Advice, Community, Mentors

Five questions with Duncan Davidson, Bullpen Capital

Duncan Davidson, Managing Director at Bullpen Capital, visited PIE today and shared valuable advice to all of us in the space. While all the startups asked him questions related to their specific businesses, I simply wanted to learn more of what it’s like to be on his side of the table. I didn’t pitch him, but I did ask him five simple questions.

What’s your most recent investment and what was the tipping point that convinced you to go all in with them?

Good question. [Yay, me! Starting off strong.] If I go through the last 5 deals we’ve done, they all have similar tipping points. Here’s a couple of those.

a) SpotHero, a parking company out of Chicago.

Parking is suddenly a hot category, and there’s a bunch of valet deals in San Francisco. SpotHero’s like Uber for parking spots, where they have deals with national garage chains.

We knew parking was big. We’ve watched parking for years. SpotHero was showing two things that was a tipping point.

i) They cut national contracts so they could go to almost any city with masses of available parking slots and parking garages (and with no extra work). They don’t have to go slug city by city.

ii) Their trajectory was taking off. Most of the other people we saw were struggling. We liked SpotHero’s trajectory.

b) StayClassy, a Saas for .org

Again, there are five other companies trying to do this, but it was theirs that had a trajectory that was taking off. That’s a common theme for us. We’re watching companies like they’re in a competitive horse race…when one takes off, that tips it.

What’s your process look like? How do you actually go about making that decision with the others in your firm?

Somebody comes in and pitches us. Everyone wants to show a demo and how cool their technology is. No, no. We don’t care about your demo. We want to see what’s your business, how well you’re doing, how fast you’re growing, and what’s your plan for the next year.

We start with a fact based–”here’s the reality of the business” approach. If you don’t get passed that filter we don’t take any more time on it.

Then the process after that is to have you answer a few very fundamental questions. We throw questions up at the person driving it. If they can knock the questions off, we go to the next five questions. When we’re out of your questions, we regroup and make the decision.

If we’re following a category (like parking), then we’re already well educated. So when a company walks in the door and shows they’re winning in that market, we can make a fast decision. If it’s a market we don’t know well, we either don’t do the deal or spend a lot of homework (and it’s a very slow process) until we get up to speed.

One of the mistakes venture people make is the grass is always greener. In a market we know very little about, everybody looks like a pretty girl. In a market we know well, everybody’s an ugly chuck. So we’re better off dealing with the ugly children than the pretty girls just because we have experience to tell us what they don’t know.

How do you interact with the founders after investing?

We have two types of founders. One type are experienced, they know what they’re doing. Our interactions with them are occassional and usually on-demand. If they need help, they call us.

We have another class which are newbies—in their first time through—and they just have to learn things. “How do you run a good executive meeting, how do you run a board, how do you deal with problems A, B, and C?” So in that case, we’re a lot more proactive in helping them through their problems. When we talk to the people that we deal with, they almost say the same thing:

“You’re not in our face like a lot of venture people, but you’re there when we need you.”

You’ve been on the other side of the table before–as the founder of a startup with a successful exit. What is the one thing startups should know when looking for investment?

You’ve heard of the three rules of real estate, right? Location, location, location.

For example, you’re McDonalds—where do you put a fast food joint? You find the best traffic pattern.You want a house? There’s a certain logic to why that house is the right house on the street and the next house is the wrong house. Location is everything.

Likewise, there’s four rules of venture capital. Ready?

Too early, too early, too early, too late.

The one thing to know, people, is timing. Timing is everything. All startups build on the shoulders of past technical development. There comes a moment where the technology comes together and coalesces–then new things can happen. If you’re too early, then it’s too expensive—you’ll never get there. If you’re too late, you’re not Whatsapp that’d already sprinted past you. So getting that timing right—when the coalesce of opportunity and technology hit—jumping on it fast is everything.

What do you know / have you heard much about the Portland landscape? What’s the startup culture look like to you compared to other places?

Startup culture is a type of culture that’s prevailing the world. I go to Australia, I go to London, I go to Japan, I go to Singapore and Turkey—you find that the startup culture is pretty much the same. They can read all the same blogs, like TechCrunch. They’re all taking hipster styles. There’s a commonality.

Thomas Friedman, from the New York Times, wrote a book called, “The World is Flat.” It’s actually not true. The world’s actually very spiky. But if you go from spike to spike, like Bangalore to Singapore and you skip over all the places in the middle, it all looks the same. It’s spiky, but there’s a consistency. So when you go from startup community to startup community, they’re similar all over the world.

