Guest Post: Life in the Incubator

This summer, while most of my classmates jetted away from Charlottesville to crunch numbers in New York, strategize about the future of energy in Texas, or tackle marketing in the Twin Cities, I stayed put. I had applied for the Darden Business Incubator program, a summer-long support system for students dreaming of their own businesses.

My reasoning: The summer between school is the perfect time for a trial run. The risks were low; the support system was strong. When else will you have 3 months (with financial support!) to sniff out an idea?

I was a journalist in my past life, and the media world today is reinventing itself regularly. The survivors must know how to innovate, whether in a nimble startup or a legendary company.

Plus, the set-up was awfully tempting. For each company, Darden provided an $8,000 expense fund, a $5,100 ($1,700 monthly x 3) stipend for one student, office space and supplies and weekly lunches with speakers. The director of entrepreneurship, Philippe Sommer, and assistant director, M.J. Toms, checked in frequently and offered leads on connections and alumni support, too.

This summer’s program incubated a record 18 companies. Each applied in January with a business plan and a rough idea (i.e., a Gantt chart) on what would be accomplished during the summer.

Some classmates spent the summer refining their business ideas, with the thought of launching a company following graduation. Others were up and running, had hired programmers and were building out websites or mobile phone apps. Still others did a u-turn or two before settling into a concept. The size of the companies varied from a solo student to several students who had hired freelance help or interns.

One of my classmates, Joe Chard, co-founded a mobile gaming company, Nomuda Games. His concept is cool: developing an episodic story, so that once you wrap up the first game in a series, a cliffhanger will compel you (ideally) to run out and buy the next “episode.”

Think interactive “Lost” — addicting tales in your phone.

Joe tapped talent in the undergrad UVA programming community and actually got their first “episode” into production and scheduled for a November launch.

He told me, “we were able to use the time in the incubator – and of course the funding – to move our business concept into reality. During the Second Year we can see if our products will be a success on the marketplace, and I’ll either leave Darden with a revenue-generating, growing company, or I’ll have given it my best shot and will have a great story to pitch recruiters while I look for a traditional MBA job.” 

You can see screenshots, contact Joe, and watch the initial buzz unfold here:

Another classmate, Kyle Hawke, launched a virtual consulting firm based on the premise of crowdsourcing, which he dubbed Whinot. Think “Fortune 500 consulting at small business prices.” The idea is to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” to provide solutions to small businesses who might not be able to afford the big players.

The payment is split among those contributors with the best ideas. Kyle refined his pitch, launched the online portal and landed his first clients. He even snagged a mention in the local Daily Progress newspaper and on the prominent tech blog

And what about me?

I teamed up with a classmate in the executive MBA program, John Dowd, who had founded Dobro Media. We both are fascinated by the idea of personalized print publications — how targeted advertising and content can create a vastly more valuable experience for both advertisers and readers.

Dobro has already started down that path with a targeted advertising product for newspapers, called Precision Ads. As a former newspaper editor, I brought a content eye to the endeavor and worked on developing prototypes of what such a publication could be.

John worked from Virginia Beach, while I was in the Incubator in Charlottesville and our freelance designer was traveling all around Europe. (Thank goodness for Skype!)

Each day is different when you are your own boss. Some days I worked on compiling the content and drawing up budgets for the prototypes. One day, we drove up to D.C. to pitch our idea to a big media institute. Another week we were in Denver for the Individuated News Conference. The Incubator made those connections possible.

What happens next? Will all 18 companies flourish? (Doubtful.) Will all 18 of us go to traditional consulting or management positions within corporations? (Also doubtful.)

Each of us incubatees, now starting our Second Year of full-time classes, has to answer that for ourselves.

To be continued …

Brianne Warner, MBA Class of 2011

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