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The ups and downs of working in a tech incubator

The ups and downs of working in a tech incubator | Competitive Edge |
Michael Rainsford discusses how his start-up company developed in a shared office space, and reveals the benefits and downsides of such a setup for an early-stage company. 

When my company went full-time back in June 2014 we were looking for the perfect environment in which to grow our semi-established start-up, and when we stumbled across the newly-established Google Campus near London’s Old Street, we also stumbled across the idea of the ‘tech incubator’ (essentially an office space housing tech start-ups). We liked it and we applied for a few desk spaces, which we were subsequently offered at a relatively cheap price.

It seemed like the perfect setup for us and six months later we graduated to a different incubator within the city. But those six months at Campus had been good for us. Growing in an incubator we found to definitely have its upsides.

Firstly, most incubators are cheap. Most tech incubators (as with any place providing facilities for start-ups) are likely to offer cheap rental rates. But compared with other venues offering facilities for fledgling businesses, Google Campus offered all inclusive rates, mentoring and access to the heart of Tech City. These fringe benefits are often, in the cases of incubators, the main benefits, when all you are actually using the building for is working – with no time or inclination for creature comforts.

Many incubators also seek to keep themselves at capacity by offering flexible workspace with pay-as-you-go style pricing. At Campus these spaces were remarkably cheap; arguably too cheap. Given the limited number of spaces available, for every developer on Flex membership paying a little over £100 per annum there were tens of eager entrepreneurs (who would have contributed much to the culture and atmosphere) waiting in line for a spare desk.

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Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Incubators and accelerators are great places to launch your startup. You learn, meet others, have mentors available, and get a ton of experience. If you get the chance, go for it. They are popping up everywhere, not just in the big cities.

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Little’s Law Is Big For Startups | TechCrunch

Little’s Law Is Big For Startups  |  TechCrunch | Competitive Edge |

Traffic, traction, growth. We all know that these terms are prerequisites to success. As we launch our startups we hope for initial customer acceptance, which would lead to traffic, traction and growth (TTG). In some cases, we’re willing to pay for traffic. In most other cases, we work around the clock to ignite organic TTG.

When we read about the successful co-founders of a Yelp, Pinterest, or WhatsApp, we find ourselves inspired by their drive and intellect, but we often leave wondering what it really was that gave these startups the astronomical TTG that we all want. There’s certainly no shortage of ideas and opinions about how one startup achieved success, but as analytical founders, the prescribed path from “good to great” often does not satisfy us. We crave more mathematical guidance.

One discipline to turn to in order to understand the underlying mechanics of business is operations research (OR).

OR principles not only guide us to optimize and run our businesses smoothly but also provide us with statistical analysis of underlying business concepts via modeling and simulation. One of the most interesting studies in OR which provides relevant guidance to today’s applications is queuing theory. And inside queuing theory, Little’s law is a hidden gem that gives us profound hints on where to focus to achieve superior traffic, traction and growth.

Queuing theory in its simplest terms tackles problems within the context of the following flow in a store:

Arrival –> Service–> Departure

In a queuing system, there are items that arrive at some rate to the system. Then they depart. An item can be a customer or inventory. When we think about it, this is exactly what we have on a website or app. Visitors arrive, they stick around for a while, then they leave. The most valuable company is the one with the most visitors that stay the longest.

Little’s Law says that, under steady state conditions, the average number of items in a queuing system equals the average rate at which items arrive multiplied by the average time that an item spends in the system.


L =average number of items in the queuing system,

W = average waiting time in the system for an item, and

λ =average number of items arriving per unit time, the law states the following:

“The long-term average number of customers in a stable system is equal to the long-term effective arrival rate multiplied by the average time a customer spends in the store.”

This statement sounds trivial. Its magic, however, lies in the simplicity that the relationship is not influenced by the service distribution, service order or anything else. It’s not influenced by the color of the site, the distribution of the content or the price of the product. The only thing that matters is how fast the visitors are coming and how long they’re staying. Everything else is secondary. Little’s law doesn’t only apply to queues in physical stores; it applies to networks and to any system where there’s a flow of items.

To examine a real-life situation, it’s safe to claim that Google, as a search engine, has the highest arrival rate of visitors, namely λ. But the visitors don’t stick around much. They quickly click through to another site via organic or paid links. Then they come back later for another search only to leave quickly. Google has done a phenomenal job at building up that arrival rate that made the company what it is today. But take a look at the acquisitions, research or any other top initiative at Google, and you’ll easily see that all of them target the second part of Little’s law: W, the average time a customer spends at a Google property, whether that’s email, phone, calendar or web browser.

