I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s book The Purple Cow. The big takeaway for me after reading it was:

Rather than focus on traditional advertising, a company should first seek to be truly innovative. If it is innovative, it will be remarkable. If it’s remarkable, word of it will spread quickly… and word-of-mouth is the best form of marketing you can have going for your company.

As you think about finding more incubator applicants and marketing your program, I first suggest making sure your incubator is a Purple Cow. In other words, is the result you create for entrepreneurs — your value proposition — really novel/unique/differentiated? If an entrepreneur saw your incubator next to ten other startup development programs in the ecosystem, why would yours stick out to them? Why would they want to immediately reach out to you?

The innovativeness of an incubator (its facility, programs, and system for helping companies create connections) will lead directly to success stories from your graduating clients. And those success stories, if truly powerful enough, should lead to new incubator applicants. Success, if it’s strong enough for long enough, speaks for itself. But in my experience, when an incubator is new and doesn’t have many stories to tell yet, entrepreneurs won’t automatically flock to you. You often have to go find them.

Beyond giving tours of your facility, handing out brochures, posting flyers, writing press releases, and crafting social media posts, how can you actually “shake the entrepreneurs out of the bushes” and get them to see what you have to offer?

Here are 8 Ways I’ve Found Incubator Applicants:

1. Patent Search

Step 1: Go to http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-adv.htm

Step 2: In the Query box, type: IC/City (Replace “City” with your town’s name).

Step 3: Starting from the top of the list (patents issued most recently) look for patents from local inventors. Note their name, track down their contact information (LinkedIn or Facebook), and then reach-out to see if you can help.

2. LinkedIn Search

Step 1: Go to https://www.linkedin.com/

Step 2: In the search box at the top-left type “Entrepreneur” or “Inventor”. Then, on the right-hand side, click Locations, Click Add, and type your town’s name.

Step 3: Look-through the list of people, connect, and introduce yourself!

3. Crowdfunding Sites & Angel List

Step 1: On a crowdfunding site like https://www.kickstarter.com/ or https://www.indiegogo.com (or on https://angel.co/ where you must also be logged-in for this to work), type your town’s name into the main search box.

Step 2: Click on the individual projects which result, and find-out who the creator is for each one.

Step 3: Establish contact via the website’s message tool or by looking their name up on a social media site.

4. Business License Registrations 

Step 1: If your city or county requires a business or occupational license, find-out where records of recent applications are normally posted (typically in a local newspaper and/or on their website.)

Step 2: Scan this list periodically for new businesses which sound like they may fit your incubation model.

Step 3: Establish contact with the entrepreneurs you are interested in via social media. (Hopefully you’re noticing a pattern here…)

5. Google & Twitter Alerts

Step 1: Setup both a Google Alert ( https://www.google.com/alerts ) and a Twitter Alert ( https://www.twilert.com/ ) for search terms including: “Your City’s Name” + [“Entrepreneur” and/or + “Startup” and/or + “Inventor”].

Step 2: Opt to receive a digest of alerts either daily or weekly. You’ll receive an email to your inbox listing all of the people who mentioned those terms.

Step 3: If you come-across a tweet or new content via Google which seems like it may be from an area entrepreneur… you guessed it… reach-out using social media.

6. Meetups & Mixers

Step 1: Go to http://www.meetup.com/ and search for entrepreneur, inventor, and tech meetups in your area. (You may think you know all of them, but just try it!)

Step 2: If you find a meetup you’re not familiar with (I did!) RSVP to attend. (P.S. If you don’t find a meetup, create one!)

Step 3: Network, network, network. And if you find a Meetup group needing a new place to meet, offer them your incubator! (We discovered a small local tech group was meeting at a restaurant. Now they meet at our facility, and we’ve gained four new incubator clients as a result.)

7. Craigslist (Yes, Craigslist… this actually works for me.)

Step 1: Go to https://craigslist.org and make sure to select either your town or the area closest to yours.

Step 2: Click “post to classifieds” at the top left to create a new listing (for free). Create your listing under the category: Service Offered > Small Biz Ads

Step 3: Title your ad something like “We help entrepreneurs in [insert city name].” Craigslist will also allow you to attach a photos to your post. You might choose to include your program’s logo, a screenshot of your flyer, and interior shots of your facility. In all forms of marketing, I also recommend including a few testimonials from entrepreneurs you’ve worked with (given an entrepreneur’s permission to do so, of course).

8. Tradeshows 

Step 1: Go to a tradeshow database like this one: http://www.expodatabase.com/trade-shows-america/usa/

Step 2: Search either an industry your incubator typically serves (i.e. IT, food/beverage, or manufacturing) OR lookup all shows coming to a city near you.

Step 3: Register for a show as an attendee. Walk the floor of the show, and you may just find a few entrepreneurs in the crowd pitching their products for the first time. Bring plenty of business cards and program brochures.

The easy part is doing all of these things once. The hard part is doing all of these consistently.

In fact, I recommend scheduling time on your calendar to conduct the above searches at least once a month to find incubator applicants. If your incubator makes use of interns or volunteers, having them work on these outreach efforts will be a great lesson in marketing for them (not to mention a time saver for you.)

But in the end remember: Do an outstanding job of meeting and exceeding the needs of the entrepreneurs you find… and you’ll one day become a Purple Cow who won’t need to find anyone at all. They’ll find you.


About the Author: Ryan Lilly

Vice President of Business Creation for the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP) in Ocala, Florida.

There he serves as a catalyst for the creation, attraction and growth of startup companies at the Power Plant Business Incubator. He also enjoys speaking and writing about new ideas in economic development and entrepreneur support. For more information visit www.RyanLilly.com