Google's Got an Idea Incubator. Should You?

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-05-05 Email Print this article Print
Google's Idea Incubator

Google is launching 'Area 120' to accelerate employee startups. Every firm needs something like it to address employee retention, nimbleness and competitiveness.

6. The ability to scale: Some ideas require massive scale in terms of either customers, compute resources or other factors. If you think about Uber, for example, the success of that company relies entirely on rapidly expanding in many countries around the world. Other startups need massive compute or storage power.

What's interesting about Google is that all of these six conditions are present—possibly more than in any other company in the world. Given how thoroughly Google's culture and policies are positioned to succeed with these criteria, the existence of a startup incubator is almost incidental.

What an Idea Incubator Can Mean for Your Business

Few companies have the resources, staff and culture necessary to launch into the types of businesses that Google does. And few are as well-positioned to benefit from an in-house incubator like Area 120 as Google is.

However, the problems Google is trying to solve are far more universal. For example, if you don't give your creative, energetic and enterprising employees some reason to stay, they'll leave—possibly to launch a startup that will later compete with you.

If you're not willing to compete with your existing business by coming up with better and more digital or innovative ideas, then someone else will.

One universal problem at companies across the globe is the ubiquity of "ideas" at meetings. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and people express them because it's an easy way for them to feel like they're making a contribution.

They're almost always without consequence. "We should double the sales staff." "Our company should take over our delivery partners' business by doing all the delivery ourselves." Or the ever popular, "We need to build an app."

Ideas are easy to propose, but they rarely lead to anything.

What's great about in-house incubators is that they channel ideas into testable businesses, programs or initiatives. First, the ideas have to pass the test of acceptability. Then, if funded, they have to pass the test of reality.

What's needed at businesses of all sizes and types is a process by which ideas that emerge within the company can be tested, and, if found promising, implemented. This process needs to be applied to big ideas—bold new business initiatives—and small ideas, such as minor tweaks to how the company operates.

The existence of processes by which ideas can be tested is rare. Yet it's vital for the long-term survival and success of many companies.

At a minimum, there must be a set of well-thought-out criteria for new ideas worth the investment of some time and resources. An ad-hoc team must be formed to explore the idea, to develop metrics for success and  to establish a deadline.

Instead of meetings ending with, "Someone in the company really should do that," they can end with, "Come back in a week with a formal proposal for the team, including metrics and a time-frame." And then go from there.

No, your company isn't Google. But the problems of employee retention, nimbleness and competitiveness against upstarts and other companies are universal in business. And they are vital to business innovation and longevity.

In other words, every company needs a Google-like Area 120—or something that addresses the same problems while fostering viable solutions.


Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger.


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