In my time I’ve come across a few things with the title incubator. There was the SEBI (Synergy E Business Incubator) which was most certainly an incubator of sorts, and worked quite well for a few years before inexplicably falling off the face of the earth (maybe someone else out there knows why?) But it wasn’t really an incubator in my mind. I’ll go on to explain why later.
Then there was a whole section for incubation written into the original plan for the Oh Yeah Music Centre which for me, as a founding member, was probably the most exciting part of a number of hugely ambitious and maybe unreachable goals. There was even a pilot scheme in the guise of Scratch My Business that brought a few music entrepreneurs together and created a shared workspace for them with access to wifi, a desk and a shared pool of knowledge. Again not an incubator as such, more a Co Working idea. Hopefully we’ll see that part of Oh Yeah’s plan come to fruition in future times, spinning out music businesses and helping them to get a foot on the ladder instead of being mere hobbies or side projects. There will be immense value in that and people in music need it probably more than most.
And that’s as close as I’ve come. Which says to me that in reality, Belfast does not have an incubator in the true sense of the word. I’m happy to be corrected. For me an incubator should be a hot house, an environment that promotes the idea of taking your business by the scruff of the neck and pushing it hard in a concerted effort to grow. An incubator should be focussed on taking businesses with true world potential in and helping them to progress towards the possibilities that the founders created when they anted up and took the plunge into the uncertain, scary and exciting world of entrepreneurship.
It should be a home for the crazy ones, the risk takers, the ones who believe it is better to burn out than fade away. It should not be a place where people come to avoid failure, it should not continue to support businesses that cannot fulfil their potential. It is not a place for those who aren’t looking beyond these shores. It should not be a half way house for grant seekers and businesses whose culture is aimed towards syphoning from the public purse.
We’ve all talked enough about putting Northern Ireland on the world stage and the peace dividend. While our politicians are focused on inter-tribal point scoring we must be looking to ourselves, our peers and those who have succeeded for leadership and drive. We’re in this together after all.
And so to VI (pronounced six and meaning Virtual Incubator). VI is an empty room. It needs painted, stud walls, electric points, heating and people to help do all of those things. It needs energy and creativity, ideas and heart. It will need money but for now it has enough to get by. It needs a good internet connection to give it tentacles to the world. It needs five businesses willing to take a risk at being all they can be. Why five? Because AirPOS, my spin out, is VI (1) and I’ll be on this journey with everyone else. And I’m very very excited about that.
VI needs mentors and investors, those with the war wounds and nuggets of wisdom that are more valuable than 100,000 start a business programmes.
VI has no business plan nor a strategy. It has no board of directors. It has no logo. We’re incubating the incubator too, if that’s not too surreal, and its success will be tied into those within its walls.
Take the first step at www.startVI.com
An interesting notion was raised a few days ago at the latest Digital Circle Export and Internationalisation subgroup meeting (whoa, hefty intro I know…)
The meeting touched on a lot of themes relevant to pretty much everyone in the digital industry who is interested in selling outside of NI but for me two things were most pressing and urgent. The first surrounded the idea of what exactly it is that we’re trying to sell and I suppose that spilled into the second notion which was a wider question over how Northern Ireland itself is percieved by people outside of it.
1) WHAT ARE WE SELLING TO THE ESKIMOS (AND ANYONE ELSE WHO’S INTERESTED IN OUR WARES?)
This is really a question of definition and over the years there have been far too many definitions of the digital industry to count. Multimedia used to be the blanket term, Information Technology is another (and better) blanket term but since we’re addressing Northern Ireland here it’s worth noting just how many different ways our industry is classified. For instance Momentum is seen to represent the IT sector and most specifically software. Digital Circle is seen to represent digital content creators under the terms of the Digital Content Strategy that was used to define the organisation, a document that it is clear needs revision in order to stay relevant to the shifting changing industry it addresses.
We’re also lumped in under the creative industries banner, probably more out of convenience than anything else and personally I’ve always struggled with being under that heading and I imagine businesses with even less of a creative slant than ours, like grey box software makers for instance, have even less of a reason to be included.
Also there’s a culture that thinks anything creative is not really business per say, more of a glorified hobby that you get some pay for (if you’re lucky) and I for one entirely reject that notion and see it as a great reason to jettison the creative industries tag immediately. What we do I don’t consider creative anymore than I consider the installation of lighting or the building of a guitar to be a creative endeavour. The guy who designed the guitar, I’ll give you that, but I’m not looking to extend creative kudos to the people in the factory who put it together. Writing a song is undoubtedly a creative endeavour, designing a website is really not on the same level for me.
So for me I’d like to get rid of the defining terms. I’d like us to start seeing a digital industry as a whole rather than drawing lines between mobile, games, web, grey box etc etc etc. The very nature of technology is convergence anyway and as across the board languages like HTML5 become more mainstream we’ll see a lot of skills being applicable to multiple platforms. This should be our aim! And then we have to educate those who seek to define things and pigeon hole disciplines that actually, there’s more common ground than differences. At that point can we start the process of selling our digital industry as a vibrant, connected, multi-talented and highly educated workforce? Maybe. And then we can start dealing with the perception of the North as a low-cost option. If you want best of breed work, come armed with best of breed budgets!
2) WHAT IS THIS NORTHERN IRELAND THAT YOU SPEAK OF ANYWAY?
This was the second big question to raise it’s head. When we’re out there in the world talking to people about Northern Ireland what exactly is it that we’re talking about? What are we really really good at? What size is this digital industry talked about in point 1? What defines it? What age is it? What is it better at that other regions don’t offer? Why would I want to spend my money with people in NI rather than people in more recognised centres of excellence like Israel? Is NI much different from the south of Ireland and if so how? What are the USPs of NI? One dividend of the conflict here is that everyone knows that we exist but what are they’re perceptions of NI now that the conflict is not its most immediate characteristic?
There are a million questions really, some may be answerable by asking the right people others may need some work to really get to grips with. But with less than eight weeks to go before we’ll be both in the deserts of Austin, Texas at SXSWi and in the heart of Silicon Valley I’d love to get my head around how exactly to explain ourselves to everyone we meet. I want to be a good salesman for our region, but really I’m not savvy with what we’re trying to sell.
So I suggested at the meeting that we could maybe start with doing a ‘12 sheeter’ on what Northern Ireland is, something we could all be showing on our travels to make sure we have a consistent message. A Powerpoint presentation really (or Keynote if we want it to look good!)
Anybody got any suggestions? Anybody got any really good images they could donate to the project? Anyone with some time and graphic design savvy they could contribute? Anyone sitting on all the stats we need?? Maybe someone has already done this and we’re playing catchup?
If so post em up here or email them to Matt Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject ‘NI Slideshow’ and I’ll rope him in to being the catch all. He won’t mind (much…)
*that’s Web of Spiderman #21 apparently up above, where Spidey saves Belfast from itself. Nice…