Why every idea in the Walkleys Media Incubator will likely change (and what we’re going to cover in it)
Applications close for the Walkleys’ innovation grants in less than 48 hours. So the most common message I find myself telling applicants on the phone or via email (other than hurry up and get your application in here before Thursday 6 April at 5pm Sydney time) is that your application doesn’t need to be perfect, because your project is going to evolve throughout the incubator.
One of the biggest problems with the way grants applications work is they pressure applicants into pretending they have everything worked out and know all the answers. But any early stage idea is going to be a bit of a mess — even (and often especially) the best ones.
Most of those applying for the grants probably know that any creative endeavour usually emerges amid a wash of information and ideas. And startups or innovation projects will very likely stay pretty chaotic for many years as their founders learn about the problem they’re solving, what their market actually wants to use and continue to develop their product.
This is why this year we’ve launched an incubator program. Previously, we had just run one two-day workshop for the shortlisted participants. Realistically, we’re not giving away a huge amount of money (the largest grant is $35,000AUD) and we know from surveying the participants from the last three years that the training and networking was the most powerful part of the program for many.
So this year, a significant percentage of applicants will be invited into a three-module program online taught by veteran startup-mentor and investor Alan Jones from BlueChilli (not the radio one). There are also ten official mentors for the program, many of whom will engage throughout the incubator process. This means more projects get to access the training, and it’s the kind of training people need to set up startups and projects with the best chance of success. The strongest of the projects in the incubator program (about 20 to 30 projects) will go through to the face-to-face workshops in which they will pitch for the grant funding.
The introduction of an incubator program, is the biggest change to this year’s innovation program (you can read about all the changes here). So let me explain what we’re going to cover.
What will startups learn in the Walkleys Media Incubator program?
Let me start with a bit of background. Alan and the team at BlueChilli run an accelerator program based in Sydney through which 114 projects have graduated. That accelerator program is about developing the business idea and strategy, building and launching a pilot version of the product and getting to commercialisation as efficiently and rapidly as possible. This is because BlueChilli takes an equity stake in these companies, and so needs to get them up and running and onto the venture capital ladder as quickly as possible.
Obviously, the Walkleys incubator program is a bit different from BlueChilli’s program for full-time tech startup founders.
For starters, the teams going through the Walkley incubator don’t give up any equity. About 45% of this year’s entrants are planning a non-profit initiative, rather than a commercial one. While some of the 55% that are aiming for a profitable and sustainable entity may go on to raise capital, this is not a key outcome of our incubator.
Instead, our incubator program is three modules designed to help every project develop their understanding and plans to launch and build a successful independent venture.
The first module is all about testing and validating the idea at the heart of each project. Every project will have gained access to the incubator based on the potential of their idea (and team) and now it’s time to interrogate that idea, discover and test their own assumptions and find ways to be sure their potential users actually want what they’re creating.
Alan will go into more detail of course, but this module is about each team honing their idea and then looking for comparable offerings, or conducting surveys or interviews with people who are each product’s target users. Throughout this process, almost every project will shift or change slightly (or majorly) in their focus based on what their potential customers or audience really want.
This will be especially valuable for the 80% of our applicants who are yet to launch their offerings. But even once a project is launched, this process of understanding what their potential users actually want never stops, so the already launched 20% of projects will benefit from it also.
The second module will be about choosing a business model, planning the early stages and critically, how teams can acquire users and customers — in our case as media startups, many of these will be readers or viewers or subscribers. These three fundamental project elements need to be worked out together, because each will influence the others significantly.
This is a really exciting part of the program. Based on previous years, we anticipate many of the teams will have very limited business experience especially right at the beginning of a company so guidance about the business model options will be critical. Several of the program mentors such as Annie Parker from The Lighthouse and David Ryan from Corilla will also be around to offer advice on business structures and setup.
Plus acquiring readers/viewers/subscribers/users/customers whatever they want to call them is one of the most exciting elements of launching a new product. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or the thousandth — it’s always rewarding. I remember the day when the startup I used to work at passed 10 million users — and the excitement was no less heady than I’m sure it was when they picked up their 100th user. Many of our mentors will be able to share a lot of advice about user and customer acquisition, including Gautam Mishra from inkl and Tiny Pang from Canva (the startup with more than 10 million users I just mentioned) who have a lot of insight and advice about growth they can share with participants.
The third module and the final one before the opportunity to pitch to join the shortlist of teams is about exactly that: pitching, selling a vision and how to obtain investment.
This module will stand the teams in good stead whether they go on to raise venture capital, or pitch for government or charity funding. It will be critical for those who are selected for the shortlist, which will give them access to two days of face-to-face training and then the opportunity to pitch to the judges for a Walkleys innovation grant.
This the plan for the Walkley Media Incubator at this stage. But like any project, I’m sure it will evolve and change as it goes. We’ve been asking every applicant what they want to learn about in the training, but who really knows what a project needs to provide until we’re in the thick of it? This is true for our program, and for every single project that will graduate from our first-ever intake of the Walkleys Media Incubator.