The Entrepreneurial Lifecycle and the role of government at each stage

Philip Seifi
The Startup
Published in
11 min readMay 25, 2019

A widespread misconception persists among both startup founders and the general public: government programmes promoting entrepreneurship are mere lip service, devoid of tangible impact.

Contrary to this belief, many individuals steering these programmes are genuinely committed to boosting their nation’s economic growth.

Why, then, so few make meaningful progress towards a vibrant and self-sustaining startup ecosystem?

As a serial entrepreneur who has travelled to over 120 countries, I’ve cultivated relationships with local businesses and government officials, gleaned insights from seasoned founders, and facilitated startup events globally, from San Francisco to Kathmandu.

What I found is:

The problem often lies not in bad intentions, lack of resources, or insufficient action, but in the lack of focus, and a misunderstanding of the entrepreneurial lifecycle.

Let me explain…

The pitfalls of the assembly line approach

Too many policy makers go directly to the what and how, and skip the why, when and who.

They begin by thinking ‘we need more startups’ and launch websites, bootcamps, university courses, and other programmes that try to take people in, and output businesses a set interval later.

This approach is ineffective at boosting entrepreneurship, which is not a skill, but a state dependent on external factors, and sheer serendipity — timing, team, unique insights, investment climate, and life situation.

There is a thousand and one reasons why participants don’t continue working on their projects after events such as the Startup Weekend, and most have nothing to do with the viability of the idea, the quality of the programme, or the team.

The reasons tend to be much more personal.

Some of the participants have cushy jobs that they are not ready to give up; others live paycheque to paycheque and can’t afford to take the plunge. Some are students about to pursue a challenging degree, and yet others are following a loved one to another country.

Moreover, in many cultures, a failed startup venture on one’s CV can be viewed as a significant setback to one’s professional reputation, potentially hindering future career prospects.

They have the right mindset, a good idea, maybe even the financial means to go ahead with their project. But, when the rubber hits the road, they realize they cannot give it their all — not right now.

Nurturing entrepreneurs with tailored support

To foster entrepreneurship more effectively, we should adopt an approach akin to lifecycle marketing, tailoring support to each stage of an entrepreneur’s journey.

This strategy acknowledges that entrepreneurs are not made. They can only be nurtured, on their own terms and schedule.

All we can do is promote positive serendipity, and make sure that when all the stars align, aspiring entrepreneurs don’t falter due to skill gaps, insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles, or lacking infrastructure (such as payment gateways).

Just as in lifecycle marketing, we must target people with different messaging and products over time, satisfy their pressing needs, and influence their behaviour at each stage.

The journey begins by raising awareness. We must introduce entrepreneurship as a viable path to those unfamiliar with it, instill confidence that they can do it, and help them develop foundational skills to increase their chances of success when they eventually launch a venture.

As individuals progress, our focus should shift to optimising external factors. This includes networking opportunities, financial support, counselling, mentoring, and so on.

It’s crucial to remember that we can’t expect individuals to take risks if they lack a basic comfort zone. Therefore, holistic support is essential, addressing both professional and personal needs.

The 4 stages of the Entrepreneurial Lifecycle

💡 I. Inspire future entrepreneurs

The early stages of the entrepreneurial lifecycle present the greatest opportunity for governmental impact. As ventures approach profitability, they naturally attract private sector attention, reducing the need for public intervention.

Programmes such as Startup Weekend, Asia Pacific Youth Exchange, and Youth:Co Lab offer immense value, with many participants achieving significant success two, five, or ten years down the line.

However, in order for such programmes to succeed, the number of companies started cannot be one of their KPIs.

The goal of early stage programmes is to create not companies, but entrepreneurs.

Their primary function is to move participants further in the lifecycle — teach them that entrepreneurship is a viable path, build confidence that they can do it too, and finally nurture their basic skills such as public speaking and design thinking.

Example: UNDP Youth:Co Lab
As an intergovernmental organization with limited budgetary or electoral pressures, the United Nations has more freedom to invest in the development of entrepreneurship in the earliest stages of the lifecycle. Programmes such as the UNDP Youth:Co Lab focus on 21st century skill education and promote entrepreneurship as an acceptable path across Asia. Many of the participants go on to found successful social enterprises after graduating from the programme.

The value of new connections and learnings can extend far into the future. As such, early stage initiatives should not just consider the value they provide during the programme, but use it as leverage to generate value indefinitely into the future.

Therefore, they should first and foremost encourage lasting connections among participants, facilitate ongoing mutual support, and nurture the development of lifelong friendships and potential business partnerships.

