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How to run an incubator

As Tentacle Zone gears up for another cohort, program director Nisha Valand shares advice on supporting new games startups

Incubators are usually formed to support the foundation of new start-ups via knowledge sharing, mentoring, access to investors and publishers, and workspace.

But there isn't one formula for an incubator and it's important to consider what type of set-up would work for your studio or organisation if you're looking to set one up.

Payload Studios already had a flexible version of this model in place as we operate a co-working space in London called the Tentacle Zone for independent games studios. Our Tentacle Zone residents range from early to later stage studios, such as Spilt Milk Studios, Robot Squid and Marvelous Games and we had been running events, mentoring and knowledge sharing sessions for the residents for a while.

In February 2021 we launched the Tentacle Zone Incubator for early stage founders from underrepresented groups. As it was during lockdown, our only option was to make the programme entirely virtual; however, this was actually a benefit as it helped us reach people outside of London and support founders from across the UK, Poland and Italy. Our incubator remains virtual this year and our aim is to attract many more international applicants.

In this article, we'll explore what it takes to run your own incubator program.

Part 1: What to think about before you decide to run an incubator?

When you are looking at the delivery of your incubator, it's important to set some objectives on who you are interested in supporting and what you would like them to achieve.

Nisha Valand, Tentacle Zone

Our strategy for equality, diversity and inclusion is long-term, so we wanted to focus on helping founders from underrepresented groups, including, but not limited to: POC, lower socioeconomic backgrounds, LGBTQ+, underrepresented genders (cis women, trans women, trans men, non-binary and other non-cisgender identities), people with disabilities and people with neurodiversities.

You'll need to think about the length of your programme. We chose four months in which to run focused weekly industry roundtables and talks on a range of subjects: design, development, production, business, finance, marketing, and pitching/public speaking. Founders were also able to speak to their allocated mentor, gain industry introductions as needed and connections that were geared towards their bespoke needs.

Consider how you want to wrap-up your programme. At the end of year one, we put together a showcase video of our cohort's work which was shown at Rezzed Digital. The founders got to present their work to the industry, investors and the general public and were also on-hand to answer viewer questions during the livestream.

If you're clear about why you want to run an incubator, and how you want it to benefit your studio, there's more chance of it actually happening. Our co-founders, Russ Clarke and Vincent Scheurer, were mentors last year and learnt a lot themselves from working with founders. It can be a two-way knowledge exchange and if you are able to give back, then it feels like the right thing to do.

Remember, it isn't a side project; to make it successful, you need a team and a budget

  • What can you offer?

Consider what it is that you can offer. Incubators don't usually offer seed funding, but if you're in a position to build a fund of some kind, that injection of funding at an early stage would be incredibly valuable.

  • Who will you work with?

When setting up your incubator, consider which other developers or industry bodies that you would want to collaborate with. There are key people at each of these companies who are advocates of equality, diversity and inclusion, and working with like-minded people is hugely rewarding.

Finding companies who can support your incubator means being able to share learnings, bring added resources to ensure industry speakers are paid for their time, and that our outreach is as wide as possible to reach as many founders.

  • Do you have a network you can reach out to for support?

We did a retrospective with our 2021 incubator cohort, and they rated the mentors as one of the most useful aspects of being on the programme. It was heart-warming to see how many industry professionals wanted to give back their time and support the founders.

Similarly, the programme is completely industry-led, we relied on the support of 45-plus mentors and speakers to bring the game development journey to life. Sharing their experiences to help the founders avoid similar pitfalls or to help guide them through challenges. These individuals really helped drive the progress of the founders' games and businesses, and were around on a regular basis to support the founders.

Think about which developers and other experts in your network might be able to share knowledge with your cohort of start-ups
  • What is your unique point of difference from other incubators out there?

There are many incubators and accelerators in the games industry so it's best if you aim not to compete or duplicate those efforts. For example, our focus is on founders from all underrepresented backgrounds and there is no charge to participate.

Part 2: What do you need to run an incubator?

This comes down to time, support and money. Payload Studios management, employees and our Tentacle Zone residents all believed in the incubator as an initiative. This included a rebrand of the Tentacle Zone website and the team's time and resources to deliver the programme.

If you're clear about why you want to run an incubator, and how you want it to benefit your studio, there's more chance of it actually happening

Remember, it isn't a side project; to make it successful, you need a team and a budget. Ideally, you'd have someone who has experience of running an events programme for developers and has access to a team of advisors who will be honest about the quality of the programme.

We recommend that you stress test your plans with experts, make sure you are making your incubator as inclusive as possible. Things to consider would include:

  • Making it virtual and therefore open to all
  • Recording each talk and roundtable
  • Providing subtitles for non-native English speakers
  • Using a diverse mix of mentors and industry experts who bring new perspectives and experiences.

Part 3: Launching the incubator

With a network of partners, industry mentors and speakers behind you, hopefully the launch of your incubator will be one that spreads far and wide.

We have been sharing information on our incubator across social media. Since we're targeting open to early-stage developers from the UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia between the GMT and +4 time zones, we've been securing help from key people in those markets. There's so much news all the time, so having lots of people to help spread the word is really useful.

The more potential candidates know about what support is available to them and who is involved in the programme, the more likely you are to have a wide ranging number of applications. We launched a new website, we're active on Twitter and we recently hosted a live Twitter Q&A to answer any questions that potential applicants needed ahead of taking the time to put together their submission.

The application form itself needs to be accessible and we've tried to make ours as flexible as possible. For example, if you aren't comfortable writing, there's an option to submit a video only. If there's another way studios would prefer to apply, be open to it. Keeping in mind that we want a diverse mix of applicants means that there is no 'one size fits all' with regards to the application.

Part 4: Running the incubator

Plan your content schedule out in detail in advance and create all the materials you need to brief speakers and mentors. It is a lot of work to get everyone locked in but it is essential that the participants have a full view of the content they will have access to in advance. Also, once the incubator starts you will be super busy just running and facilitating sessions.

Incubators are hard work but also incredibly rewarding so don't be afraid to give it a try

Everyone is busy so it is important to check in on an individual basis regularly with the participants to make sure the content is meeting their expectations and is pitched at the right level. Be open to making adjustments and adding new content if needed. Also ensure everyone is able to engage and access the content in the way that suits them. Making sure you are sensitive to people's individual personalities and preferred ways of communicating and/or their busy work schedules.

Make sure the cohort themselves have lots of time to network and provide peer support to each other without external experts and mentors. Our 2021 participants all found this to be the most rewarding and important part of the incubator and the networks and friendships formed have continued on now that the incubator has ended.

Part 5: Ongoing support

After the official programme ended, some of the mentors continued their sessions with developers. We are in touch regularly with the alumni on Discord and encourage them to continue their accountability groups (peer to peer support).

If we have an opportunity to promote any of our incubator devs on the cohort and their games, we approach them and share industry event/media opportunities with them. The founders are now part of the Tentacle Zone community.

Hopefully I've given you an insight into how an incubator can benefit your studio and the groups you aim to support. Incubators are hard work but also incredibly rewarding so don't be afraid to give it a try.

Nisha Valand is program director for Tentacle Zone, a co-working space and virtual incubator operating out of the centre of London. If you would like to apply for the Tentacle Zone Incubator 2022, please visit the website. The deadline for applications is April 8, 2022.