AppDirect Developer Incubator: Entrepreneurship with a safety net

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 4, 2012

From The News Desk

People will do strange things to build their companies. Living on AOL's couches for months, sleeping on the unforgiving floors of friends, opting to build a product over a cushy corporate position -- these are the things that make people talk about a founder and his faith in whatever he's building.

Some would-be entrepreneurs, however, recognize the danger of flying too close to the sun and hold themselves back to avoid a potential fall to earth. These are the people who want to build an app or company but aren't willing to trade their (and, often, their families') livelihood to make their ideas happen. Now, with the AppDirect Developer Incubator program, AppDirect wants to let these slightly more risk-averse people fly without having to worry about silly things like total financial ruin.

AppDirect takes the whole "bring your own device" movement and tweaks it to "bring your own software." (Other potential meanings behind the BYOS initialism may be better left unsaid.) Companies are able to use the platform to give employees a bit of freedom while keeping the IT department happy on the security front. It already offers things like Google Apps, Symantec, and Box, and the company hopes that this new incubator program will help expand the marketplace further.

"There are a lot of engineers out there who want to start their own companies," Co-CEO Daniel Saks says. "Y Combinator might not be the right avenue, and quitting their job and starting from scratch might not be what they want. So we want to essentially be a place where people feel comfortable exploring their passions and opportunities."

The incubator, funded by AppDirect's revenues, is open to employees who have been with the company for at least two years. Rather than going with a Google-esque "20 percent time" for personal projects, employees will be able to work on their companies full-time once they've paid their dues at AppDirect. Saks says that this incubation period before the incubation period (yes, we did just get that meta) is meant to give employees the opportunity to learn leadership skills and earn a steady paycheck while working on their own products.

Companies will then present their ideas to AppDirect investor iNovia to (hopefully) get a bit of seed funding (good luck with that Series A!) and leave the company to build it out. And if the new company doesn't work out, for whatever reason, Saks says that AppDirect will gladly re-hire its "graduates" and continue the cycle anew. This seems like a win-win-win for AppDirect, its investors, and its employees, an opportunity to foster creativity within AppDirect, and (if it works) the Valley.

Perhaps AppDirect's biggest challenge will also be its greatest asset: Mitigating the potential for failure. A lack of risk can probably produce a few perfectly fine companies. But "perfectly fine" does not a smash-hit make. If the company's goal is to create a few sustainable businesses and keep smart people from settling in any one company for too long, great. Everyone involved will probably be happy. But is this the way of the future?

It's hard to tell. On the one hand, it's clear that accelerators and incubators are tightening their belts – even Y Combinator, arguably the most successful (and certainly the loudest) of the bunch is dialing back on its "classes" – and AppDirect is doing its best to avoid this issue. On the other, sometimes it takes a little kick and a big risk to build something truly great.

Every once in a while, we need an entrepreneur willing to bet it all on a single idea to test the limits and fly high. Crashing and burning isn't any fun, sure, but sometimes the lack of a safety net makes people jump further than they would have otherwise.