Accelerator != Incubator (and why it matters)

Well-meaning normal: “So Founders Co-op is an incubator?”

Me (cringing): “Umm, no, I actually hate that word”

Why does the word “incubator” make my skin crawl? Here’s why…

I’m a word geek, so I’m hypersensitive to the nuances of language, but I firmly believe that words have incredible power: they’re full of latent meanings that shape attitudes and behavior, often in ways we aren’t even fully aware of.

To me, “Incubator” reeks of the era — not very long ago in years, but a lifetime in cultural terms — when capital mattered more than talent.

Unpack the word incubator and you get something like the image above — it’s loaded with assumptions like:

  • Capital + institutions are the most powerful forces in the economy.
  • Digital creatives need the support and protection of capital + institutions to succeed.
  • A big chunk of the value created by success should be captured by the providers of capital and sources of institutional validation.

It happened so fast that a lot of folks haven’t realized it yet, but that world is gone, and it’s not coming back.
TechStars calls itself the “#1 startup accelerator in the world” [emphasis added]. Why is “accelerator” a better description for what TechStars (or Y Combinator, or any other maker-centric accelerator program) does than “incubator”?
To my sensitive ears, “accelerator” carries a completely different values payload:
  • “Makers” — the digital creative class — are unleashing massive cultural and economic change.
  • Enabling that change — by connecting makers with high-performing peers and mentors — will accelerate the disruption we all know is coming.
  • Capital + institutions have a role, but they don’t call the shots, and they can’t demand a bigger share of the pie than they deserve.
I love Chris Dixon’s crystal-clear framing of the choice between incumbents and insurgents:

“Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will.  People, companies, investors and even countries can’t stop this transformation. The only choice you have is whether you join the side of innovation and progress or you don’t.”

The distinction between “Incubator” and “Accelerator” may seem like semantics to people whose daily lives don’t revolve around tech, but to me the choice is as clear and stark as Chris describes.

The future of the global economy — communication, retail, entertainment, finance, education, health care, nearly every industry that matters — is now in the hands of the makers.

In industry after industry, the maker class is pulling back the curtain on the great and powerful Oz of incumbency and capital.

User-centered design, lean/agile methods, open source, cloud, SaaS, PaaS, mobile — a perfect storm of disruption is gathering momentum, and it will continue to sweep away companies and eviscerate markets with astonishing speed.

No matter where you sit in the global economy, the only defense against the accelerating disruption being wrought by technology is total offense: embrace the maker class with full conviction, empower them with all the tools and resources at your disposal, and drag the resistors in your organization kicking and screaming onto the bus.

The maker class isn’t in need of adult supervision. Help them get where they’re going or get the fuck out of the way.