I find Portland to be very similar. The people are technically really smart, they’re versed pretty much in what’s going on. Their understanding is pretty good. The bad part is that this is a very thin ecosystem—the depth of mentors, the depth of funding, the depth of other people challenging you.

There’s a reason why steel concentrated in Pittsburg and cars in Detroit. There’s a reason why Hollywood is where the studios are. And the reason is, there’s a certain economic force to get all the best people in the same place where they can deal with each other face to face. So people come to Silicon Valley wanting to be king of the hill and deal face to face with the best people they can. That sort of thing is almost impossible to replicate.

The main problem with Portland is you could have a very good startup culture, but you’re never going to match what’s down there. The answer is two fold:

a) either accept that and just do really cool companies (and maybe they get funded in Silicon Valley), or
b) find something unique in the Portland ecosystem that you can be the world class center of. You have some skills here to do that.

Seattle may become the cloud center because Amazon, Microsoft are there. I think of Portland as the new Tuscany. Dealing with different food ideas, craft coffees, beers (you’ve got the great Hops here). You’re in the magic latitude for hops and things like that. The point is: food. You might be the great advances in food if you want to be.

Or another is you have cheap energy here. You could become a great data-center / cloud place. You have economic advantages for that. If I were in the Portland community, I would try to figure out what we could do better than anybody else in the world, own that, and become the place that attracts people from all over the world for that because you have a great city, a great lifestyle, and a lot of educated people here. People want to live here.

Well, Portland…what do you say? The new Tuscany of the States? The data-center capital of the West? What makes Portland so unique? Let us know with a comment below.

Advice, Community, Mentors

[Updated] How to hire for cultural fit.

Company culture is all the rage in PDX startup land. It’s incorporated into hiring processes and strategic planning meetings. There are even full time jobs dedicated to ensuring the success of a company’s culture. When you’ve got an intimate staff size that’s in the single or double digits, every new employee makes a difference, shifts the vibe, rocks the boat, changes at least one person’s job duties—all of these hopefully for the better.

Considering the high cost of turnover and awkwardness of employee relations issues, it makes perfect sense why startups place equal if not higher value on a culture vs skillset match. After all, a defining trait of working at a startup is that we hang out with our coworkers both in and out of the office – so these new hires had better be people we love.

The challenge is how do we ensure that we’re hiring someone who has mad job related skills AND will slide seamlessly into our group of crazies. Below are three steps for assessing culture fit and determining just who might be wo/man enough to join your nerd herd.

1) Start with identifying the culture.

Culture means the feel of a business vs the hard facts. Having a solid definition of what it feels like to work there is the first step in making good hires.

How I describe startup culture to friends, family, future coworkers:

  • The 3 C’s. Creativity, curiosity, crazy are required.
  • The 3 I’s. The recipe for a solid foundation is information + innovation = invention.
  • Lovers of ambiguity, hard/unforeseen problems, voicing opinions, post midnight emails work here. Their talent is vast and uncontained. They are inspirational. And they are all hilarious.
  • Recognition for both successes and failures happens on the regular.
  • There may not be a 401k, a career ladder, or even a job description. But employees can wear flip flops, bring their cats to work, come into and leave the office when they feel like it, and the startling abundance of free food and drink correlates directly to the free yoga and exercise options that are part of the total compensation package. Think perks vs benefits.

It’s important to figure out what your culture really is so that you can talk through it with prospective employees. Nothing in place? Start with polling your staff, your execs, people in the community who know you. Ask them how they’d describe the people they work with and the overall vibe. Ask about the perks vs benefits. Ask about what landed them there and why they stay.

2) Follow it up with identifying the true job need.

The focus here is to be adding new positions gracefully, thoughtfully, sustainably—not just because “holy shit we need an Ops guy Dev Ops Hero NOW” that may not be needed in one month. This is important in terms of presenting an accurate portrayal of not only the job you’re interviewing someone for, but a *culture of transparency.

Prep internal constituents:

In order to keep a culture chill. Be as open as possible about the process to alleviate confusion around a hire. Be certain on the full time/part time/permanent/temporary status of a needed position. Talk it over with staff so they’re in the loop on what potential new person may be coming on, and what this will mean for a person/team job-wise. Even the tiniest of heads up can head off staff revolt. This is particularly important for those who will be meeting prospective candidates. The goal is for employees to feel well informed and fully comfortable talking about this new opportunity with the interviewee across the table vs “yeah, I guess we need a front-end dude dude/dudette, that’s what they told me this morning.” Current staff contributes to a big cultural first impression.