According to Comscore, Google received about 13 billion search queries in March 2014. This translates to 433.3 million queries per day, 18 million per hour, 300 thousand per minute and only 5,000 per second. A quick comparison to Bing looks like this:


Number of search queries

TimeframeMicrosoftGooglePermonth3,600,000,000.0013,000,000,000.00Per day120,000,000.00433,333,333.33Per hour5,000,000.0018,055,555.56Per minute83,333.33300,925.93Per second1,388.895,015.43Per millisecond1.45


One wonders if Bing at any point exceeded Google’s 5,000 per second search rate. If yes, that’s good for Bing and bad for Google and it’s crucial to figure out why that jolt happened at that particular second. Investigating short bursts of higher-than-usual traffic leads to significant hints versus observing daily or monthly numbers.

Now consider Facebook. Facebook has both great arrival rate and time spent in “store.” But its customer arrival rate (λ) is not as high as Google’s. This is why all the top acquisitions and projects at Facebook target increasing the arrival rate. We visit Facebook a few times a day and stick around a little bit but then we quickly jump to a Google search.

Operation managers and entrepreneurs are more concerned with the throughput rate rather than the arrival rate. But the throughput rate is important only if there is arrival. Arrival is certainly a binary function without which there’s no usefulness. Once visitors arrive, the key metric to monitor is how fast they arrive, not how many.

Here are three implications of Little’s law as it applies to startups:

  1. For investors evaluating startups, it’s best to examine traffic figures at the lowest level of granularity possible. Even if the monthly uniques are low, surges in traffic at much smaller time intervals provide traces of higher value. The reverse is also true. Dips in arrival rates may suggest potential problems.
  2. For an entrepreneur, instead of focusing on the monthly stats, working on how to increase the searches per second is a healthier effort — particularly for those wanting to disrupt a certain market. The traffic numbers may be up and down and all over the place throughout the month, but it is the peaks of high traffic per second (or millisecond) that deserves the attention.
  3. It’s important to focus on why and how the influx of visitors surged in the smallest time frame available. Work to figure out ways to sustain that instead of focusing on monthly uniques.

Little’s law provides hints for social or viral growth, too, because in both cases, influence is spread out in short bursts as people visit the site/page/app almost all at the same time. Viral influx is the dream of a startup and after that, some level of stickiness is required to keep people around. But early traction trumps great content. Normalizing your metrics over time and looking at meaningful windows of time are a lot more useful than just looking at long-term averages.

If you’re hungry for analytical insights on traffic, traction and growth, look no further than queuing theory and particularly Little’s law. For those of you interested in the mathematical proof of Little’s law, here’s the link to Professor Little’s 2011 paper celebrating the 50th anniversary of his theory.

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Startup experts talking formulas...

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Why startups need to focus on sales, not marketing by @foundersatwork - The Accelerators - WSJ

Why startups need to focus on sales, not marketing by @foundersatwork - The Accelerators - WSJ | Competitive Edge |
JESSICA LIVINGSTON: The most important thing an early-stage startup should know about marketing is rather counterintuitive: that you probably shouldn't be doing anything you'd use the term "marketing" to describe. Sales and marketing are two ends of a continuum. At the sales end your outreach is narrow and deep. At the marketing end it is broad and shallow. And for an early stage startup, narrow and deep is what you want -- not just in the way you appeal to users, but in the type of product you build...

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Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Great article in the Wall Street Journal. What a Startup needs is nothing but proving that it can be successful, and what better way to do that than making that sales model work.

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50 Top Tools for Social Media Monitoring, Analytics, and Management - Pamorama | Social Media Marketing Blog

50 Top Tools for Social Media Monitoring, Analytics, and Management - Pamorama | Social Media Marketing Blog | Competitive Edge |
These 50 social media monitoring and management tools help you gather intelligence about your social media marketing efforts.

Some great new tools here.

Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Pick up your 'Free Businesss Plan Template' here:

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'The Emergence of Africa'

'The Emergence of Africa' | Competitive Edge |

Several interesting facts about Africa

Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Do you take Africa into account in your marketing? Take a look at some of these numbers.

