Relevance is one of the most significant strategic challenges in the cultural sector, in a world increasingly disrupted by technology and saturated by competition for public attention. As the museum’s role in society grows into guardianship not just of the past, but the present and now the future; innovation and entrepreneurship have become part of that challenge. Outside of the not for profit sector, corporations dealing with similar issues have turned to industry incubators and accelerators, working with early stage companies to nurture new ideas to market. Building from successful independent programs such as YCombinator, this partnering approach is particularly popular in specialized digital areas such as fintech, healthtech and agritech.
On opposite sides of the globe, the musetech equivalent has been paved by NewMuseum’s NewInc, founded 2014 in New York and Te Papa Tongarewa’s Mahuki, founded 2016 in Wellington. Accelerators promise to introduce digital experience innovation to the cultural sector, disrupt internal museum strategy and inspire osmosis style cultural change in the form of corporate entrepreneurship. Incubee companies may be dedicated to serving the cultural agenda or utilize the museum as a proof point for broader applicability, across a range of for profit or non profit business models. Ultimately, their goal will be to validate their place in the world, prove out their concept and pave a road to scale. Here, we look at five critical success factors to achieving this vision.
Mandate, strategic application and leadership experience
At Te Papa, the Museum’s government mandate includes an objective to ‘meet the challenges of the future’. With an exceptional leadership team experienced in doing just that, Chief Executive Rick Ellis drew from his experience establishing telecommunications incubator Muru-D at Telstra in Sydney, working together with Chief Digital Officer Melissa Firth to embed this mission firmly in the Museum’s digital strategy. The Museum appointed Tui Te Hau as Innovation Hub General Manager, bringing an impressive resume heading a number of national innovation and acceleration programs. Te Papa’s story is a showcase example aligning mandate through strategic leadership for en pointe execution.
Embracing commercial influence
It is also a beautiful testimony of the power in communication the leadership’s experience in the commercial practicalities of start ups for the benefit of the wider community, explaining that while the Museum might see quick wins in the form of idea validation within the year, they equally may have a 10 year wait for an exit event that might self sustain program financials. On these horizons, the importance of selling the vision cannot be underestimated, especially with the million dollar mission requiring government funding, corporate sponsorship and private investment towards a full time management team, dedicated facilities and seed funding. Te Papa funded each company in a 10 team cohort with a $20,000 seed stake for a percentage of equity, encouraging commercial partners such as Vodafone to make additional direct partnership subsidies and offer benefits to individual teams, all the while knowing startup statistics suggest a liquidity event will be the exception rather than the rule.
Lab, incubator, accelerator or hybrid model
Clarity on the program’s positioning is crucial. NewInc’s 12 month set is specifically billed as an incubator – a place for seeding ideas. Comparatively, in an accelerator, teams instead focus on achieving solution fit. By serving early stage businesses, both are specifically directed at not just building solutions, but companies. This means a focus first and foremost on the entrepreneur – sometimes before the concept itself. Given most start ups will pivot from their original idea, the application process (often combined with a pitch competition) will typically focus on selecting the best teams rather than the most developed ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, the program might recommend a ‘reverse pitch’ laundry list, either from the Museum’s own inhouse challenges or wider industry in the local community. At [Re]verse in Texas, mindful environmentalists do just that, pulling together business waste and by-products to inspire social innovation.
Program design, timing and the pruning dilemma
One of the most powerful steps a program can take is to partner with an existing content provider, involve the business community for lecturing or mentoring and work within the start up ecosystem, rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel in what can be an overcrowded space. The well subscribed ‘lean start up’ model, such as that at Techstars, distills success down to traction metrics with a step by step process counteracting entrepreneur bias. Firstly, the idea needs to be validated as a real problem with a ready market, then the solution assessed for product market fit, before the company begins to think about scale. Replacing ‘9 – 5’ attitudes with an almost 24 hour sprint pace guided by a volunteer advisory board, this is a race against the clock with the start up’s financial runway often requiring taxing capital raising of angel investment, the threat of competition hot on the heels and the idea that successful start ups learn exceptionally fast. At breakneck speed, 3 – 6 months in program length can see success emerge without reaching the point of total physical burn out. Preferably, programs should be timed with the cultural sector’s prime period of April – September, leverage industry events and leave room for a 3 month capital raise before year end. Courses usually build towards a peak, requiring entrepreneurs to climb a metaphorical mountain of personal achievement, in the form of a showcase or demo day pitch to launch products or raise capital. The most taxing dilemma will be whether to prune teams not keeping up the pace or ultimately failing to be pitch ready.
Collaboration and access
Lastly, the biggest gift a museum can offer a start up is access to collaborators. Whether this involves the visiting public for visitor experience innovation, access to the museum team for enterprise solutions or the museum’s wider business network, start ups need rapid and frequent exposure to real customers for rigorous validation. A work space that doubles as a prototype lounge will not only facilitate this objective, but also satisfy a curious visiting public. Likewise, speed dating, presentation events and feedback interactives provide valuable validation platforms unique to the cultural institution.
Bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘beyond the walls’, the end relevance to the museum of curating entrepreneurship extends beyond increased visitation, improved experience or enhanced revenues. This is high risk, high return and a higher calling to fuel economic development, cultivate future leaders and change lives.