Why incubators exist: The case for surrounding yourself with a community of believers

When I tell people I run an incubator, one of the first questions I receive is difficult to answer — “How do you know it’s working?”

There are more than 1,400 incubators across the U.S., but there remains a healthy amount of skepticism around the incubator model. Most of that is centered on the lack of understanding around the key differences between incubators, accelerators, contests and what each of their goals are, not to mention the fact that it’s still a somewhat new concept.

There’s also a stat that’s often thrown out in entrepreneurial conversations — you know, the one that says 90% of startups fail.

When odds are already against you before you start, what difference will an incubator make?

Like many startups, Greentown Labs was born out of necessity. In late 2010, a cleantech entrepreneur needed a space where he could build and test his prototype and meet with potential investors. He found a condemned factory in East Cambridge, but couldn’t afford it on his startup budget so he turned to Craigslist to find others willing to share the space. He found three other entrepreneurs from MIT that needed space for hardware development. These startups are now fondly referred to as Greentown’s “founding four.” Within a year that community grew to 15, then 25 when they moved to bigger space in Somerville. Today more than 40 companies are Greentown Labs members, with many more eager to join.

The founding four were clearly on to something. The key to growth meant not just focusing on their own corporate interests, but creating a community of like-minded entrepreneurs with shared goals and common beliefs.

“As a hardware startup, you have to surround yourself with believers — it’s the only way you’ll survive. Greentown is great because it’s a gathering of a bunch of people who believe in big ideas. If you’re in a basement alone and failing… that sucks.”

- Arron Acosta, Co-founder, Rise Robotics

While accelerators are designed to give companies a push out of the starting blocks, and contests pit one company against another for funding, incubators offer something vastly different. We are designed to help a company reach long-term sustained growth so we’re open-ended in our approach and offer not just office space, but also mentorship, technology, tools, support and community, much of which is difficult to develop within a short-term accelerator program or contest.

Incubators like ours are unique in their ability to give companies room to grow by:

Encouraging constant experimentation.

An incubator is a place where it’s safe to experiment. We’re in a constant state of experimentation. It’s important to try new things and talk to others. Having a dedicated place to innovate (and collaborate with others) is key to survival. Your odds finding success while you work in a vacuum are slim.

Creating partnerships that benefit entrepreneurs.

We’ve become the largest cleantech incubator in the nation not by isolating ourselves and drinking our own Kool Aid, but by working with strategic partners (including other incubators in New York City, LA, Milwaukee, Honolulu, and more), corporates that are investing in sustainability, manufacturers that will help our members bring their products to life and advocates at the government level to help fund these entrepreneurs. Involving the right people and identifying influencers who can help entrepreneurs grow and succeed is an important part of any incubator.

Cultivating a community of like minds.

Incubators are home to early-stage businesses. There are some that have customers and are generating a profit, while others are still in discovery mode where revenue is a ways off. It helps to have all these people around you who have done what you are trying to do, and have faced similar challenges. This community is easy to access because you’re sitting right next to someone who understands and can help you in the process.

At the end of the day, our incubator is a startup itself. We’re learning as we go and making sure we don’t lose sight of the reason we first began: to create a place where entrepreneurs can develop and scale their businesses. If more entrepreneurs have access to these communities, and more of these communities are created, we’ll see far more than 10% of them succeed.