Example: Thought for Food
Thought for Food is a group of 5,000+ individuals from 105 countries working to answer a single question: How to sustainably feed 10 billion people? They do not live together, and only occupy the same space one week per year, but the sense of community TFF holds is one of the most powerful I’ve experienced. This is achieved through a common purpose, a shared folklore passed down to new members, and regional ambassadors who keep the conversation going long after the annual summit.

Upon completion, early stage programmes can and should provide optional continuous support, or feed participants to organizations operating in the later stages of the lifecycle. However, they should refrain from urging participants to immediately start a venture.

Great ideas die because entrepreneurs are pushed to execute too early — while they are not at the right stage of their lives, when they don’t have the right team around them, or when the market isn’t ready for their idea.

Example: Startup Weekend
Techstars, a global accelerator, has helped organize thousands of Startup Weekend events around the world. Although some of the projects that come out of the three-day frenzy of business model creation, coding, design, and market validation become successful businesses, there is no pressure for participants to stick to their projects. The goal is to nurture future entrepreneurs over a series of events, building up their network and entrepreneurial toolkit, so they are ready when the right opportunity presents itself.

🌱 II. Incubate new ventures

Democracies of the world are shaped by election cycles, which inevitably leads to short-term orientation. Many initiatives thus want businesses to be the output of their programmes.

This is unfortunate, but also understandable, as thriving startups are an easier sell to taxpayers than a cohort of inspired young adults.

If the objective of a programme is to output successful projects, rather than future founders, it must target individuals who are in the latter substages of the lifecycle — helping them align the missing stars, and overcome specific logistical challenges.

Example: The Refiners
The Refiners is a San Francisco-based accelerator which takes in serial entrepreneurs with a product and traction, and provide targeted mentorship on the specifics of doing business in California, legal support with immigration to the US, and so on.

Example: MaGIC National Regulatory Sandbox
The Regulatory Sandbox at the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre targets startups that require legal changes to operate in the country. The programme provides a controlled environment for innovators to pilot their solutions, while working closely with the government on regulatory frameworks that can support their businesses.

The earlier the target participants are in the lifecycle, and the more stars there are to align, the longer the programme needs to be.

Example: Entrepreneur First
Entrepreneur First is an international accelerator that takes in talented individuals highly skilled in computer science, and with a diverse professional and personal background, but no team or clear business idea. The reason the programme works is it’s 6 months long, includes a very generous stipend, only accepts participants who are ready to give up everything to start a business now, and provides an abundance of support for years after the programme.

While the public sector’s involvement is most beneficial in the early stages, governments have unique opportunities to support startups throughout their lifecycle in ways that surpass private sector capabilities.

This is particularly true for deep tech startups with long R&D timelines, or companies that integrate with the public infrastructure. When done well, government contracts can make or break projects of this kind.

Example: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
The New York Subway has been in a state of emergency for more than a year, due to ageing infrastructure overwhelmed by ever increasing ridership. To solve these challenges, the MTA has launched the Transit Tech Lab accelerator, which gave six startups access to one of the most complex transit systems in the world, and streamlined procurement processes to accommodate small business.

🚀 III. Facilitate growth

Governments disengage too early.

As companies begin to turn a profit and expand, they’re frequently left to fend for themselves or are redirected to economic development departments ill-equipped to handle their unique needs.

While it’s true that ‘easy money’ through governmental grants and contracts must eventually taper off to avoid creating dependency, the cessation of all support once a company reaches the scaleup stage is a missed opportunity.

Innovation-driven enterprises, to borrow Bill Aulet’s term, are fundamentally different from traditional companies with no aspirations for rapid, global growth.

As such, the kind of support they need, from timely changes of outdated laws to infrastructural improvements, requires champions who have followed them over time, and understand their unique situation.

Example: AB-626 — California’s home cooking bill
When Josephine, the home-cooked food marketplace in Berkeley, grew to a few thousand sellers, local food safety officials decided it’s time to do something about it. With a heavy hand, they came knocking on home cooks’ doors, threatening them with up to three years in jail lest they cease their operations. Josephine unfortunately went bankrupt, but after working closely with the state government, their team managed to negotiate a mutually-acceptable solution. California is now home to several startups (including my own — Pona) creating new economic opportunities in the kitchen for stay-at-home parents, seniors, and disabled individuals.

Example: London Datastore
In 2010, the Greater London Authority launched
London Datastore, an unprecedented open-data initiative offering unrestricted access to reams of public sector data for private or commercial use, with the aim of kickstarting a new wave of services that find novel ways to make use of the information. This initiative, which includes a developer-friendly API, is behind numerous success stories, such as Citymapper.

