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USC Marshall / Greif Incubator

Entrepreneurship is Serious Business. Learn more about the Incubator program.

We give USC’s top student, alumni, and faculty/staff entrepreneurs the resources and guidance to do more faster.

The USC Marshall Greif Incubator accelerates the development of the University of Southern California’s top student and alumni entrepreneurs through experiential education, mentorship and community.

The Incubator, supported by the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC’s Marshall School takes founders from feasibility and development work, on to customers, a tested business model, getting distribution, building a team, bootstrapping and investment preparation. We also provide access to other supporting resources, such as legal and financial assistance.

Participating companies have been acquiredraised money, run successful Kickstarter campaigns, received NSF grants and of course, shipped product to customers. We’ve also had winners in recent USC competitions including the New Seed Venture Competition, the Min Family Challenge, and the Stevens Student Innovator Showcase, among others.

The program is run by Paul Orlando, who is a Professor of Entrepreneurship at USC, teaching the classes Growth Hacking: Scaling Startups (BAEP 469) and Feasibility Analysis (BAEP 452). In a typical month, Incubator startups meet with Paul and other mentors in private sessions to discuss issues specific to their business. Incubatees also come together during group sessions to connect with other teams, potential customers, mentors and investors. If you need work space, we have that too.

The program is inclusive.

Teams that include one or more USC students, alumni, or faculty/staff founders (no matter what school at USC) are eligible to apply. 

We believe that great businesses are built by teams with a mix of skills including tech, design, business and marketing.

We know how to work with early-stage entrepreneurs.

We’ve done this before and have experimented with several different models and formats. Since there are diverse needs at USC, we believe that there is value in selective workshops, based not on a standard curriculum for the group, but instead based on the individual participants. We believe that there is more value in continuity than one-off events. We bring in continuity in the form of office hours with each team and tracking what they learn. We also believe that challenging, encouraging and pushing have their place as we help the Incubator companies to do more faster.

We build strong connections to alumni.

USC has a large alumni base of successful and helpful entrepreneurs. When it comes to alumni involvement, we favor selective connections to exchange specific domain expertise.

We understand that different teams have different needs and plans.

We want the founders and teams to learn how to build businesses. If they totally change direction, or even take a break and return to entrepreneurship later, that is fine. We provide an experience that will be valuable no matter where your path takes you.

We add support structure.

We work with any university department and external group where there is benefit to our Incubatees. This includes connecting talent with opportunities at Incubator companies, collaborating with existing courses taught at USC and connecting founders with first customers, advisors, legal and other support, potential investors and people in industry.

We believe in providing enough time.

We don’t automatically “kick you out” after three months, as is typical. As long as you’re still actively working, you may be able to take advantage of Incubator resources for up to a full year. This extra time allows teams to meet customers, learn, build and make progress.

We’re non-profit.

We take no fees or equity in Incubator businesses. However, on a case-by-case basis we do set teams up with grants, access to free resources and bring in investors. We expect that Incubator companies will apply to the new Marshall Fund, as well as other sources of funding.

We provide workspace.

Those who need it can qualify for workspace at the Incubator.

You should expect to develop these skills in the Incubator.

  • Bootstrapping. The skills to get people to pay you and learning to build a sustainable business will carry you through any economic climate. Bootstrapping also allows you to get started immediately, rather than waiting to raise capital (often before it is a good use of your time).
  • How to run experiments that help validate your business. This includes variations on tools like the Minimum Viable Product as a way to test hypotheses, collect primary data, draw conclusions and learn what to build.
  • Presenting and pitching. These skills are essential but take time to acquire, alongside someone who can give actionable feedback. We believe in giving feedback and then practicing again and again with the presenters. It takes months (at least) to become good.

What we look for in Incubator companies.

  • Coachability. This is good for the company as it shows that the founders will be engaged, will do the work required and will be flexible when required to change direction.
  • Capability to build. Capability is determined by the type of business being built. There are some businesses that have high technical requirements and others that are marketing-driven. Entering Incubatees should have the ability to build what their business requires, with small exceptions that fall outside the core of the business.
  • Commitment and Drive. Founders that are committed and driven — especially about a problem or target customer — will stick with and be creative and resourceful.
  • Those who will be engaged members of the Community. They will share with and help out Incubator companies. They will also engage with the opportunities offered by the Incubator.

When do you run your cohorts?

We run cohorts year round. We keep close contact with program graduates after that. Building a business takes time.

What’s the application process?

First fill out the application to the USC Marshal Greif Incubator. There are several rounds. If you pass the first round expect to answer additional questions about your work first by email and later in person. Sorry that we cannot individually respond to every application.

