How I Got Here

Call it entrepreneurship via reverse engineering. Or if you're Jim Robbins's wife, Linda Schuck, you might just call it weird. Robbins, long a successful lawyer and executive, had talked for years about starting a business. He just didn't have a clue what kind -- or even what industry he wanted to be in. But he knew how he wanted work to feel. "How can you start a business if you don't know what you want to do?" asked Schuck, who has had her own management consulting company for 17 years. Replied Robbins, "I'll know it when I see it."

In the early 1990s, Robbins -- who's now 55 -- had already been a trial attorney in Boston, a judicial fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, and a business manager at Digital Equipment Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif. At DEC he was charged with developing new engineering operations, or quasi companies. His mandate was to hire talented engineers and then help them turn their ideas into viable businesses. "I loved the start-up phase and finding the right people," Robbins says. But he didn't like coping with the repercussions of business failure. "I didn't like shutting things down," he says.

In fact, there were numerous opportunities for him to throw in his lot with departing engineers who were unable to generate enough revenues to satisfy DEC but aimed to try on their own. But he didn't like how that felt, either. "I wanted to be the person with the vision," says Robbins. "Otherwise it was too much like working for someone else."

By then he'd noodled around with his own start-up ideas for years. A racquetball-related company? The sports trend was too far along; Robbins wanted something cutting-edge. Fax on demand? It was cutting-edge enough when Robbins considered it 10 years ago, but he didn't have the needed technological expertise and wasn't crazy about taking on a partner. He mulled over a public-relations firm specializing in young tech companies. But he knew he didn't have a spin doctor's temperament. "I didn't have an idea that I thought was the best ever -- and with a start-up you need to feel that you have the best idea that ever came down the pike," he says.

Then, in 1992, Robbins arrived home one night with an in-flight magazine he had picked up on a coast-to-coast trip. "He pointed to a story on incubators," recalls Schuck. "And he said, 'This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to start technology incubators."

At the time, there were just a few such incubators in the United States, so the idea met Robbins's "cutting edge" criterion. But more important, he envisioned a business that would meet his psychic and emotional needs in a way that his previous work had not. "I would be spending all my time working with start-ups and technology companies," he says. "And it was an area that was growing, but the market hadn't yet been clearly established. It just felt right."

Robbins persuaded a downsizing DEC to let him use excess office space, furniture, and equipment to start an incubator within the company. The result, the Digital Enterprise Cluster, was a prototype that tested his idea. Six months later he left DEC and began starting his own "business clusters" -- the label he prefers to incubator. Along the way, he continued to refine his business model and his own role to suit his needs. "I create a business plan, locate the physical site, hire and train people, write the marketing plan to attract start-ups, then screen and select the initial applicants," he explains. "When my team leaves, the incubator is up and running and full."

In six years his company, Business Cluster Development, has started 13 technology-related incubators.

The company fits into the mental niche that Robbins dreamed about. "I'm always in the creation process," he says. "And I feel good about what I do almost all the time."

Donna Fenn is a contributing editor at Inc.

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