AOL has been a focal point for Northern Virginia business since it arrived in Ashburn nearly two decades ago.
Deep in the bowels of the AOL complex, the company has jumped into the small business sector, using its unlimited technical resources to develop entrepreneurs and businesses one at a time.
Fishbowl Labs, the brainchild of co-founders and AOL executives Fletcher Jones, Bud Rosenthal and Brian McMahon, gives budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to grow their business from the ground up.
Classified as a small business incubator, Fishbowl Labs is owned and operated by AOL, but each business works independently from the technology pacesetter. Small start-up entrepreneurs work side by side benefiting from each others’ experiences and difficulties of starting a business.
Available AOL resources are extensive and include 24-7 access to the complex, mentors and access to functional expertise, office space, conference rooms, wireless connectivity, access to AOL amenities and testing availability on all technology platforms at no price.
The incubator was established in July 2012 as part of an ongoing culture change at AOL. Many of the first companies to be accepted were founded by AOL alumni. By the end of spring 2013, Fishbowl Labs had grown to 12 companies.
“A big part of turning this company around and making it great again is having a great culture. There were a handful of us here – myself and two co-founders – who thought it would be a good idea to actually bring entrepreneurs onto the campus as a way to model the kind of behavior that we want people to have in terms of the way they think, the way they work and the passion they have,” Jones said.
Speek may be the biggest success story at Fishbowl Labs, growing from three employees to 16 during the past year.
Speek is a conference call assistance provider that has thrived in the incubator. Jones acknowledged the company may be too big now, but he noted Speek has been “the life of the party,” proving to be an asset for the incubator as a whole.
Speek CTO Danny Boice recently said in an AOL Blog entry that Fishbowl has “all the great things that come with being a start-up as well as corporate environment so you have the best of both worlds.”
Another successful start-up to rise from the incubator is a service management software provider called Mhelpdesk.
COO Ryan Shank said in the same blog “Everyone is working together and helping each other, yet at the same time everyone has their eye on the prize for their own company.”
While most start-ups must find office space as well as equipment for operations, companies at Fishbowl Labs don’t have that problem.
“When companies come into the program they sign a lease agreement that covers the use of the space. We don’t charge any rent and we don’t take any equity in the company so there isn’t any money changing hands or anything,” Jones said. “There is a possibility however of another AOL entity investing in a Fishbowl Labs company.”
When AOL started Fishbowl Labs, it did so without a dedicated budget or money from the technology conglomerate. Fishbowl Labs was built from existing desks, computers and resources from other parts of AOL.
Since beginning the project, Jones and other co-founders have found that most companies participating gained traction and grew, while others either stopped coming, fizzled or chose a different path.
Around the beginning of the summer, the Fishbowl Labs co-founders got together to discuss what was working and what wasn’t.
With some of the businesses not working, Jones, Rosenthal and McMahon began holding quarterly reviews with each participating company to gauge progress.
“These quarterly meetings allow us to find out where the company is on raising money, how big the team is and progress toward its goal,” Jones said. “In our mind if the team gets too big or they start raising too much money it is time for them to go in a good way and if they are not getting traction or are not here a lot, then it may be time to cut ties. However each of these companies time with us is still loose and we examine each of them on a case by case basis.”
With several initial companies fizzling out or leaving Fishbowl Labs, Jones and crew have reopened the application process for new companies.
An important part of the Fishbowl Labs goal is providing the companies within the incubator the necessary tools to succeed. Mentors play a major role in that success as is the case with most start-up companies.
“We built a mentor program where I hand-picked a couple dozen AOL employees with expertise in either data, design or distribution … those mentors, through an online tool we have, schedule office hours and provide tech talks with the start-ups,” Jones said. “They are helping the start-ups with real stuff they can apply like how to use social media to build an audience and things like that.
“On the flip side of that, those AOLers are getting a personal development opportunity by becoming subject matter experts with someone else. It also provides a productive distraction from their day jobs, which everyone appreciates and it has been going very well,” Jones said.