Background: In 1946 George Orwell wrote his short essay 'The Moon Under Water', describing what his dream pub would look like. Heavily influenced by this (in fact, some paragraphs are nearly identical), I have decided to write a modern version of Orwell's essay, describing my dream startup incubator.
The startup incubator I was accepted to, Fat Tony's, is only two minutes from a tube station in central London, but it is on a side-street, and neither noisy traffic nor bearded hipster seem to find their way there, even at rush hour. You can always get a seat on the train, and despite being central, the commute never feels that long.
The incubator itself is above a pub, named Fat Tony's, and next door to a gym, also named Fat Tony's, for you see, they are one and the same.
If you were asked what you look for in an incubator, it would seem natural to say things like VC connections, reputation, investment, and unicorn alumni, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Fat Tony's is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.
To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly old fashioned. It has no white shiny desks, ping pong tables or other startup clichés. The offices are many but small, not open plan, allowing for the deep focus of uninterrupted work that is required to be creative. The dark woodgrain desks, the patterned carpet, the photos of family that adorn many desks (replacing infantile figurines and 'hacker' stickers) — everything has the homely, comfortable, pastiche that modern offices lack.
The pub below (of the same name) is open to the public, but also acts as an informal break out area and discussion space. In fact, all residents are encouraged to spend at least one day a week working from the pub. The same goes for the gym next door. By being open to the public, Fat Tony's has a semi-permeable membrane, and encourages serendipitous, real world encounters in its communal areas, unlike the closed campuses of big tech, which lead to monoculture.
All residents of the incubator spend half a day a week working at the pub or the gym, collectively operating them. They learn customer service, accounts, sales, operations, and teamwork. Transferable skills that can be applied to any real world business.
In Fat Tony's it is always quiet enough to talk, and gossip. Headphones are banned, and people are encouraged to get up and physically talk to people as much as possible.
Everyone knows everyone by name, and takes a personal interest in each other. The residents are not all coders in their twenties —there is a broad range of age, gender, background, and business ideas.
Unlike most office environments, having a lunchtime pint is allowed, as is working your own hours. Traditional meeting culture is almost non-existent. The email servers are rigged to only operate for a few hours a day.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Fat Tony's is the investment model. Its founders understand ergodicity - and encourage residents to take small, 'low cost' bets, to tinker, and do not rely on a handful of unicorns to offset heavy casualties. The founders care about the success of the incubator at an individual level, not just an ensemble one.
Another great surprise of Fat Tony's is its amphitheatre. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the back of the pub, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with a traditional, small, open air Roman-eque amphitheatre.
On summer evenings there are talks and performances, and you sit under the summer sky having a beer and listening to incubator residents speak, sing, perform... any topic that takes their fancy. Not a PowerPoint slide in sight. It is pure oratory with the occasional prop. Many as are the virtues of the Fat Tony's, I think that the amphitheatre is my favourite.
Fat Tony's is my ideal of what a startup incubator should be—at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of an American incubator are probably different).
But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as Fat Tony's.
That is to say, there may well be an incubator of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any incubator with just that combination of qualities, but, to be fair, I do know of a few incubators that almost come up to Fat Tony's. I would very much like to realise my dream of creating Fat Tony's one day, though its name may end up being something as prosaic as Accel or Matrix.