The Rise of the Startup Flex Space - 1

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The Rise of the Startup Flex Space - 1
Good CEOs don't want to be told how to run their companies. More often than not, that's a trait that separates successful startups from fledgling startups.

This is what Ranch Kimball and Cambridge Innovation Partners found to be the case when they sorted through the applicants looking to be housed at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a sprawling, ultra-flexible co-working and acceleration hub overlooking MIT.

The teams that needed the space and the resources the most, they discovered, were the ones that were already on their way to being viable companies. Those companies, it turns out, didn't need the mentoring side of the acceleration equation, they just needed a place to work and grow.

In response, the CIC scrapped its criteria for accepting entrepreneurs into their program and, as they threw open the doors to any startup who could foot the (reduced) bill, they retooled their offering to best fit the needs of those startups.

What that created is something that fits between a traditional accelerator -- certainly there is no cash or mentors or demo day -- and your everyday free coffee co-working space. It's like the American Underground in Durham or HUB Raleigh, two of the several places that Kimball visited on his tour of the Triangle, only it's 150K square feet of office space over seven floors overlooking the Charles River.

In other words, they've already been there and scaled that. And it's working.

I was invited to lunch with Kimball by the members of the Innovate Raleigh/HUB Raleigh team, and we talked about why CIC is working in Cambridge, and what might make it work differently or not at all in the Triangle.

CIC offers, to use Kimball's take, "everything but technology and sales" included as part of the rent, and there is no lease involved. Kimball wants the entrepreneurs to keep "every ounce of effort focused on hiring and building the product or selling the product." So they take care of everything else.

But there are two things they do that you may not see at your local co-working shop.

1) They're completely flexible, allowing the startups to increase or decrease their space needs at any given point. He says they move 25-30 companies per month within the center.

2) They have "around 45" events per month in the space, and they make the space available for free to anyone with an innovation or entrepreneur focus.

All of this means that they have awesome retention. Less than 2% of companies leave the CIC voluntarily, and another of their rules is that they never kick anyone out. Ever.

Of course, there are certain aspects of the Triangle that make a proposition like the CIC difficult to replicate here.

We're very spread out, for one. Even with the established physical hub in downtown Durham and the emerging hub in downtown Raleigh, there are still at least a dozen spots around the Triangle where groups of startups call home and/or congregate.

It's the aggregation of resources that makes most of what the CIC does possible.

But that doesn't mean it's impossible, just that it would have to be done a different way. That's why Kimball came to town, to talk about what he wants to do and figure out how to get it done here.

He also said he doesn't want to compete with American Underground and HUB Raleigh, who are both, in fact, adopting this model. In conversations I've had with both groups, they're perfectly content to leave the investing to the investors and the mentoring to the mentors, while at the same time fostering relationships with those entities.

CIC might be another partnership, or it may be competition. Either way it says something about the region that people who run places like this believe they could run one here.