An Incubator with a strong development focus

AN INCUBATOR WITH A UNIQUELY SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT REGIME Extensive and explicit support very carefully tailored to the needs of its particular participants aims to nudge young ventures towards developing sustainable businesses.

Cockpit Arts are hosting a half-day workshop – about Fostering Innovation in        Incubators etc on 27 June – for programme leaders and their ilk, for which a few places are still available. For the agenda and how to register see www.johnwhatmore.com

Cockpit Arts is an award winning social enterprise and the only UK business incubator for craftspeople, housing up to 170 small businesses in two centres in London (many of them often part-time). It aims to help its occupants, whose average stay is around 5 years, to develop their businesses; and it also works with hundreds of craft businesses outside its centres and overseas through its training workshops and consultancy arm.

These businesses are provided with extensive support services (an in-house team of 4 alongside a bank of external specialists) whose objectives are to help talented makers grow their businesses  ‘to help them succeed on their own criteria.’

The services comprise workspace, onsite business coaching and business support workshops, selling and promotional opportunities, referral to specialist advisors and access to finance. This support aims ‘to help makers to understand and paint a pathway to creating their vision; and then to put building blocks (ie help on specific topics) in place to help them along that pathway.’

Candidates for the incubator have been required to have:

  • craft skills
  • a creative vision (aspiration and motivation), and
  • an appetite to work on a business model.

It is the third of these that is often the stumbling block.

Initial support consists of a diagnostic – exploring strengths and weaknesses, identifying key aspirations and measurements of success, and establishing short term goals. What are their core business visions and values.

The essence of the ongoing support consists in coaching – with programmes of: events/ workshops/presentations about such topics as pricing, branding, marketing, using social media etc; and one-to-one meetings, often contributed by associates and sympathetic experts. These meetings are of three kinds;

  • checking through their progress from time to time with the Head of Business Incubation;
  • working together with the Head of Business Incubation to crack an important issue, and helping them through that issue;
  • at least once a year, a partnership review with the Head of Business Incubation – a discussion about your own measures of progress – celebrating/commiserating; and discussing your next goals.

And people move regularly from one form of participation to another in the support available.

There are also Action Learning Groups that enable participants to critique and get feed-back from their peers, though every workshop has an element of this.

The biggest challenges are two: raising their entrepreneurship drive; and their overestimating what they can achieve (and being set back by that). They are inclined to keep their noses to their craft’s grindstone; as they are to avoid the risks in trying something new in the way of marketing: they are disinclined to get out there and sell! Moreover selling channels have been changing and these businesses need to be increasingly nimble. (Successes make a big impact on the entire community, like that of a ceramicist whose short video got one and a half million views in three weeks).

The Head of Business Incubation makes it his business to attend every workshop, and to feel the nature of engagement of every single participant. The intimacy of this is palpable, as is its continuity. (Some engage for a time, but then later need help to re-engage with the development process.)

The Business Development team consists of four people: one person manages the coaching support, one runs the events programme, and two provide the administrative support.

The most striking aspect of the support is the way in which it is constantly tailored both to individuals needs and to the changing markets in which these businesses aspire to prosper – a quality of support that few incubators match.

John Whatmore, May 2018 (john.whatmore@btinternet.com)

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