By Colin Smithers, Plextek

Coming up with that big idea is just the beginning. Taking the idea and developing it into something tangible that is worthy of mass sales is where it really starts to get complicated. Armed with your idea you need to engineer it, perfect it, commercialise it, get the projections in place and get it to market without someone beating you to the punch.

There are plenty of good ideas around but very few actually make it. The most common reasons include running out of money (or underestimating the amount of money required), and the wrong team where key skills are missing. The journey from bright idea to finished product in the market requires a wide range of skills and temperaments and these are rarely met by chance groups of individuals. Achieving the right mix of product engineering, ergonomics, marketing, manufacturing, supply chain and finance knowledge, to say nothing of simple organisational skills - requires deliberate skill acquisition. TV shows like ‘Dragon’s Den’ have shown how rare to find someone with the perfect blend of business, people management, sales, marketing and engineering competences needed to guide the transition of an idea into a thriving business. More often than not entrepreneurs are either very capable engineers, but fall to pieces when selling to customers, or at the prospect of putting together a business plan.

Unless you’re one of these rare multi-faceted, multi-skilled superheroes it’s vital to recognise your shortcomings and acquire those missing skills or you’re sure to have a real struggle ahead. Unless you fall into this group the future of your idea might lie with an ‘incubator’ company.

Incubation can fast-track the growth of early stage businesses and improve the survival rate of start-up companies by helping them become viable more quickly. Incubation also creates an environment where entrepreneurs learn from the experiences and expertise of others - creating working partnerships that may help to open doors to markets and resources.

Let’s say that you came up with an idea. You’ve written up a business plan, got some money in the bank, talked to contacts in the industry and done some research with potential users who all nod approvingly at the idea - but then it comes to building a prototype. You realise you don’t know enough about technical components to do your idea justice. Here an incubator could work with you, buying into the idea, helping you to refine and develop it.
It would give you advice on things like technical feasibility, marketability and practical engineering issues e.g. Is it safe? Does it need to be more ruggedised? How long will the batteries last? What is the regulatory environment for such products and what approvals must it meet? Is there a risk of patent infringement? What will the unit cost be in volume? How can I adequately test my product prior to launch? How will manufacturing test be efficiently done? How long will all of this all take? In short, all the things that will stand you in good stead to have the best chance of succeeding.

For business planning the incubator will have the experience and know-how obtained from helping other companies in a similar situation and they’ll know what your customers, investors and partners are looking for. You might have found some good business plan advice online, but it’s very different to have that hands-on working relationship that an incubator can offer.

For anyone out there with a high tech idea, the important thing to remember is that most successful entrepreneurs have failed multiple times before getting their break and making it big. Every time they failed, they learned vital new business lessons - but this is the hard way to do it - it doesn’t have to be this way. My advice would always be, don’t be afraid to ask for help early from people who have been doing this as their day job for many years.

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