Danger Ahead: Three ways the incubation, hatching and training of mallard ducklings is like Missional Business incubation and acceleration

Throughout the month of May I have been following the progress of mallard duck incubation, hatching and early stage development in the lake not far from my house. As I observed the little ducklings in their new environment and their relationship with their mother, my thoughts turned to the similarities and contrasts with incubation and acceleration of Business As Mission startups.

A mallard female duck will lay up to a dozen eggs.  Once she completes that stage there is an incubation period of approximately 28 days. During this time period, she sits on the eggs for 20-23 hours a day, taking short breaks for food and exercise.  Next the eggs hatch, all in less than a day and they are immediately ready to explore their world.  The mother monitors that process for about two months before they are “on their own”.   Wow – what a process our God has created.  What about the incubation and development of a business so that it has a good chance to survive in our world?

Natural Conditions can Kill you

Not all ducklings survive as there are natural predators such as other unfriendly mallards, different birds like owls, hawks, eagles and crows, and animals like snakes, foxes and racoons.  Weather can be a huge factor.  For example, in 1953, biologists estimated 148,000 ducks perished by hail in the Canadian province of Alberta.

What about natural conditions in the world of a business startup which can contribute to the 90% of startups which fail within three years? There is the world of legal registration, cross-border regulations, HR compliance, investor strategies and goals, technology, product development, consumer needs and pain points.  All of these (and more) are exacerbated in the overseas context where our Business as Mission projects exist.

I would suggest that it is impossible to navigate these natural conditions without an incubator and/or accelerator to provide what is needed.  There are many similarities between these two terms, but also a few differences. Both business incubators and accelerators provide advice, guidance, and various forms of support for businesses in the startup phase. Here are some common definitions:

First and foremost, startup incubators offer mentorship and advice. The incubator gives the founding team access to a network of experienced entrepreneurs who can act as mentors, provide counsel in specific situations, and give overall advice in terms of how to structure the business, how to test and develop the product, how to structure the go-to-market strategy, and any other concerns that come along the way. This advice may be very general, or it may speak to very specific issues the startup is facing in the moment.  

Furthermore, incubators provide startups with a community of like-minded individuals. Ask any entrepreneur – especially solo founders – and they’ll tell you that often, the early stages of founding a company are lonely and difficult. Starting a business requires countless long nights and hours of time spent working alone …this community may only provide moral support, but it can also serve as an informal, peer-to-peer advice network and a chance for business connections to be made. Startups can share their respective struggles, and peers in the incubator may provide advice or be able to help through a formal business partnership1.

Accelerators are organizations that offer a range of support services and funding opportunities for startups. They tend to work by enrolling startups in months-long programs that offer mentorship, office space and supply chain resources. More importantly, business accelerator programs offer access to capital and investment in return for startup equity. Startups essentially ‘graduate’ from their accelerator program after three or four months — which means that development projects are time-sensitive and very intensive.

How incubation, acceleration and coaching made all the difference

“IBEC Ventures has given us the tools to have a successful business … they have helped us see what it takes to have happy and satisfied customers.  They helped us from the ideation stage all the way to the implementation stage and building the business as time went on.  They helped put us into a place to be successful.”  (Successful Business as Mission owner in India)

Choices have Risks and Results

A mallard duck pair must make decisions about where to place the nest.  A dense wetland location is the best; and also it should not be too far from water.  Both of these conditions protect the ducklings when it is time to walk to water.  Sometimes ducks abandon the ducklings too early and they either perish or they gravitate to “amalgamations” where congregations of ducks from more than one brood come together to survive.  Sometimes young female mothers make choices about the comfort of the nest or the time hatching the eggs, and this puts the brood at risk.

So too, startup businesses have plenty of places where choices can be risky and bring unwanted results.  Every business struggles to find enough capital, faces cash flow problems, and the stress of balancing the amount of work with finding the right number and enough employees to produce the product.  Finding a Unique Value Proposition which meets consumers’ needs takes ingenuity and hard work.  Timing is a crucial element, as in the case of mother duck’s decision of when to nest.  Having the ideal customer in mind is another important aspect to consider. You may want to start out by finding the right niche market by a taking a survey or doing interviews.  It is important to start small, test the market, pivot, and improve.

How many BAM startups realize today that “people do not buy what you do, but they buy why you do it”?  Every entrepreneur and startup manager should listen to Simon Sinek’s TED talk. What that means is that our purpose, our cause, the “why you do what you do” is essential and our business (job creation) and our mission (making disciples) answers that beautifully.

The research on the right time to launch, modify to the right product, identify customer segments and routes to market, identify key milestones and much more leaves myriads of places where there is significant risk, choices which can kill you and results which can bring an end to the endeavor.  A dead duck. So how do we minimize risk?

A good word from someone who knew the importance of incubation and coaching

“We found IBEC to have guys with a lot of experience including international business so they could speak into my life and help me avoid pitfalls, understand cultural differences and encourage me along the way… they provided expertise and experience; for me to be doing this in a third world country is a colossal challenge, but I had solid counsel.” (Manufacturer in Indonesia)

Incubation and Acceleration are Necessary

The answer for mitigating the risks, making better choices, and understanding the natural conditions lies in networking, coaching, consulting, incubation and acceleration.  No mallard duck would ever enter this world without incubation in the mother’s nest or life lessons while still with the mother. What does that look like for a BAM startup?

No metaphor is perfect, and using the incubation process for wild ducks as comparison certainly has its limitations.  Add to that the fact that industry people define incubation and acceleration differently.  But to keep items of commonality, we can say for sure that incubation helps, acceleration models work, and both minimize the risks connected to business startups because they provide guidance, advice and various forms of support in the earliest stage.  Accelerators may compress the timescale while incubators may nurture the process over a self-defined pace, but both certainly improve the process.2

What happens if I don’t get incubator, accelerator or coaching help?

“It has been exhausting, with hard work, sweat and tears. One of the challenges is that of local compliance laws, tax policies, ambiguities of living and operating in a non-western country.  Working from a different cultural perspective was the biggest challenge since I was coming from a different cultural background.  If I had gotten training or interned at another company, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache and a lot of pain … if I had taken the first year and invested it in my development and finding partners to come alongside me and help me, I would have saved a lot of years of slow growth”  (Entrepreneur in manufacturing sector in China.)

In 2013 the BAM Congress in Thailand produced a paper analyzing BAM incubation and the results can be viewed on the website as noted below3.

IBEC Ventures has recently partnered with Third Path Initiative and Legacy Ventures to provide an accelerator (or incubator) pathway to growth.  One can call it a BAM Launchpad, which provides a mindset, strategy and actionable business practices so a model can emerge.  From the initial training comes coaching, mentoring and a network community.  The Business as Mission startup professional need not be alone.  As the model emerges, coaches help with development, and the candidate becomes eligible for startup capital.  It is called the Triventure process.  Check it out here.

  1. Chron: Business Accelerator vs. Business Incubator
  2. About Y Combinator
  3. BAM Global: BAM Incubation Report

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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