External constituents:

Let’s be honest, startup jobs ebb and flow constantly. Re-orgs, or shit—just ‘orgs’—happen all the time. It’s our hiring responsibility to convey the job needed at the time of the interview, discuss potential evolutions of said job, address stability as best we can, and simply put: be transparent.

By disclosing everything we know about an open position at that very moment with staff and candidates, we fill in all of the blanks. This way staff is onboard and willing to participate in the process if necessary, and candidates don’t have to piece together the details of the job, which can breed confusion about the culture. And in some cases even result in declining an offer.

*If being transparent about the job/culture is a challenge – be open about the lack of transparency. No surprises. And then work on improving transparency. That may very well be my next blog post topic…

3) Assessing potential new coworkers.

Ask good questions. Listen listen listen, way more than you talk. It’s amazing what people will say if you just… listen. Have a short list of broad ideas on what you hope they’ll say. Have an even shorter list of dealbreakers. Notice how you feel about each answer, take the occasional note, but see if you can get a good read on your intuitive response to what a candidate is saying and how they are saying it.

A few culture-related questions:

  • Motivation: why are you here? what motivates you outside of cold hard cash? have you ever felt unmotivated – what happened, how did you respond, who besides you was a factor, and what did you learn? what has been your greatest nonverbal reward?
  • Victories and losses: what are some of your greatest triumphs and greatest challenges that you’ve had in your career? how do you know when you’ve nailed it or blown it completely? at what point do you ask for help? what is your recovery process? what is your celebration process?
  • Playing well with others: how would your best and most challenging boss, coworker describe you? list a few characteristics that you need from a boss/coworker that would be a dealbreaker? who have been some of your most inspirational bosses/coworkers, and why? how/when do you know it’s appropriate to speak up, or tag in and help a coworker?
  • The job: what excites you about this opportunity, what made you apply? do any of the responsibilities make you feel anxious, and if so, what would you need in order to feel confident about your ability to handle the job? how does this role compare or contrast to what you’re currently doing, and on that note, what is motivating you to consider new opportunities?
  • Logistics: what would we learn about you in a few months that we wouldn’t know about you on day 1? what is your preferred communication style, favorite color, most influential person in your life? are you a morning person vs night owl? how do you kill time when stranded at an airport?
  • Questions for you: ask them to ask you anything. Hope that they will have something to ask, be ok with if it they don’t. If you’re comfortable with it, share your contact information so that they may follow up with you directly if questions arise post interview.

Making the decision…

Keep it simple. Just like culture is a feel, a candidate will leave you with the same. A feel, a gut vibe response. Remember that they are sizing up potential culture fit as much as you are, so all you can do is present a clear picture of what it looks like at your company and hope for a good match instead of forcing it to fill a role. Take the extra time to ask non job specific questions. Read the resume, check the references. When it comes to give the thumbs up/down, don’t second guess yourself and don’t get bogged down in analyzing or quantifying specifics. *Pay attention and give voice to your gut vibe – it’s (almost) always right. No arguing.

*This applies not only to hiring but to all life decisions.

Update:
Note from the Editor: This post has been edited to suit all audiences, as was the author’s original intent. We believe in the importance of fostering and promoting diversity and inclusion not only at PIE, but in the greater Portland startup community—beards or no beards.

-Kirsten Golden, Program Manager

Advice, Mentors

Startup Storytelling: Get Started with Digital Media

Startups in 2014 have a great opportunity to tell their story… not just the story of their product or service, but the story of their company. The internet has enabled easier publishing and distribution of words, images, and video, and savvy founders will use these tools to their advantage in building the reach and reputation of the company. As a professional photographer with a background in tech, I’ve helped dozens of startups and other technology companies craft their digital story; here are some suggestions for an effective way to start sharing your startup’s story.

Digital Distribution of Your Story

With a phrase like “digital distribution” folks often think big – iTunes for music or Netflix for movies. As a startup, you should also think smaller. You’re probably already doing some of this… but each of these can be a way to share your company’s story:

  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Your blog (or third-party sites such as Medium)

What about new tools? Each week we see new publishing platforms appear in the photo, text, and video spaces… will it help your company to jump on these new platforms? I realize that in some ways this contradicts the early-adopter experimental startup mindset, but unless your company’s focus is in the storytelling space, you’ll probably see more return on your storytelling investment by sticking with platforms with some sort of established base, and importantly, where you have connections to others in your industry.