Is any support provided afterwards for program alumni? 

Once you’re an Incubator alum, you’re still supported (see above).

One year after your “graduation” from the incubator, we do invite Incubatees to return and tell the new companies what they have learned along the way. We find that this one year anniversary talk about actual experience is more valuable than a demo day event.

Is this only for tech-focused companies?

This isn’t only for tech startups. Entrepreneurship is broader than tech. We have a mix of different company types in the program. While Paul comes from a tech background, he believes that there are commonalities that can be shared across industries and great businesses come in many forms.

This sounds more like a startup accelerator program. Why are you called an incubator?

The terms accelerator and incubator do get interchanged a lot. While we sometimes perform more like an accelerator, we do not take equity in our portfolio companies.

For businesses working on Los Angeles-related opportunities

We welcome businesses building solutions to Los Angeles area opportunities including:

  • Infrastructure Improvements,
  • Drought Impact,
  • Transportation,
  • Neighborhood Development,
  • Education (especially for underserved communities),
  • Public Safety,
  • Healthcare,
  • Homelessness
  • Energy usage,
  • US – Asia/Pacific Business,
  • Food issues.

Application and Contact Information

– You may Apply Here.

About Paul Orlando, Director & Adjunct Professor

Paul Orlando has a passion for helping founders achieve a lot of progress in a short time. In addition to his own entrepreneurial experiences, Paul co-founded and operated the first startup accelerator in Hong Kong. To understand how he thinks about entrepreneurship, read his bio.

Paul’s work has been featured in media, including Forbes, TechCrunch and The Next Web. He regularly blogs about his experience working with many startups. Paul has a BA from Cornell, an MBA from Columbia and speaks fluent Mandarin. At USC, he created and teaches a course in Growth Hacking (BAEP 469) and also teaches Feasibility Analysis (BAEP 452). 

Thesis

Investment Thesis

Details on how we think about entrepreneurship programs at universities. This is an evolving document.

Abstract: There is growing awareness of the importance of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking, on and off the university campus. There is also massive growth in entrepreneurship programs, from weekend events to bootcamps to longer format accelerators and incubators providing education, mentorship and funding. When I first co-founded an accelerator in 2012, there were only an estimated couple hundred of those programs around the world; now there are probably thousands (and I've run three programs around the world). More universities are also launching accelerators and incubators. But in this market for entrepreneurship, much of the focus is on scalable tech startups, where high-value outliers drive portfolios. In some cases there is misalignment between the program’s business model and the long-term benefit of the participants. A look around shows both good programs and some that produce more PR than results. It is my belief, after the experiences of running an accelerator (where we invested seed capital in exchange for equity), running a for-profit (and expensive) bootcamp and now starting on a university program, that there are activities that we should bring to entrepreneurs and activities from which we should shield entrepreneurs. These activities focus on what serves the entrepreneur regardless of the market they find themselves in, bringing in structure, education and connecting people to talent, domain experts, sources of investment and other resources. Those of you who know me or who have read my blog and book over the years might not be surprised at the direction I describe below. 

Update December 2017. At this point I have been running programs for five years. This is how the experience has influenced the way I look at advising startups: What I Learned Running Startup Programs on Three Continents over Five Years.

Observations.

Today all students and alumni, at USC or elsewhere, have to learn about and practice entrepreneurship, whether they realize it or not. Entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial thinking is no longer an option. This is unlike my experience when I was in school. Back then, there were still abundant and stable (so we thought) corporate careers that offered long-term growth. The burst dotcom and telecom bubbles were also still fresh in the collective memory. The association of “entrepreneurship” with “dotcom” or ”startup” was a dangerous one that neither reflected reality nor helped those that made the association, as young graduates took career steps that reflected the past more than the future or what would serve them better in the following decades.

Over the last ten years, an at first quiet and then deafening rework of thought about how to build new companies took place both within and outside the university. These movements gained popularity in the tech community but were also partly based on work done earlier in manufacturing and scientific exploration.

There are more good resources and content available on entrepreneurship than ever before and yet people still question the results of this output and tools and processes. That’s fine. I question pieces of it myself.

Some programs are built around inexpensively churning through large portfolios of companies with the expectation that the true survivors will identify themselves over time. As long as equity is taken in a large enough portfolio then the long game provides enough upside to run the program. (As long as the program is beneficial and can last long enough.)

Some programs are built around education, trying to give founders the tools to become more successful, faster. The growth in programs like these shows that there is demand for knowledge beyond what many universities currently provide.

There are business models based on selling hope and fun to entrepreneurs. There is a lot of talk and little follow through.

