The Case for A New Arts Incubator Model

Next week I’ll be speaking at Arizona State University’s p.a.v.e. program — the performing arts venture experience, one of the few arts incubators in the country. The program offers “arts entrepreneurship classes,” financial ($1-$5k), in-kind (space & materials), and other support (faculty mentors) for “student initiated arts based ventures,” and lots of speakers, workshops, and symposia open to the public. Any ASU student can apply to the program, typically in cross disciplinary groups of 3–5, and are incubated for 7 months. Funded projects can opt-in to allocating 5% of future revenues to the p.a.v.e. program, but so far most of the funding seems to come from the Kauffman Foundation. Previous seed grant recipients include a film festival by for and about adults with disabilities, the Rehearsal Assistant software product, a web-based comic book, and a mobile app that tags artistic content with location metadata.

I am fascinated by the way the arts and other industries think about developing new products, new ideas, and new teams, and was stoked to be invited to speak at p.a.v.e. because it gives me a great opportunity to write this post, which I’ve been meaning to for far too long now. First, the landscape of incubators, which come in a wide variety of flavors:

Stages of product development:

  • Hackathon — go from nothing to prototype in a day. Foursquare has a global hackathon going on this weekend. Arts examples include CultureHack and (sort of) 14/48.
  • Startup Weekend — go from nothing to prototype + business plan in a weekend. No real equivalent in the art world.
  • Founder Labs — find a team, validate an idea, prepare to apply to an incubator, over the course of 5 weeks.
  • Incubator — take your fully formed team, prototype, and business plan, and prepare to launch a product during demo days to an audience full of hungry venture capitalists, over the course of a summer/semester. Incubators tend to offer greater (optional) access to business services, check out all of the perks offered by TechStars. Y Combinator calls itself not an incubator, but is by far the most prestigious of the bunch. Instead of a shared-spaced model, Y Combinator offers weekly dinners, office hours with smart people you should know, a demo day to match venture capitalists with start ups, and the most well connected alumni in the known universe.
  • Accelerator — relatively similar stage as an incubator, but greater focus on the product launch phase, and less focus on building organizational capacity. 500 Startups is a model here.
  • Co-working spaces — in theory meant for any stage of product development, but seems to be most useful for teams who have already hit their groove, but may not be large enough yet to justify having their own office space. Value here often comes not just in subsidized office space, but also the networking with other entrepreneurs, who end up integrating your product with their product in novel ways. Dogpatch Labs is one of the oldest (tech) co-working spaces in NYC, and New Work City is one of the newest.

Of course then there are all of the support services that surround the world of incubators — from educational classes at General Assembly, to the mashup of companies spawned by co-working spaces and invested in by Betaworks; from the “Made in NYC” branded community to the incentives to encourage entrepreneurs offered by Venture for America; office hours with famous founders to the insanely engaged commenting communities of Hacker News & AVC.

Sometimes these programs have a defining niche:

No matter their focus, no matter what you call them, or where they’re located, incubator-type spaces share some combination of access to:

  • Serious investors in the short term
  • A network of serious investors and potential partners for the long run
  • Mentorship by other entrepreneurs, founders, and investors
  • Business support services: think lawyers, bankers, real estate brokers, anyone else who helps you get business done
  • A considerable reputation boost via your association with the incubator & their alumni
  • Perhaps most importantly, simply the time and space to sit around for several days, weeks, or months with other really smart, driven, entrepreneurial people and brainstorm together, fail together, learn together.

Certainly the arts aren’t devoid of incubator-like spaces, I’ve in fact worked in some capacity for or with many of them:

But there are a few rather key qualities I’ve yet to find in (m)any of these so-called (and in some cases, not called at all) arts incubators.

Industry Mentorship. The brightest, best, most interesting, most well connected, successful, professional entrepreneurs dedicate their time, free of charge to supporting these incubators. They offer “office hours,” speak at networking dinners, offer advice on prototypes, invite these startups to partner with their more established product for some limited engagement, attend demo days, and generally talk up the startups to all of their industry friends. Where is the incubator support from Barry’s Top 25, or from Diane’s list of artists?

Business Model. Tech incubators tend to take some percentage of equity stake in their startups as part of their revenue model. Most arts incubators tend to charge subsidized rent combined with foundation/government grants as their revenue model. Why couldn’t an arts incubator ask for 5% of all future revenues from one of their “startups”? For an internal incubator, in the model of fbFund Rev, why couldn’t the parent company (Steppenwolf? Roundabout? Actors Theatre?) ask for “artistic equity” in the startup, whether that looked like a commitment of an artist’s time & talent, or right of first refusal on a production, or something else entirely.

Demo or Die. Not launching a new product is not an option for the tech startups, yet most of our current models for arts incubators are “we’re here to support you in however much you get accomplished for however long you’re here”. Sometimes I think we’re too forgiving, too nice. Why aren’t their more project-based arts incubators?

Alumni Network. While I have heard people drop into conversation with me, for example, “I used to be in residence at Spaces @ 520” I don’t get the sense there is a strong concept of an alumni community once you’ve “left the nest.” Nor does it seem (to me at least) like an arts company gains legitimacy for being in residence at one of these spaces, or that one of these incubators has a distinct brand over any other. While I could certainly be wrong about, or at least ill-informed, on all of those points, why don’t arts incubators list “alumni” on their websites, or host networking events for their “graduates”?

Collaboration Between Startups. Here’s where I’m probably least sure that this doesn’t already exist. Certainly I’ve heard of arts orgs associated with Fractured Atlas for example talk about how getting to know the other arts orgs under fiscal sponsorship helped shape some sort of partnership — a co production or sharing of some other resources. But I haven’t heard much from arts orgs in these spaces that they’re sitting around, trying to help each other solve difficult business problems together. So what could arts incubators do to foster more of this type of collaboration?

I don’t mean to imply that the arts are doing it all wrong, or that tech incubators are doing it all right. But I’m interested in the idea that the two concepts of incubators between these two industries are so different. Perhaps they’ve evolved to be ideally suited to the types of companies they’re trying to support. But are there any arts companies out there interested in joining a new model of arts incubator? Any funders interested in creating one? Anyone have ideas about how to make this concept better? I’d love to discuss…