Several African listings on my site for investments:

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The smart creative: How to spot them, how to use them

The smart creative: How to spot them, how to use them | Competitive Edge |

The term “smart creative” is often heard today in the hallways and conference rooms of some of the nation’s leading tech companies.

Not surprising, since it was coined by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. But the concept is not necessarily unique to Google, or even to the tech world.

Smart creatives (SCs) can be found almost anywhere, from the corner coffeehouse to the corner office.

  • How can you tell if you are a smart creative?
  • How can you spot a smart creative?
  • How can you maximize smart creatives’ potential in your organization?

Here are four key characteristics to look for:

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Are you a smart creative? If you are, you'll be looking to add on the skills and experience you need to become one.

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Why You Shouldn't Envy The Lives Of Some Billionaires

Why You Shouldn't Envy The Lives Of Some Billionaires | Competitive Edge |
Money can take all the serendipity out of life.

Poor Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. They're worth billions of dollars, and that makes life hard.

Actually, it kind of does, and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham explains why. Graham's startup accelerator program yielded a few billionaire founders of its own, including Dropbox's Drew Houston and the founders of Airbnb.

Graham points out that Google and Facebook run Page and Zuckerberg as much as they run their companies. They can never enjoy regular activities or do things spontaneously the way the rest of us can.

"Mark Zuckerberg will never get to bum around a foreign country," Graham writes. "He can do other things most people can't, like charter jets to fly him to foreign countries. But success has taken a lot of the serendipity out of his life."

What adds to the stress: billionaires can never publicly complain about how tough their money-filled lives sometimes are, because everyone else will freak out.

In a Stanford talk about how tough it is to be an entrepreneur, Graham says how all-consuming running a startup — even once it becomes a multi-billion-dollar company, can be. Here's an excerpt:

Larry Page may seem to have an enviable life, but there are aspects of it that are unenviable. Basically at 25 he started running as fast as he could and it must seem to him that he hasn't stopped to catch his breath since. Every day new shit happens in the Google empire that only the CEO can deal with, and he, as CEO, has to deal with it.

If he goes on vacation for even a week, a whole week's backlog of shit accumulates. And he has to bear this uncomplainingly, partly because as the company's daddy he can never show fear or weakness, and partly because billionaires get less than zero sympathy if they talk about having difficult lives. Which has the strange side effect that the difficulty of being a successful startup founder is concealed from almost everyone except those who've done it.

...Mark Zuckerberg will never get to bum around a foreign country. He can do other things most people can't, like charter jets to fly him to foreign countries. But success has taken a lot of the serendipity out of his life. Facebook is running him as much as he's running Facebook. And while it can be very cool to be in the grip of a project you consider your life's work, there are advantages to serendipity too, especially early in life. Among other things it gives you more options to choose your life's work from.

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5 Intriguing New Startups In Silicon Valley

5 Intriguing New Startups In Silicon Valley | Competitive Edge |

Y Combinator Demo Day took place today at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. The room was packed with hundreds of investors, entrepreneurs and members of the press trying to find the next billion-dollar startup.

Startup darlings Airbnb and Dropbox are Y Combinator alumni, for example.

Zynga founder Mark Pincus, SV Angel's Ron Conway, CrunchFund's Michael Arrington, 500 Startups' Dave McClure, early Facebook employee Andrew McCollum, and The Winklevoss twins all attended.

67 startups gave 2.5-minute presentations. Here is the first batch of rapid-fire pitches that stood out:

BatteryOS:  "You’ve never actually charged a battery to 100%," the founder explained to the audience. His logic: When a battery charges to near-completion, it begins to degrade. A black gunk begins to form in the battery, which eventually destroys it. BatteryOS says it's found a way to charge batteries all the way up without that residue forming. It claims that if Chevy Volt used its product, the car's battery would last eight years longer.  

"We can change every lithium ion battery on this earth and improve it," the founder said. His company has already signed a deal to ship 20,000 of its batteries.

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Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Startups come up with amazing solutions. Read the whole article to see all five.

It proves again that human creativity is not dead, and solutions can be found for many problems, even if you didn't know about them.

Marc Kneepkens's curator insight, March 26, 2014 8:51 AM

Wow, great article, great solutions.

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Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy | McKinsey & Company

Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy | McKinsey & Company | Competitive Edge |
Twelve emerging technologies—including the mobile Internet, autonomous vehicles, and advanced genomics—have the potential to truly reshape the world in which we live and work.
Marc Kneepkens's insight:

Great report from McKinsey, 'Need to Know'!

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