62. Coompanion Inkubatorn
62.1. Short description
Coompanion is an organisation providing advice and education to people in the process of starting their own business. Coompanion is a national organisation. However, the national office is more of a service office for the relatively independent regional organisations (interview 3). Before the Incubator initiative the Coompanion Skåne (Skåne being a county in the south of Sweden) office was located in one of the office spaces in the Malmö Incubator (MINC). In that environment, the head of Coompanion Skåne came up with the idea of an incubator for young unemployed people, and that idea was made possible through financing from the European Social Fund. Coompanion Skåne is currently running the Coompanion Inkubator (incubator) at a new venue in central Malmö, where they are offering the Incubator to young unemployed who are registered with and directed by the national employment office Arbetsförmedlingen (AF). The users are supposed to be challenged, inspired, educated and motivated to set up their own business, be it private or organised as a cooperative.
Main cooperation partner of the Incubator is the national employment office, AF. The officer at AF is the person who decides whether or not a young unemployed person who applies is eligible to participate. These decisions determining participation are valid for 12 weeks, which means that a participant needs to stay in contact with his or her officer for the duration of the participation. After completing the 12 weeks, the participation can be prolonged for another 12 week period (interview 3). Coompanion and its Incubator is also cooperating with the so-called C-Företaget (the C-enterprise), an offspring enterprise to Coompanion. The idea behind C-Företaget is that the company can act as an employer and take over administrational responsibilities, for example for invoicing, so that a person can try out his or her business idea without being caught up in many heavy technical and administrational problems at the beginning (interview 3).
62.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
The Coompanion Inkubator is aimed at young unemployed people that are registered with AF. One can be up to 29 years old to participate. The aim is to break down the sometimes over-dramatised barriers and learn to have a playful approach towards entrepreneurship. At the Coompanion Inkubator, the staff seek to treat participants as equals and individuals with an idea, and as entrepreneurs (interview 3). Ideas and advice (and “entrepreneurial spirits”) are supposed to travel fast within the Incubator. One participant has the right contacts, another might have ideas, a third might have a special skill (interview 4). The logic is that when they come together, new and positive things can happen, and the processes behind action (starting up a new business) are speeded up and simplified. The group dynamics are important here, both for inspiration and creativeness and as a reference. Trust is mentioned an important issue. When people start to trust one another they immediately begin to share their knowledge, contacts and ideas (interview 3). The group can also function as a “little boss” to new entrepreneurs; one can use the group to make promises and the group will start asking questions. Most people need a “boss” to impress, according to an interviewee. The group can eliminate personal resistance and help one to take small steps in the “right direction”, once one has that structure to answer to (interview 3).
According to one of the key promoters, the initial idea with the Incubator was to encourage young unemployed who had a “latent” business idea. However, when the project met its first users and the doors to the Incubator were opened in January 2012 the organisers were surprised at a few things. Firstly, they did not realise that the people attending the Incubator would be as young as they were. Many came directly from secondary school and were naturally not used to taking personal responsibility for their career. Another surprising thing was that only a few of the participants were entitled to unemployment insurance funds, which meant that the participants were in a much more difficult economic situation than expected. They had a lower level of benefits from AF (so-called activation support) and/or with additional social security benefits. This came to have an impact on the project’s budget as well, with an initial loss for the Coompanion Inkubator (interview 3).
62.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
At the time of the study, 39 participants or entrepreneurs were attending the Incubator and about 100 had been in it since the start in January. The Incubator at Coompanion is part of two networks; one is an official steering group with Coompanion representatives, ESF representatives and AF-representatives. This network, among other things, deals with issues around recruiting participants. The other network is composed of entrepreneurial new enterprises, such as Nyföretagarcentrum (New Business Centre), MINC, Uppstart Malmö and so on. This network serves practical and inspirational needs, they can come in and meet the participants at the Coompanion Inkubator and share their experience and knowledge of starting up a new business. It also serves inspirational needs on the level of the project management. Uppstart Malmö, which is a company offering micro-loans and credit, has also visited the participants at the Coompanion Inkubator to look for businesses to support. However, they mostly support businesses with prospects of employing many people.
One peculiar circumstance for the Incubator is that participants “drop in” to the project whenever they get the “thumbs up” from their officer on AF. This has led to a rolling schedule of courses, which was not planned for. In the beginning, 30 participants started at the same time but that became too school-like, according to an interview. “The group became like a class and it was quite frustrating because our role became a fostering one and we had to say things like ‘it is not OK to arrive late; you will not be able to keep a customer if you arrive late’” (interview 3). The Incubator has been described as a chance for people to “grow”. The Incubator cannot choose the participants, nor decide that they be engaged. What it can do is to encourage the right kind of “mind-set”. “We can say to someone that you have exactly the right kind of mind-set, we would like you to become more of a role model in this group. That inspires the person, which inspires the core group. The larger the core group, the more people want to participate, that’s how we work. It is energy giving energy” (interview 3).
62.4. Impact on the governance of local welfare systems
The ESF has a model for co-financing, which has caused problems in budget calculations for the Coompanion Inkubator. The model is supposed to be an incentive to get the project management to work harder to find more participants. The ESF does not want empty projects and venues and the system is based on more funds for more participants. However, this system grants less for participants who are not eligible for unemployment insurance funds and more for those who are. The larger participant group at the Coompanion Inkubator comprises young people who are not yet eligible for employment insurance funds, but only for activation support in combination with social security benefits, which is much less money. This creates a problem within the system, according to an interview. The Incubator is forced to try to attract more people who are in the unemployment insurance system, who are mostly older and more experienced, and more likely to find a job by themselves. This side effect is described as quite “absurd”. “We are more dependent on the participants then they are on us. It could be that they are already in the process of heading out to start their own business but our feeling is that we would like them to stay longer so that we can get the funds” (interview 3).
Another condition that has made things difficult for the participants in the Incubator is that the C-Företaget is not compatible with the labour market programme Ungdomsgarantin (Youth Guarantee) (AF), through which young unemployed people can get certain benefits during the period of unemployment (if they are not entitled to unemployment insurance benefit). These benefits are called “activity support” and they are granted when you are activating yourself in order to eventually enter the labour market. However, to be eligible for “activity support” you must prove you are available full-time for the labour market, which means that you cannot be formally employed by the C-företaget, even though that “employment” is supposed to help you start up your new business. Participants risk losing their benefits by taking a step towards actually starting their own businesses. Coompanion would like to see their participants get some kind of exemption from this rule (interview 3).
During the projected time up until 2014, Coompanion Skåne will run the Incubator and try to come up with more permanent solutions for continuing the project, even after the ESF funding has ended. The key promoter says that this now is a good time for trial and error and finding the best solutions. “We are learning as we go” (interview 3).