Never underestimate the value that your network brings to your company. Tell your story where it will be heard.

Why do they want to hear your story? Because you’re doing something interesting of course! And you’re probably doing it with some interesting people.

Practical Platform Prompts

So you’ve decided to tell your story, and you’re looking at doing it on platforms with some traction. But what do you say? What’s going to help tell a story that will interest potential customers, partners, employees, or others who might help spread the news of what you’re doing?

Your Blog: Your company’s blog is a great place to share the occasional article that can go more in depth or provide more context than is possible in many shorter-form social media outlets. Whether you’re explaining some of your value proposition, comparing and contrasting your product with your competitors, offering information for your industry, or providing insight on your founders or employees, a blog post gives you the freedom to craft the story as you see fit, and is a great place to send folks looking for more information about your company.

Twitter: It’s the backchannel of the internet, and if you’re not there, you’re missing out. Not only are you missing out on what’s going on, but others are going to miss out on what’s going on with you unless you’re talking about it. Your company Twitter handle is one thing for company communications, but at an early stage startup I’d argue that having founders and employees talking about the company (along with the rest of their lives) is the best plan.

Instagram: Twitter for photos (or very short video clips). Sometimes people pick on Instagram for being a bit cliché.

But you’re smarter than that. You know that people love behind the scenes photos. Show your work. Building an app? Post the occasional screenshot. Get the occasional photo of the team working together. Grab a snapshot of the team playing together.

YouTube: If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how many words would thousands of photos strung together be worth? Too many folks think “big video production” when they’re looking at getting into YouTube, but here’s a secret: the most successful stories are told in much shorter segments. How many things are competing for your attention? Folks want a quick (two minutes or less) video segment.

You’ve probably practiced an elevator pitch to sell your business quickly, or at least generate the interest to further a conversation. That’s what your digital storytelling can be… each piece of content or media (a tweet, blog post, photo, video clip) can lead to further conversation.

Your startup is growing and probably has big things ahead. Tell bits of the story to get folks interested so that they want to learn more as you move forward.

Advice, Community

Entering an accelerator? Keep this in mind.

We have six new companies entering the PIE space this Monday. In anticipation of their arrival, we’ve asked a few PIE alum to chime in with their thoughts of what the most important thing to keep in mind is when entering the PIE space and working out of an accelerator. Here are their thoughts:

“PIE is there to help you, so if you need help…ask.” – Alex, Teak

It’s easy to shut down and not ask due to fear of looking like you’re failing, but at PIE, it’s important to let loose, be vulnerable, and completely trust that the management, peers, and mentors want the best for you (no matter what mess your company may currently be in). That’s when the ‘acceleration’ can truly begin.

“Don’t get frustrated by the hustle…” – Pat, Teak

“…There’s a lot of stuff going on, always. If you need to be head-down and get something done without distractions, head to the roof, or into another room. Don’t get frustrated, the hustling nature of a co-working space is one of the advantages.”

“Rely on your classmates! Get to know them. Ask them questions.” – Kat, StandIn

The nature of the co-working space lends itself well to getting to know other companies and founders. You never know what can come out of spending three months with each other.

“This is not a competition…” – Mark, Teak

“…All the people here want to see you succeed. So, build relationships and we’ll all help each other reach our dreams. Also, if anyone wants to be part of a hippy drum circle, I’d like to get one going on the roof of W+K.”

Also from Mark:

Here are the notes you missed from the W+K tour:
The Nap rooms. Free Coke machine. Flying wolf. The door in the kitchen is lying that it’s the route to the bathroom.

And actually, watch this before taking the tour:

Advice, Community, Mentors

Top 10 Countdown of Things a Start-Up Company Should Not do Without (A humorous look at our all too often serious offices)

10. Big Screen TV – I have no freaking idea why the first thing that every startup buys is a big screen Samsung 55” TV, but its kind of a thing. Video games, Olympics, Hockey, World cup and the occasional video-conference, I’m hoping someone enlightens me on my deathbed.

