Filing our TPS reports: What we look for in PIE startups

So… yeah.With the PIE application period officially, officially closing tonight at midnight, we thought it might be beneficial to share some of the reasoning behind our selection process. You know, to help you understand how we’ll be evaluating your startups as we work to select the next class of PIE.

We’ve learned a lot over our five years. And every class, we learn a great deal more about what types of teams excel in our environment. We work those learnings into our selection process with the hopes that we can be as helpful as possible for the founders who come through the program.

The selection criteria can be easily summed up in the three letters: TPS.

Well okay. It may take a little more explanation than that.

So here’s what the PIE selection committee considers in each application.

Team factor

Good, well rounded teams can attack any problem. So first and foremost, we evaluate the team—or individual—who has applied.

We start asking questions like:

  • Is it a diverse group of people?
  • Are there clear roles and responsibilities?
  • Are there clear lines of ownership? For example, does one founder clearly own decisions on technology?
  • Is this actually a team or is it just an amalgamation of highly proficient individuals?
  • Can members of this team serve as mentors and collaborators with their peers?

Three months is a quick, stressful, and intense period. Being able to divide and conquer is one of the traits that helps teams excel at being accelerated. And there always, always, always has to be a builder on the team—someone who can make things. Three months is too short of a time period to rely on contractors and conflicting schedules.

Another thing we try to deduce is the team’s “coachability.” Is the team capable of taking criticism and questions? Do they seem like they can deal with conflicting feedback? Are they willing to accept that there might be another way of attacking the problem? Can they take action with the feedback they’re receiving? Because when you exist in an environment that is full of mentors deconstructing and critiquing your concepts and business, you have to be able to make use of that feedback. Otherwise, it’s just a distraction.

And yes, sometimes we do pass on very promising teams because they don’t seem very coachable. Even when we know the business will be successful. Some founders are headstrong—okay, they’re stubborn—and while they may knock it out of the park, PIE is an environment which could prove detrimental for both the uncoachable teams and the other teams in the space.

Product factor

Once we’ve evaluated the team, we turn our focus to the product. The team is going to be selling something to make money. And we want to make sure that they have the best chance of generating interest, getting traction, and succeeding with that idea.

For product, we ask questions like:

  • What exactly is the team building?
  • How big is the market?
  • Is it a point solution or a platform? (HINT: We tend to do much better with platforms than point solutions.)
  • Are they early or late to market?
  • Can we effectively accelerate a product like this?

Some accelerators shy away from companies that appear to be a feature for an existing product. But here at PIE, we’re equally interested in exploring those sorts of solutions, as well.

One of the most important product qualifiers is actually quite subjective for the committee. That’s the determination of whether it sounds like a product we would like to use or not. And while that doesn’t immediately qualify or disqualify a product, that strong emotional tie can be very valuable in helping us select the product with whom we want to work.

Serendipity factor

The final component of the selection criteria is the most nebulous of the criteria. We try to decide if there is a serendipity inherent in the solution—or if there is someway to manufacture serendipity around the product.

To get to serendipity, we ask questions like:

  • Is this technology interesting to our partner Wieden+Kennedy?
  • Could this technology be influenced or useful to a company on W+K’s client roster?
  • Does this company help PIE explore a space about which we’re curious?
  • Do we have mentors with expertise that will be especially salient to this company? Or, conversely, will the product enable PIE to expand its mentor network by recruiting talent to satisfy this company’s needs?
  • Is there something particularly interesting about having this company work with the other companies in the incoming class or PIE alums?

Yes, it’s incredibly subjective. But that’s important. Because part of our job here is creating community and networks of companies that help one another. So this can be a very valuable means of rating companies on what they bring to the table.

Compiling our TPS reports

No one factor determines a startup’s success in PIE, so we take all factors into account. But they are weighted differently. We may take a strong team that has a weaker product idea. Or we may take a strong product concept that has a less compelling team dynamic.

It’s an experiment, after all. We’re still trying to figure out what works. And it’s constantly changing.

So, if you haven’t completed your application, get it completed. We’re looking forward to reviewing your Team, Product, and Serendipity factors.

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