By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold
Irina: How many companies have been incubated in the past 12 months?
Stephen: Right now, it’s about 400. When we are talking about 400, you have to understand that in the new [approach] model, the companies don’t have to be resident in my bricks-and-mortar [incubator].
I’ve got 50,000 square feet of incubation space. At this point, I’ve got probably 35 tenants in that space. The other – a little more than 370 – companies are not tenants. We provide services for both.
Irina: They are virtual?
Stephen: Yes. They may have office space elsewhere or they may not have office space at all and indeed be virtual. It depends on the business. If they do [need] office space, renting it from me is an option. We do subsidize the space. We do have a limited amount of space. As I said, we’ve got about 50,000 square feet. We have a waiting list. Some of the companies, whether due to the waiting list or due to location and traffic and so forth, choose not to be tenants here. They’re still full members.
Irina: Do you require any specific level of experience from entrepreneurs?
Stephen: No. We embrace the ones who haven’t done it before. We try to help them. Obviously, the more experience they have, the less effort they take. What we’ve found is with the members who have had more experience, we count on them to do some mentoring and assisting with the younger [members] who haven’t had the experience. They learn from each other. They don’t just learn from us.
Irina: What are the core benefits of the incubator?
Stephen: Probably the most important is the community, the ability for the CEOs or founders to meet with each other to share their issues in a safe environment where they can talk about things they might not want to talk about in a public forum.
The way I describe it is, being CEO of a startup is a terribly lonely job. I’ve done it. You can’t tell your investors what’s wrong because they’ll fire you. You can’t tell your employees what’s wrong because they’ll quit. You can’t tell your spouse what’s wrong because he or she will say, “Honey, I told you this was a stupid idea. You never should’ve quit your job at AT&T.”
There’s really no one they can talk to. By forming these circles of entrepreneurs who have had different levels of experience, we facilitate, but the group help each other. Those groups turn out to be extremely valuable to the startups.
We provide a lot of other things. We provide a lot of connections. Startups are a team sport. You can’t do it by yourself. If you need to meet a banker, or a lawyer, or an investor, or a real estate agent, or a professor, or a consultant, or whatever, we probably know one. We can help that [entrepreneur] make the connections he or she needs to take the company forward to the next step. We do provide some facilities here. Regardless of whether you’re a tenant, you can take advantage of our conference rooms and meeting areas and things like that, which is very useful to some of the companies.
Finally, we provide the coaching and consulting, which, to be honest, can be hard for a small company to get sometimes. The people on my staff who run this incubator, all of them have started and run high-tech startups before.
They’ve all been in this industry a long time. They’re not academics, and they’re not young. These are experienced entrepreneurs. Being able to get someone like that to sit down and go through your business plan or your business model and talk about the parts that might work and the parts that won’t is valuable. The companies appreciate that.
Irina: What is your own background?
Stephen: I was a physicist working at Bell Laboratories when the Bell system was divested back in 1984. I moved on into other telecommunications companies and had a career in telecommunications equipment development and management.
I did a venture-backed startup in the mid to late 1980s and got the entrepreneurial bug. When it was time for me to leave the telecom business, I actually got into venture capital as a venture capital investor. That would have been in 1994. I did that for about 10 years and ran a fund, here in Atlanta, that invested primarily in telecommunication and semiconductor startups.
You can tell from the dates that I got to ride the bubble up and ride the bubble back down. I did reasonably well and had retired. Back in 2004, I started doing some volunteer work for Georgia Tech. I’m a Georgia Tech alum. I went here for my degree back in the 1970s. I just started helping out, actually helping out this incubator, as one of the mentors and doing some free consulting. That turned into a job. I’d never planned to do that. That was six years ago, and I’m still here. It’s a great place to be; I’m surrounded by just wonderful people.