9. Plants – These things provide atmosphere, both literally and figuratively. They are a familiar object that you can rest your computer-fogged eyes on and gain a sense of relaxation. From desktop units to floor models, a plant invites you to mentally unwind without leaving the confines of your space. PS – they also function somewhat as pets, only with slightly less maintenance.

8. Recycling Area – This is a big thing with me, there, I said it. We live in a world that can’t take much more abuse and separating your cans, glass, plastic and paper seems like such a small way to try and give back. It can be as simple as a couple of boxes with proper markings on them. Keep your glass separate and your mixed in the other, your ratio should be 1:1 for mixed and regular garbage. Anything more on the mixed recycling side and you are a SUPERSTAR!

7. Games – We all know that startups are hard. They require intense focus, long hours and stress, lots of stress. Putting some sort of gaming activity in your office will reap many benefits, exercise is great for boosting brain cells, coordination, and requisite co-worker ribbing. Depending on your space constrictions I would rate them thusly:

Ping Pong table

Foosball table

Pogo Stick

Darts

I also recommend an engineer gets up at least once an hour for 10 minutes, but to each their own.

 6. Keg or beer fridge – I’m sure I’ll get some flack for this but I truly believe beer to be an office staple; much like coffee but that’s a different bullet point. In my 30+ years as an Office Manager/EA I’ve found that standing around enjoying a malt-based beverage in the company of your peers opens more doors than closes them. Socializing while sharing a beer is one of the more civilized ways to end the day with a new co-worker or your boss. In the event of a larger social gathering I do provide non-alcoholic beverages for visitors. We also stock the office with flavored sparkling seltzers, and milk, so get off me.

5. Bike Racks – Portland is the No. 1# bike commuter city on the West Coast. Also, there’s that ‘it’s good for Mother Nature’ thing. Seriously though, bike racks come in as many shapes/configurations as there are bikers, so you should be sure to find something that suits your space. Get a black rug to put underneath them and possibly a runner for the space to the rack – they can get pretty grungy during the winter months.

4. Couch – Often looked upon as a non-necessity, this unit can function as a impromptu meeting area for three or less people (or possibly more if you’ve worked together for a while), wool-gathering (creative replenishment) space, visiting employee seating area, exercise bench and last but not least, napping space.   You don’t need anything fancy, but buy the best you can afford, its going to be around for a long, long time and your employees will get very, very attached to it. Emotionally. For reals.

3. Snacks – I make it a point to stock the following in every company I serve: Protein related items for that last code push that has to be done tonight – (think: String cheese, Clif bars, yoghurt in fat & nonfat forms, various nuts and occasionally jerky). Breakfast cereals for when people forget to eat. (Plus it’s a secret homage to Jerry Seinfeld). Potato chips in varying flavors for salty goodness. And, fresh fruit, organic if you can swing it financially but oranges and apples are great no matter what. Anecdotal item: I also used to stock a large jar of frosted animal cookies at my last gig but the employees would drop them on the carpet making a nasty mess and so I removed them the list. There were ransom notes and a small riot. It still haunts me to this very day.

2. Desks – I could go on and on about this subject but I’ll keep it short. IKEA is the bomb, a nice 30 x 60 top with four legs will see you through many a project. HOWEVER, you should plan for a standup space where employees can take their laptops and stand for a bit. New Relic has Standtopia, Simple has built-ins, it’s healthy, it’s a fact – do it. I can put you in touch with a very nice company in Arizona that will sell you a crank standup base for a mere $480 dollars if you want to splurge and outfit your crew with their very own adjustables, slap an IKEA top on that baby and BOOM! happy ergonomically-balanced employee. DM me on Twitter, it’s OK, I promise.

And the #1 thing you cannot live without:

1. Coffee – This is the lifeblood of your company, choose wisely. Luckily here in Portland we have many options, dark roast, breakfast roast, organic coffee, vegan coffee, not too mention the means of extracting said brew from the bean itself. A startup needs lots of this juice and I recommend a Capresso grinder and a Bunn 10-cup high velocity brewer drip system with a thermal pot and a Chemex. I also recommend Happy Cup Buzz, it’s a great coffee bean and supports a great organization AND they’re local. This should cover all your caffeine needs, from group to nuts.

And there you have it, armed with this list you can rest assured you have all the necessary tools to start rocking it at the office!

This message brought to you by iBarbStark*, Office Manager of Cozy Services Ltd.

*I ain’t no Rick Turoczy but I ain’t chopped liver, either.