More importantly, it is crucial to keep entrepreneurs at this stage as active participants in the ecosystem.

Among others, scaleups are invaluable to:

  • Serve as role models for younger startups
  • Provide exit opportunities for projects that can’t make it on their own
  • Build platforms and infrastructure that lowers the risk of starting new businesses

History is full of examples of pioneering firms that served as “entrepreneurship academies,” from which other entrepreneurs sprung.
— Josh Lerner, Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed

🌀 IV. Capture know-how

Most companies will fail. Others will mature and grow beyond their wildest dreams. Whatever the case, eventually, their early employees and founders will exit, and maybe even start new ventures.

This pivotal stage in the entrepreneurial lifecycle distinguishes mature ecosystems like Silicon Valley from emerging counterparts worldwide. It’s here that the true value of experience — both successes and failures — becomes apparent.

For governmental startup initiatives to maximise their long-term impact, they must effectively close the loop, capturing and recycling the hard-won wisdom of entrepreneurs they’ve invested years and substantial resources in nurturing.

At its most basic, this means events that give serial founders the opportunity to share their successes and failures.

At its best, this includes incentives for angel investors, a safety net for failed founders to get back on their feet without selling-out to the corporate world, progressive IP law reforms, and a culture that values failure for the learnings it brings to the ecosystem.

Example: UK tax incentives for angel investors
Angel Investors in the UK have access to important tax relief schemes (EIS, SEIS & SITR) that recognize the risks they take in giving back to the ecosystem, and the unique value they provide compared to institutional investors (mentoring, industry know-how, personal connections…)

Example: Non-compete enforcement in California
California courts refuse to enforce contracts that limit employee mobility. This unusual approach to non-compete agreements promotes competition, and may be one of the reasons behind the West Coast’s rise as an international hotbed for innovation.

Example: Recycling of know-how in the Silicon Valley
Whereas in most countries, failed entrepreneurs have to resort to regular jobs, and often exit the ecosystem forever, Silicon Valley startups see them as worth their weight in gold. After all, what’s a better shortcut than hiring someone who has researched your niche for years, and learning from their failure? This is true even for big tech companies such as Google and Facebook, who are known to rehire former employees after their stint in the startup world.

Example: Singapore’s acceptance of failure
Singapore has long tried to make the nation more comfortable with the uncertainties inherent to entrepreneurship. One initiative, the Phoenix award, recognised founders who made a successful comeback after braving failure. Asia’s first Failcon, organized under the auspices of The National Research Foundation, then gave entrepreneurs a platform to share their learnings. Although empirical data is hard to come by, Singapore’s thriving startup ecosystem is an indication that the culture has changed for the better.

The power of focused initiatives

In the realm of entrepreneurship support, focus is not merely beneficial — it’s essential. Just as thriving businesses must have a clear understanding of their target market, successful incubators, accelerators, and other entrepreneurial initiatives must possess a precise vision of whom they aim to serve.

If we do not know who the customer is, we do not know what quality is.
— Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

When conceiving any programme within the startup ecosystem, it’s crucial to pinpoint the exact stage of the entrepreneurial lifecycle you intend to address. This decision will fundamentally shape what constitutes success for your initiative.

Are you aiming to inspire nascent entrepreneurs, planting seeds that may bear fruit years down the line? Or is your goal to empower existing entrepreneurs, providing them with the tools and resources to make an immediate impact?

Many programmes ambitiously attempt to cater to all stages simultaneously. However, this approach often leads to diluted efforts and suboptimal outcomes. The needs of a first-time founder differ vastly from those of a serial entrepreneur scaling their third venture. Each stage demands distinct resources, mentorship styles, and support structures.

By honing in on a specific stage of the entrepreneurial journey, you can tailor your programme’s content, mentorship, and resources to maximise impact. This focused approach allows for deeper, more meaningful interventions that resonate with participants long after they’ve completed your programme.

Moreover, a concentrated effort enables you to build expertise in addressing the unique challenges of your chosen stage. Over time, this specialisation can position your initiative as a go-to resource within the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In the end, focus isn’t just about efficiency — it’s about effectiveness. It’s about creating a programme that truly understands and meets the needs of its participants, fostering entrepreneurial success in a meaningful and sustainable way.

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Philip Seifi
The Startup

Founder https://colabra.app | Cross-pollinating between industries and cultures. | Nomad entrepreneur 🌎 designer 🌸 hacker 💻 | https://seifi.co