Why Incubators Should Give Startups More Freedom
You’ve founded three successful companies. How would you advise entrepreneurs who are first starting their businesses?
If I started doing business today, I would follow the same strategy as I always have. I would try to find people who know the field and ask them for advice if I needed something specific. The rest of the time, I would try to stand on my own two feet and learn from experience. This has always worked for me. I don’t think it's good if someone gets too much support, but on the other hand, it’s not good to do everything on your own. You need to strike a healthy balance.So, you think that startups don’t need a safety net at the beginning?
Every entrepreneur should realize that they have only themselves to rely on and that no one will take care of them. That even if the government put up roadblocks, they should be able to find a pathway through. Entrepreneurs must be stubborn, follow their goals and be able to motivate themselves, none of which they’ll learn if we take care of them continuously. It doesn’t mean, though, that one should be alone; on the contrary, entrepreneurs should be surrounded by people who can help them overcome difficult moments.
What exactly should startups - in an ideal case - gain from an incubation program?
They should have the opportunity to speak to experts and have consultations with them regarding matters that give them pause. It’s good to be in an environment that supports you, because at the beginning you might not succeed and there are huge obstacles. This professional support doesn’t need to be anything systematic, as in frequent consultations with mentors, lectures or events. Just to be able to sit in a co-working space and talk to people is enough.
What role should mentors play in this period?
They should provide passive support; I don’t like when a mentor has a large hand in starting a business. When I mentor someone, I don’t say, "Hey, come in on Monday at three o'clock." At the beginning we set a target and talk about it, but it’s on the mentee to fulfill the goal; I'm not here to monitor them. I'm here to help those who need it and are serious about it. On the flip side, I also never had a mentor who would coddle me. Previously, I had a business with my business partner Radek Danč and it was kind of hard when we stopped working together. But today I am much more experienced and confident.
I know that every startup has a different starting point. But can we say what startups in the incubation phase should concentrate on the most?
Every company is different and there are no general rules, but all the same, the biggest goal is to earn money first – not for the sake of money, but because you have to pay your people. No matter how much people love working in your startup, if they don’t get a good salary, they won’t continue the fun for long.
In order for a startup to become profitable, one has to invest time and energy into it. Does it make sense to quit your job in the incubation phase and dedicate 100% of your time to your startup?
You might not have to leave your job right at the beginning, but in the incubation phase, one should know whether or not he or she wants to remain at work. The transition can be slow, though. It usually works like this – you have a job and then you get an idea. The idea doesn’t work out, so you stay at your job. This repeats itself several times before a brilliant business idea emerges that works. At first, you work on it in the evenings, but then it starts to take you 20 or more hours per week, and you have to make a decision – try to juggle two things at the same time or give notice. You can be spontaneous and go for it, or arrange part-time hours and try to manage both your project and work.
How did you decide?
I always had some support if something went wrong. When I founded my first company, called FairList, I continued studying at college. When I founded James Grant, I continued working in the previous company, too. The situation repeated itself again when I founded Podnikni to! I was always employed. But to be honest, it’s clear that after a certain period of time you work on your new project at the expense of the previous one.
So at what point do you realize that you should dedicate yourself fully to the new project?
The truth is you should always dedicate yourself fully to each project, but as for the question of whether to quit your job or not, there is no one answer. Before leaving your job, you should, however, spend enough time in the incubation phase during which you work on your idea and talk about it with the target group. Then will come the stage when it’s not enough just to talk about it, but it’s time to act. And you just know it when it comes.
You've founded most of your companies with someone else. Do you think it’s better than going it alone?
If your project makes sense, you basically have three options – you can work on your own, hire temporary workers or take an associate. I personally prefer to work with an associate because I can rely on the fact that in my absence he or she will take over the business. No normal employee would be able to do that.
Only if you choose the right one, of course. What are the important factors for choosing an associate?
Each partner should meet three criteria. One, they should have the expertise you need. This means that if you start an e-shop and you are not a programmer, you can partner up with a programmer. You’ll save money, and the software development will be in-house. Two, you should complement each other in your strengths and weaknesses. And three, the associate should be your friend – someone you want to have a beer with and talk about what's happening at work and in your personal life.
Where might one find such a person?
You can meet such people at business conferences or it can be one of your active friends. Do you know how I found my first companion, Radek Danč? I attended an event where I posted an ad on the event’s Facebook page and he contacted me. I met my second associate, Max Dužek, thanks to a friend of mine who recommended him to me. The most important thing is to go outside and meet people.
Do you have any final advice for startups?
There will always be times when doing business will be difficult; you will want to quit and you will be exhausted, no matter if you are in the incubation phase or are a successful businessperson. To overcome these moments, you need to be in an environment that motivates you and towards which you feel responsible and have work commitments.
Jakub Tížek is an entrepreneur, trainer and mentor. After founding FairList and James Grant, he decided to share his entrepreneurial know-how through the Podnikni to! project. His goal is to create a pre-incubation system in the Czech Republic that will show people that everyone can start their own business. In his free time, Jakub likes to read books about history. That's because, he adds with a smile, "History is done and I can’t change anything about it, which makes it so relaxing for an entrepreneur who is always planning and thinking how to do things better."