 

Advice, Alumni, Community

Interns; if I had any right now, I’d make them write this for me

If you’re considering taking on interns, you should seriously take a moment to consider the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Coffee delivery service *
  • Work no one wants to do gets done
  • They have no bad habits yet, so you can teach them yours
  • You are directly responsible for teaching someone

Cons:

  • You are directly responsible for teaching someone
  • They require more direction & attention than you probably expect
  • Things get done slowly

So you’ve weighed your options and want to bring on some interns. Good luck. Here are a few things we learned from having interns at Switchboard that you should do (or avoid).

Let them get their feet wet on day one

Find a project they can work on that doesn’t require a lot of your time. We had our interns build out an internal dashboard. This was a great opportunity to see just how much they really knew and how they worked. It also allowed them to start working without the overhead of diving into our code.

Review your code with them

Since you’re molding these duckling minds, you should review your work with them. This provides a perfect opportunity for you to teach them all of your bad habits.

Check in regularly

Something I was not great at was checking in regularly. It is easy to forget where they’re at in their abilities, so check in regularly to make sure they aren’t bored or in over their heads.

Interact with your interns outside the office

You should feed them, especially if they’re unpaid interns.

Be nice to your interns

This should go without saying. I just wanted to include this gif.

Include your interns in your company culture

You may be hiring one of these ducklings down the road, so now is the perfect time to make sure they fit with your team.

* I never once made my interns get my coffee. Go ahead and ask them. That said, you totally could.

Advice, Community

What’s in Your Bag? With PIE startups

Every startup has a bag of go-to tricks and tools, and the new “What’s in your Bag” series is dedicated to unveiling some of PIE community’s favorites. This series is a compilation of essential tools for team communication, analytics, engineering, and—in general—successful startup life.

Here’s a look at the top two favorite tools for communication.

Kato is a team chat service used for real-time internal communication by companies large and small. It can be used for group communication via forums, private messaging and file sharing, so it significantly reduces the number of emails teams send back and forth each day. It’s also a great platform to share very relevant, funny (and/or) distracting .gifs with the team.

.gif pick of the week:
Sneeze

Kat from StandIn spoke about using the platform in more ways. “Kato also has ad hoc rooms that you can spin up per user and embed in your site, which is really appealing for us.” They’re currently thinking about integrating that into their My Account sections for support.

“One of the most important pieces… err parts of PIE is the collaboration among the companies in the space,” said Rick Turoczy, cofounder and general manager. “And for our staff, it’s a great way to have multiple conversations open without having to swap windows or rooms. We’ve found that Kato provides us with a way to interact with both current startups and alums without a great deal of friction. And with an awful lot of gifs. ”

Learn more about Kato here.

Slack is another favorite among some of the companies here at PIE. Companies like AppThwack, Fleck, and StandIn mostly boast about its clean interface and polished UI.

“You can put code in it and have it formatted, and it’s better for displaying content from pasted links.” – Asa, StandIn

“We have been using Slack and it’s just so darn polished. iOS, Android and Mac clients, better design, great features. It’s really awesome.” -Rory, Fleck

Not only does Slack have great design, but it allows for custom emojis—that’s Kyle from Stublisher’s favorite part.

While both Kato and Slack are great tools, they both still have room for improvement. “One thing Kato has that Slack has been saying is coming for a few months and has yet to deliver is public support channels so you can use Slack with customers/potential customers.” – Trent, AppThwack

Check out Slack for yourself here, and stay tuned for more startup essentials next week!

Advice

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.

Advice

You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers – Some FAQs About PIE

Below are some of the frequently asked questions that PIE + co has been getting regarding Portland, the PIE experience, our partnership with Wieden+Kennedy, and a few other things for good measure.

What sort of companies do you work with and what stages?
Our area of expertise tends to be technology companies, specifically platforms and enabling technologies.  We focus on early stage companies – that can mean a lot of different things for our companies – pre revenue or revenue positive, back of the napkin concept, bootstrapping there is no right answer. Honestly, we like being challenged.  We’re always looking for new types of companies that will help us expand our capabilities.  See a full list of our companies here.

What requirements do you have for being in PIE?
We require that the team has someone who is a technical “builder” It doesn’t have to be a founder, but someone on the team needs to have technical acumen.  Why? Well, the second requirement of PIE is that you have product in market (meaning someone besides your team and your mom needs to be using your product, early alpha, beta, etc.) in order to go on stage for demo day.

