Founded in 2009, SURF aggregates community support to provide digital entrepreneurs with subsidized office space, educational sessions, networking events, business and technical resources, and access to a network of advisers, investors, and corporate partners. Located in downtown Seattle, SURF currently has about 50 startups as tenants, or resident members, such as Geekwire 200 startup Duxter.
Different from other incubators, SURF doesn’t take equity or options in its resident startups. Instead, members pay monthly fees (from $50 to $400 per month person) in exchange for access to office space, office infrastructure, SURF events, educational workshops and network opportunities.
SURF has different target markets for different membership programs. For resident members, SURF targets at technology startups which are at their pre-venture capital stage, and have a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or close to launching. These startups often exist in isolated environment like basements and garages, and are starved to resources. SURF is able to solve the needs of the startups by bringing all the resources together and advocate for them. The resources include but not limit to office space, educational sessions, networking events, business and technical resources, and access to a network of advisers, investors, and corporate partners. Take educational session as an example, SURF provides daily programs teaching entrepreneurs how to negotiate term sheet, how to fundraise, how to pitch to investors, how to communicate your stories and messages, how to acquire users, how to create online environment, how to recruit talents, who should you hire and many other topics relevant to the early stages of startups.
Besides, SURF also targets to connect Seattle’s startup community. For $50/month, fellow entrepreneurs, developers, designers, investors, mentors, and enthusiasts can drink free coffee and work alongside 40 plus SURF startups. This helps to build a better connected entrepreneur community.
SURF is marketed as an incubator “dedicated to advancing the ideas and passions of technology-focused entrepreneurs”. Its strategy to acquire entrepreneurs and startups is to continuously build relationships. SURF staff arranges face-to-face meetings with entrepreneurs and startups, presents the idea of the incubator, gets them excited, makes them believe in SURF, and finally succeeds in recruiting them. To build a reputable brand people would recommend, SURF focuses on maximize the value it can provide to the startups, creating more programs and events to solve their challenges, and connecting them with more mentors and investors. As SURF and its startups grow, there are more and more success stories, which give SURF credibility. Showing off these success cases in media and other marketing channels will help SURF acquire more startups. Meanwhile, these successful entrepreneurs also tell others their great experiences with SURF and recommend SURF. In a word, SURF’s ongoing strategy is to let people know about SURF, talk about it and recommend it. The goal is: if you start a startup in Seattle, everyone says you have to go to SURF.
There are several marketing tactic I think the SURF does especially well. One of them is to use twitter to build connections with reporters. Many reporters are active on twitter. When something new and exciting happens in SURF, SURF staff will tweet the news, send direct message and/or email to reporters. SURF did a good job to pursue what audience/reporters are looking for, put itself into a big context, establish good relationship with reporters, and get great media coverage from Economist, Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle Times and Geekwire etc.
Also, SEOs of SURF are good. If you type “business”, “incubator” and “Seattle”, SURF is the number one choice. If you type anything like “tech”, “incubator” and “Seattle”, SURF is in the top 5. That helps SURF attract more attentions online.
Besides, one of the other tactics I’ve learned from SURF is that it’s important to get your partners on board and let them promote you. SURF didn’t spend money on outbound marketing; instead, all its partners promote it. For example, SURF’s partners like Microsoft BizSpark, local accelerators, law firms and accounting firms help promote SURF on their website and among their friends, and introduce their clients to SURF.