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CEO Weekends: Are incubators really necessary for entrepreneurs?

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By Yann LE BEUX – Catalyst CTIC Dakar

It is not easy for most people to understand the daily job of supporting tech entrepreneurs in Africa. Indeed, this fascinating mission only concerns a couple of business angels, venture capitalists, advisors of any kind and, of course, incubating teams. .

This, to me, is the most engaging job in the world: you deal with dozens of brilliant entrepreneurs and visionaries, are in touch with a lot of technologies and business models, get to know them on a personal level and sometimes become friends with some of them.

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However it can also be the most ungrateful job on earth. Here are several reasons:

1)      The majority of us will never get rich doing what we do! Indeed, only a very little portion of us invest their own money and have shares in the companies that we support. The rest are either volunteers, employees, mentors, etc and most of our tech hubs are non-profit organizations. The funny thing is that sometimes, when you try to have an entrepreneurial approach and make your hub sustainable, people tell you that you aren’t social enough!

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2)      You will be judged if your startups fail and forgotten if they succeed. No need to elaborate on this, I think you understand. Entrepreneurs all have their reasons not to show that you helped them when they were hitting rock bottom, when they were in a burnout, when they were fighting with their partners and employees, when they just needed someone to talk to. Yet, you were there for them all the time. But I understand that. Like us they evolve in a very uncertain and high pressure environment. Some of them just can’t allow to blame themselves for things that did not work out or to be grateful for something other than their own genius when they succeed.

3)      You can always do better. And that’s a good thing in fact. Your job and performance will always be challenged and therefore, you’re always required to improve and rarely congratulated for your actions. And again, even though it is a highly ungrateful situation, it is a good one.  You keep on getting better and better for your new entrepreneurs.

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But these are personal feelings that have to be managed at a personal level by each individual. The real question that I want to ask is:

Should we support entrepreneurs – or couldn’t the real entrepreneurs get off the ground by themselves?

1)      We all should advize, put pressure, open doors and boost their business, but not run the business for them. Or at least that is the theory. Doing our job you’ll quickly understand that if, at some point, you don’t get your hands dirty and do what has to be done along with your entrepreneurs, you will never have them work on something strategic or gain their respect. In the meantime, however, you have to make sure that you only provide assistance to the ones who are ready to die for their business, at least as much as you’re ready to die for your incubator. Moreover, sometimes, exceptional events make your entrepreneur or his team completely out of operations (burnouts and key employee departures are the most current cases). In those situations, either you watch the business die and tell everybody that is was not your fault, or you go ahead and manage the business during the crisis. Fortunately, we only had to do this once at CTIC in three years of activity. The startup that was in a critical situation at the time is now one of the most successful startups in Senegal.

2)      Even the greatest entrepreneurs need assistance at some point.

Some people, mostly in the US, will tell you that an entrepreneur who needs support from an incubator will not succeed anyway. Maybe it’s true – at least over there in North America where incubators, in fact, can be replaced by many other parts of the ecosystem that have been involved for a long time: mentors, family, business angels, teachers, classmates – all play a huge role in building the success stories that we all know.

In Senegal however, and probably in many other countries: we don’t have many of those types of support for startups. Therefore, your incubator can play a tremendous role. But it is also a danger to centralize “entrepreneurs support” in one or two spots in a country. This is why I believe that it is clearly our role to help build this ecosystem and support other organizations, even if, at some point, they may become your competitors. But don’t worry, the work to undertake is gigantic, and the more the merrier right!

3)      We should support entrepreneurs like if we had invested a million dollar in them

With passion, dedication and empathy. We have to do this very difficult mental task to put ourselves in the life and brain of our entrepreneurs everytime we meet and work with them. For us at CTIC, it has naturally been much easier to build this “symbiotic” relation with entrepreneurs located in the hub versus with “virtual incubatees”, which have office spaces outside of the incubator.

4)      Finally, we should never claim the success of any company.

I heard one time that good incubators and accelerators never speak about themselves more than they speak about their companies. I could not agree more – this is true.  I also think that whatever amazing services you provide to your startups, you are not responsible for their success! Great people succeed anyway – you just helped them accelerate their growth and get beyond the tough times.

In a nutshell, this fascinating job is a very difficult one in countries where ecosystems still have to be built. But do it with passion and humility. See the big picture and never discourage yourself. You’re on the good track!

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