How structured is the day-to-day time in the accelerator?
Heavily unstructured and chaotic.  We customize our program to each company; acceleration is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  While we have some programming that applies to all of the startups, the vast majority of our time is spent one-on-one with our companies, helping them get to the next stage that they define as their goal. We then take that intimate knowledge of the startups and the challenges they face and sync them up with mentors who have expertise to explore those issues.

This matchmaking — putting startups together with the appropriate mentors for the specific problem they are attacking that day and repeating that process with each new problem— provides the most value for both the startups and the mentors.

Who are the mentors?
Tech + business powerhouses – who else? PIE has an extensive network of mentors spanning from founders, top-notch engineers, VCs and a ton of other folks who are much smarter than we are.  We also have the added benefit of having our alumni included in the mentor pool, as well as the creative folks who make up all 8 of Wieden+Kennedy’s offices.

What benefits do you see in being in Portland?
Portland is a vibrant and growing city with very active tech, startup, and maker communities. The cost of living is low and you can easily walk, bike or take public transit to most, if not all, places.  Companies like Airbnb, Mozilla, New Relic, and Salesforce all have recently opened offices here.  The bay is a quick and direct flight away.  Oh, and Portland is gorgeous in the summer time, why else do you think we run the program from July – October?  Don’t just take our word for it, check out this post on the AppFog blog.

What is the involvement of W+K in the process?
The companies who participate in the PIE program have the opportunity to work with teams at Wieden+Kennedy from branding and strategic positioning, to folks who want to muck around on your platform.  We look for new opportunities to engage with Wieden every year so don’t be surprised if other opportunities happen.

Where do we apply?
Right here.

Advice

How to pick the best accelerator for you

You’re starting a company.  Your product is the next big thing, that no one had thought of – or at least executed well.  Your founding team is comprised of top-notch thinkers and doers and your network has assured you of one thing: People Will. Want. This.

So now what?  For many, the next logical step would be to apply for an early stage accelerator.  But with +800 accelerators in the US alone, deciding which one is the best for your company is hard.  Sure there are the media darlings, the TechStars, YCs, and 500 – but what about the sector specific programs, or the corporate accelerators, or even PIE?

Deep breath.

It’s not easy. Picking the right accelerator is like picking a life partner.  Your relationship with them should go beyond an announcement of being selected and a demo day round up.

So how do you go about picking the right one?  First, you need to understand that there is no right choice. There is only the right choice for you and your company. Companies that fly high at YC may be miserable in other programs. Startups that work well in corporate accelerators may flounder in less focused efforts.

Long story short, you need to find the accelerator that  most closely matches your startup’s need. And here are our tips on how to best to do that.

Experience : Who is driving the ship?  What is their reputation around town and around the industry? Are they credible?  Remember, this relationship will be a very important part of your company, from here forward. And you’ll be relying on them a lot during and after the program.

Alumni : How many have gone through their program and where are they now?  What types of companies have found success in the program? Not all success stories are newsworthy, so do some homework. Pro tip: Be strategic, alumni typically know when application windows are open and their referrals go a long way.

Capital : What is their track record?  It’s important that you understand how their investments are structured and what it means for your cap table. Because that could affect your investors down the road.  Do they follow on? Are their alumni successful at raising their next rounds?

Network: The program directors and managers are only part of the equation. Find out who makes up their network and how involved they are. Mentors are not only great for their copious amounts of battle stories and wisdom, but often become go-to candidates for advisory boards and can potentially unlock more introductions.  A good network goes beyond alumni + mentors. Look into who else they have good working relationships with – VCs, law firms, or even other startup companies that might not have gone through their program.  It takes a village to raise a startup, so make sure they’ve got one.

Resources: Mentors, partnerships, and special perks are an important part of a balanced breakfast… err accelerator. Many accelerators have sweetheart deals with vendors and services that are helpful to a growing company.  Take advantage of them.

Momentum: What are you looking to get out of your experience with said accelerator? And do you honestly think they can help get you there?  You’ve typically got 3 months – 1 year in this program – and every day counts.  Think about your roadmap. The right accelerator should be able to get your further.  And finally, understand what success looks like to them. Is that a mold you’re ready to fit in?

You should believe in your accelerator as much as you want them to believe in you.  The relationship needs to be mutually beneficial, to be successful.   The same logic we use to decide each class is the same logic you should use to decide which accelerator to join.  Like with any other major decision, do a gut check – does it feel like the right decision?