A Different Take on Startup Incubation

March 31, 2007 Pivotal Labs

About a year and a half ago, Pivotal Labs started a new practice, focused on product-led startups. It’s not the traditional VC/EIR model though. With Pivotal, our clients are the ones with the product vision. They’re the entrepreneurs. We focus on bootstrapping development, and getting the engineering effort going. We’re just here to make sure the technology works, and that engineering execution doesn’t get in the way.

When we take on a project, we like to hit the ground running. We seed the project with an experienced team, ready to begin executing immediately on the client’s product vision. As the vision grows and changes, our team adapts. Usually the client will start hiring their development team as development continues. Often, we’ll help them recruit and interview. Then we’ll weave their new folks into the team, teaching them the code base, and all our techniques as well. We want to make sure that when we’re done with the project, their team can move into the next phase of development with confidence, and keep things running smoothly.

When our clients already have an established development team, we weave our developers in with theirs, and co-develop with them. If they’re new to agile, we teach them agile practices by doing, as we write code with them. Rather than dropping in with a day-long lecture based on toy problems, and then vanishing into the sunset, we show them how agile works, in their own development environment. We fill in any gaps in their design, modeling and testing skills, and generally improve development practices as we go. Once they’re self-sufficient, we weave our developers back out, and move on to the next engagement.


Rob Mee, our founder and CEO, likes to borrow a phrase from the civil engineering world to describe how we engage with start-ups: Build-Operate-Transfer. When an enterprise is first getting started, they typically don’t have the engineering resources to get going quickly, and can lose months of lead-time trying to build a team. That’s where we come in: Our job is to take our clients from a standing start to a fully functional product, something we can typically do in a few months. Once things are up and running, we’re ready to turn over the reins, and let their team run things for themselves.


One thing that’s special about us is that we can vary the team size on demand. During the early stages of development, start-ups will often have big fluctuations in workload. We can ramp the team size up or down, depending on development objectives and financing constraints. We can develop at full speed for a week, a month, or a year, then stop on a dime—and stop burning capital—and stop for as long as it takes for the client to close a funding round, or get some traction in the marketplace, or decide on the next round of features. Our clients are done with us when they decide they’re done. Their business goals and product needs are always in the driver’s seat.

We strive to be a strategic partner for our clients. We are not an outsourcing firm but instead work to get our clients self-sufficient. We believe our approach offers a unique balance between the short term need for execution and the long term need of sustainability.

About the Author


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