Interview with Cheryl Reynolds, CEO of SODA Inc, Hamilton’s Business Incubator and Accelerator

I’m on a mission to establish a Business Incubator in Tauranga next year.

Part 1 of this mission is to learn from people who have already succeeded.

So last week I spent an amazing, inspiring, uplifting 3 hours with Cheryl Reynolds the CEO of SODA Inc and Rachel Wark, the Communications Manager (thanks for making so much time for me guys!).

As a bonus I brought my good friend Alistair McMahon with me who shares my passion for start-ups and marketing.

Wow. What an incubator. They have achieved so much in just 3 short years and 3 days (their birthday was last Monday).

Here are my notes about SODA Inc.

What is SODA Inc?

  • SODA Inc is a fusion of incubator/accelerator + cluster
  • The cluster is a fusion of StartUps and Existing Industry
  • Lesson for me: I think that sometimes existing industry can see StartUp’s as nimble, agile threat’s that are determined to steal business from them, so I love to see that SODA is working at bridging the gap between startups and existing industry and pointing out the opportunity for both

Empowering story’s everywhere

  • The SODA Inc identity is fused to the building and it’s rich history as a soda bottling plant in the 1900
  • Each company which has been carefully selected to be included in the incubator has a story: a history, a present, and a future
  • One tenant of note is Alistair Grigg, COO of Xero. Alastair oversees all aspects of Xero product development and service delivery, from design to customer support, but from Hamilton where he chooses to live with his family. How 2012 is that??
  • Lesson for me: Make sure I have a story to tell. People love stories, they identify with stories, they believe stories.

There is a empowered women component:

  • It starts with in the 1870’s when Mary Jane Innes seized control of the brewery business, from her inept husband and made it a roaring success
  • Cheryl herself her started planning SODA 8 years ago and now runs it
  • And now Rachel Wark as the communication’s manager
  • Many of the incubated businesses are either women run and women led
  • Lesson for me: About damn time. Hooray for the end of the male dominated business sector

A beautifully designed and modern space

  • The design of the space is a fusion of open plan but partitions/cubicles to provide a workspace you can call your own
  • No doors, but doorways for a distinct feeling of territory (good for minimising distractions)
  • Lesson for me: The “wow” factor is so important. It’s essential to create a space that has form and function and design so the residents feel good, but also it needs to impress the daily visitors

It’s hard to get in. It’s harder to stay in

  • Cheryl: “We are not for profit, not for loss”
  • The entry criteria is very strict, and must be so. All incubated companies must have exceptional stories, exceptional growth potential, and with a global expansion focus
  • If an incubated company doesn’t double it’s key metric every 6 months they are out
  • Lesson for me: I love that! It keeps the residents motivated to push forward and the SODA team/mentors to push forward too 

Who funded it to get it off the ground?

  • Once the company was formed, the Hamilton Council donated the space
  • Wintec provided initial funding for the fit out
  • NZTE approached SODA and now the programmes are NZTE accredited
  • Lesson for me: An interesting hybrid between public funding grants and private investment

Opened in 2009 but when did the work really begin?

  • pre-2004: Cheryl’s series of successes, failures and exits
  • 2004: Cheryl started planning SODA
  • 2008: Board formed and corporate sponsors in
  • 2009: Open for business
  • Lesson for me: The public only sees the 3 year history when the doors opened, but so much work had to happen to lead up to that point

Building an ecosystem

  • SODA is growing not just a StartUp ecosystem for Hamilton, but for New Zealand.
  • Alongside it’s day to day activities they have a number of initiatives in place that don’t directly contribute to their own key metrics but are happening because they contribute to strengthening and growing the eco-system
  • One such initiative is “SODA Labs”: The CEO’s of 3 external, well established companies (plus 1 wildcard from the incubator) are invited into the room for 90 mins. Often those CEO’s walk out with a long standing competitive dispute resolved or a joint venture. SODA provides the neutral venue
  • Lesson for me: I love the idea of building an ecosystem that benefits everyone

What’s Next?

A visit to Bizdojo in Auckland.

2 Replies to “Interview with Cheryl Reynolds, CEO of SODA Inc, Hamilton’s Business Incubator and Accelerator”

  1. Hi Sheldon,
    I agree, it was an eye-opening trip to Soda. Super impressed with what has been achieved, great example of how to get an incubator off the ground and making an impact.

    Cheers

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