make way for one of the bog VC fish. It’s that ruthless.

4. Thinking Big

The start-ups in this cohort are shooting for the stars and looking to solve massive problems.

The number of people without enough money in their bank account to cover the cost of a medical emergency, should it arise? No problem – let’s try and fix that.

The number of people hitting retirement age with insufficient funds to provide retirement income? Let’s see what we can do there.

These are just two examples and it’s emblematic that these are not new societal problems (these two examples are age-old), but that technology provides a conduit to fix them quickly and from a standing start through rapid scaling.

5. San Francisco And The Valley

San Francisco is perhaps the perfect modern city.

The buildings evoke an old-school air with the laddered fire -escapes and brownstones, a distinctly American grandeur somehow pervading on every corner. And yet, the sense of hurry driven by the digital landscape is impossible to ignore., with its shiny new tower and takeover of an entire block & subway station leads the way in the city, and this stretches all the way down into the Valley where employees of Google and Apple are ferried to and from work in their fun-buses.

It’s a crazy and intoxicating blend.

6. Be A Sponge

The start-ups present were exactly that: present.

These were long days (and nights) and yet the attention and intensity remained consistent throughout the week.

More importantly, despite the huge amounts of information being imparted the questions never let up as more and more information was sought. What worked, what failed, how to scale and retain a culture…the list goes on. These guys weren’t going to die wondering, put it that way.


This was a hectic week, full of insights and inspiration.

I came away with a galvanised sense of respect, envy and admiration for these founders. Allied to this, my hitherto superficial understanding of the Silicon Valley eco-system, which was largely formed from listening to Tim Ferriss podcasts, now has a much more acute frame of reference.

All that’s left is to work out which one of these is going to be the next unicorn and chuck some investment dollars their way.


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