There are many opportunities to learn and practice entrepreneurship at and around USC, from courses to clubs to other programs. There are many students and alumni to serve, many of which are not yet being served.

Entrepreneurship is broader than tech startups.

Sometimes, a great way to thrive is to avoid what everyone else does, as long as there is a reason.

Investment Thesis.

1. Invest in good teams, before they prove their businesses and see how they maintain the pace of learning.

  • Invest in teams that are coachable (who don’t know everything yet), that have thecapability to build (this will be different depending on the business), that demonstrate commitment and drive, and that will be engaged membersof the Incubator community.
  • Be open to different business types. This Incubator supports entrepreneurs, whether they run scalable tech startups, product companies or even boutique businesses. There is plenty to learn while operating each type of business. The program supports selected entrepreneurial teams regardless of their interest or attractiveness to typical investors.
  • Set milestones to track progress, based on learning objectives (data from running experiments etc) rather than milestones better suited to a stable business (increase sales by 20% etc). Based on achieving learning milestones, bring in more resources to help the teams.

2. Teach skills that will serve the entrepreneurs well in any economic climate or business stage they may find themselves.

  • If you are a current student building a business that depends on raising a large amount of financing but the market tanks by the time you graduate, that’s beyond your control but also a risk that you could have defended yourself against.
  • Teach skills and give repeated practice in bootstrapping, how to do customer interviews (and get good at them), develop and test business models, understand customer segments, get distribution, generate revenue and present the opportunity. The word “teach” is probably misleading given that the founders apply these skills directly to their work. We really look for change in behavior. This is workshopping plus time plus business application, coming together to equal experiential learning.

3. Do not judge potential Incubatees by perceived market size, at least not too soon.

  • There is a lack of awareness of how markets could develop. Often founders are told both to have niche focus and to also build massive companies. When you look at the historical assessments of Facebook or Uber, the two companies originally seemed like small opportunities because by looking at original market sizes we ignore growing past university students and changing passenger behavior, resulting in markets larger than anticipated.
  • The explanation that there is a baseline market size ($100M or $1B) below which a business is too constricted is an investor-centric worldview and one in which companies are only either highly scalable with good ROI or “lifestyle businesses” (profitable for the entrepreneur, not for the investor). I once heard a judge tell a student founder that his $8M business was too small to be interesting. If I were 20 years old, like the founder, I’d really like to run an $8M business.

4. Shorten cycle time, especially in these key areas.

  • Shorten the discovery cycle. Connect entrepreneurs to potential customers and train them (see point 2) in how to interview and learn from these potential customers, use metrics to learn from data and learn to assess what they need to build. Make connections to alumni and others in the community who may guide this process.
  • Shorten the development cycle. Connect entrepreneurs to developers, designers and business talent for specific project work or to team members who can deliver on these functions full-time. Connect throughout the university.
  • Shorten the operational cycle. Provide legal, corporate structuring, tax and other resources. Help entrepreneurs do the things that they don’t need to be good at personally, but which if ignored lead to problems later on.

5. Bring in mentors selectively.

  • Where there is specific domain expertise needed, bring mentors in to meet teams one-on-one. I find that the level of communication that takes place when mentors dive deeply into business issues outweighs the benefits that the group gets from shared general advice.
  • Where there is common needed business knowledge, bring people in, but sparingly.
  • Avoid building a long list of mentors unless they are actively involved with the program. There are long published mentor lists at many programs, yet these lists are often there more to attract entrepreneurs rather than to show the activity of (often rarely engaged) mentors.

6. Avoid activities that are quick, easy and which attract a lot of attention if they do not produce stronger founders and businesses.

  • Getting (and measuring) results requires time but parading Hollywood versions of a new business is relatively easy. That means that the market often defaults to doing the things that get attention – events that may attract big crowds, but which do not do that much for the entrepreneurs they are there to serve.
  • As an entrepreneur with a limited number of hours in the day, I believe that you should spend your time with customers and working on your business, rather than attending many gatherings (unless the events are packed with your customers).
  • Avoid feel-good celebrity visits that produce no lasting effects. If you need inspiration, I suggest you get it from looking at how delighted your customers become when you deliver and make their lives better. Or, find local heroes that will still be around and invested in your success.

7. Build around the strengths and needs of USC and Los Angeles.

  • Develop a program that benefits from the strengths of the area, eventually tying in with local industry and problems / opportunities.
  • Build for what will strengthen USC and Los Angeles even more.
  • In the future, add a “looking for people building solutions to —” component of the application to fast track certain types of businesses.

If this perspective moves you, join us!

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