How to survive an incubator

10 weeks ago we were accepted into the AngelCube business incubator, they gave us a cool $20K for some equity, provided us with mentoring, and introductions to investors.

Now that our time is nearing the end I thought it would be a good time to give aspiring entrepreneurs who are thinking of applying for the next round of AngelCube or any incubator from StartMate to Y-Combinator some insight into our experiences, and a quick rundown on how to survive (not give up and get a real job)

You probably know by now — even if you’re ignoring it, but every day that you work on your startup people will give you very legitimate reasons to quit and get a real job, some of them might come in the form of $200K/year job offer, or your girlfriend leaving you, or your landlord kicking you out of your warehouse apartment in Fitzroy. All this has a higher probability of happening than your startup surviving. But you ignore all of this because your an entrepreneur, you’re probably from an engineering background and everything you do is about some experimental yet vague idea that somewhere down a distant timeline beyond you’re next 2-3 weekly iterations, you will be next Airbnb, Dropbox, or Google. And that is what you live for.

And as long as you don’t quit, you still have the same chance as of success as you did yesterday. And with that here are 5 things to do to survive:

1. Focus.

So you’ve got this really big idea, you’re going to be the [insert] of [insert] for[some niche], you have a team, you have convinced at least one other person apart from your mum that what you are doing will be big one day, and you are convinced that your product solves a real problem for a real segment of a market, somewhere.

The problem is that everyone else you tell says that your product is really nice, but they would only use it if it did X. Don’t listen to them.

The point of focus is to not be everything to everyone, you have finite resources, even if you’re a shit hot programmer that spends every 2 hours taking a brain hacked 30 minute power nap so you can work around the clock, you cannot and will not beat Google at Search, they have literally thousands of engineers working to ship changes 40 times a day.

Focussing on a small — unaddressed — segment of the market gives you room to grow, makes your product exclusive and beyond everything gives you a million more chances to succeed, if that segment doesn’t work, try another, you still have 99.5% of the market left to experiment on.

The bottom line is: Every idea is simple, but simple execution is hard. As soon as you get started a million other things get in the way, you realise that you can’t launch without a payment gateway, a merchant account, support system, landing page, and you’re spending every second day talking to investors or working on your deck for a pitch at Aurelius in 2 weeks, and before you know it you have no time to do actual product stuff.

2. Listen.

My father once told me that it is one thing to listen, and another to hear.

During this 3 months you’re going to have 2 or more mentoring sessions a week, they will cover varying subjects from Legals to Guerilla-style Marketing, you will be introduced to hundreds of people who want to help you, and people will try to give you what they think is a good idea during a 30 second elevator ride from probably never using your product.

You need to remember that these people probably have little to no idea about the direction you plan to take your product in, they might be speaking from their own experiences which could be very applicable to your situation, or not at all.

Unfortunately, as humans our ability to filter good information from bad is only as strong as the amount if the information we have at that point in time that counters or supports the information being consumed.

So it is very important that when someone gives you advice on your startup that you do your research before acting on it, because at the end of the day the buck stops with you.

It is also worth noting that you will be under crazy amounts of stress, the sort of stress that makes you wake up in a cold sweat at 3am, the sort of stress that makes illogical decisions seem completely logical. If you’re not used to this sort of environment you might make some of the biggest mistakes of your life, like giving away too much equity, or spending your $20K on SEO because a guy you met at Silicon Beach convinced you inbound marketing was king. Or worse, you could put it all on black :S

3. Collaborate.

Like any good investment you want to mitigate your risk and try not to keep all your eggs in the same basket, you can almost guarantee that none of the teams that get accepted into the incubator will be competitors, so you should from day one do everything you can to collaborate with them. Move your desks side by side, bounce design ideas around, ask them about the right hosting platform, tell them that friends don’t let friends code in .net, and most of all ask questions.

We learned a lot from collaborations, like sharing financial models with another team, and in exchange, I designed their new logo on the back on some scrap paper when they were told it would cost $1,900 to get all 19 colors of their previous logo printed on a t-shirt.

4. Sleep.

Sleep is critical, anyone who says that working until 2am every night is productive isn’t worth listening to. The reality is if you’re a developer your best code will be written sometime between 9am and 9pm (when you are wide awake), outside that time productivity will decrease exponentially as you get further away from your body’s optimum operating time.

But this doesn’t mean stop, this doesn’t mean live hour to hour and go play xbox when you’re not coding. You should be thinking about your startup every minute you’re awake, when you’re in the shower, on the train, walking to your local cafe, when trying to remember how to cook Greek Moussaka, and even when you sleep.

Some people think of sleep as slacking off, but have you ever gone to bed after spending half a day trying to solve a really complicated problem only to wake up with the answer? It happens.

This might all sound a bit mad, but hey, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re built differently, you live for risk, you live for some crazy idea, and ultimately you live for changing the world.

5. Start it.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a small UX issue that has been bugging you for weeks or actually starting a business, quitting your day job and selling your house to fund 12 months of development. No body but you will tell you to start, so just do it, see where it leads. Nobody ever succeeded by not starting.

Ship it.
Real entrepreneurs ship. But ultimately shipping leads to people using your product, simple as that. Even if those people are other teams, one of the early signs of success according to Paul Graham is having other teams use your product.