“Brands are more than a checkbook”, or “Why I’m excited about the PIE Cookbook”


At Wieden+Kennedy, back in 2008, we noticed a few things:

  1. Advertising in the tech space ranged from forgettable to antagonistic, and we wondered how brands might create real value for real people beyond their existing products;
  2. In a place famous for creative provocations, we saw innovation happening faster outside our walls than inside; and
  3. We suspected that meaningful brand solutions might start looking more like the products and services being generated by smart folks on a shoestring than traditional agency output.
“…the process of advertising seemed to still be observing more of a manufacturing model versus the more iterative software model..” — PIE, in Fast Company

Those conversations led to a discussion which led to a series of arguments that became PIE — the Portland Incubator Experiment.

“…the most interesting story on the block may not be inside W+K HQ, but on its periphery — in a small storefront space at the corner of NW 12th and Davis that houses the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE).” — Metropolis Magazine
The Wieden+Kennedy “Fail Harder” Wall, part of the ethos that inspired PIE

In 2009, we launched PIE as a community space/techno-cultural node/experiment in value creation in partnership with the local tech community and the broader startup ecosystem. PIE quickly became a collaborative workplace, an event space and a launchpad for some pretty interesting companies. We also learned quickly where an agency like Wieden+Kennedy added value and where it didn’t, and evolved our offerings accordingly.

In 2010, two things happened — (1) we decided to formalize and scale what we were doing (because it seemed like that’s what the community needed), and (2) brand interest in startups began to heat up. We realized there might be a simple construct that spoke to the value proposition for both:

“Brands had scale and were looking for innovation, startups had innovation and were looking for scale.”

PIE became both an accelerator for “brand-curious” startups and a platform through which to engage with them. We built an initially uneasy but ultimately productive coalition of VC’s, ecosystem players, community members, startups, mentors and corporates/brands trying to figure out how to work with startups without killing them. We were on Angellist. PIE ranked nationally in the top five of accelerators. It was pretty cool.

“If you haven’t heard of PIE, it’s probably because you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest.” — TechCrunch, 2011
The PIE management crew, from left to right, myself, Kirsten Golden, and Rick Turoczy.

PIE taught us a lot of things.

That the brand/startup relationship status is...complicated.

That innovation and risk are hard at established companies because of their fiduciary responsibilities and shareholders. As one blue-chip brand co-conspirator said “I was impressed by what we pulled off together at PIE —and by the sheer power of the forces at work against innovation succeeding in a company like ours.”

PIE was safe haven and neutral ground, a place people could let down their guard and collaborate bravely. PIE became a verb, as in “let’s PIE that”. We engineered for honesty, serendipity, vulnerability and tough love. And every class was a community.

Julie Logan, Founder of Nutmeg, subsequently acquired by Giphy

Along the way, W+K’s PIE touched thousands of start-ups, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in company valuations, and created hundreds of jobs. What began as a community/co-working space evolved into a brand-fueled formal accelerator program, then an accelerator of accelerators, “intra”-preneurial programs for corporates, and even a sector accelerator in partnership with state and local entities. And we helped accelerate a wide range of companies — from B2B to B2C and even some (intentional) non-profits.

Blah, blah blah: now it’s 2016.

Digital advertising continues to piss people off online and mobile, and AR/MR/VR is the next big compute platform. Or maybe it’s IoT. Or Echo/Siri/Cortana-flavored AI-fueled algorithms.

What hasn’t changed: Brands must innovate to create meaningful value for real people to earn their premiums.

At PIE, we never waste a good crisis (HT to @wklondon for this work for @ThreeUK)

Innovation — and the ability to spot, value, contextualize, sell in, nurture, develop, protect, and deploy at scale — is a critical skillset in a business landscape where communication and product experience is evolving discontinuously against a consumer context being reframed, reimagined and reinvented daily. Equally, if not more important, is identifying and hiring the kinds of people that can ‘sell’ innovation that may not pay off this quarter through organizations built to minimize risk…while shareholders demand efficiency in everything.

Accelerator programs might seem like ways to accelerate R&D/innovation outside existing corporate structures, and no surprise, a host of providers are happy to sell “accelerator-in-a-box” solutions to clients afraid of missing out, but unless you want to overpay for a press release, we suggest you pass.

An accelerator full of outsiders managed by an internal stakeholder without the guanxi to get sh$# done won’t create meaningful value or make your company sharper, more competitive or future-proof.

In the evolving, tech-fueled innovation space, brands need more tools than just a checkbook to thrive.

Don’t just buy innovation, build it.

And the PIE Cookbook can help.

That’s right, the PIE Cookbook.

If you are a brand looking to get involved with startups and accelerators, think of the PIE Cookbook as a resource full of hard-won insights and useful exercises to help you consider the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of innovation, not just the ‘what’; think about innovative funding models to support your efforts; how to identify external advocates AND internal champions (indoctrinated in your organizational realities but free of quarterly earnings groupthink); and most importantly, to recognize that a successful program is built on an innovation community dedicated to accelerating - from the inside-out and from the outside-in. This cookbook is all about recipes for innovation (Yep — we went there). The PIE Cookbook is a ‘how-to’ (and ‘how-not-to’) accelerator guide full of concrete steps your brand can take to build and foster your own efforts. At its core, it’s a toolset to enable brands to get more out of the accelerator format. More learning. More innovation. More collaboration. More community. MOAR.

Specific moments: scraping together cash to help a founder get their spouse extra childcare to save their marriage from raw startup insanity; the lowpoint that spawned the ‘404 contest’ and a TED talk; the collective sigh and reflection after one startup literally and figuratively melted down in the center of the space in spectacular, slow motion; the logo finished Thursday that was on the cover of Adweek the following Monday; the moment in each class when the PIE ‘family dinner’ turned the corner from ‘time-wasting-chest-pounding’ to honest, open, constructive vulnerability.

These and other critical moments forge the relationships that bind a community in shared purpose. When you have it, you’ll know it, and in the PIE Cookbook, we’ll share how we and others did it — and how you can, too.

Demo Day 2014 — the startups are clearly tense and nervous…

The PIE Cookbook is an open-source, organically-grown, Kickstarted set of actionable insights and principles to help anyone accelerate anything they want. We are inviting our broader innovation community (old and new) to help us make accelerating great ideas a little less hard. It’s a toolset to enable brands to get more out of the accelerator format. More learning. More innovation. More collaboration. More community.

PIE certainly doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s why you won’t just hear from Rick and I — you’ll hear from failed and successful startups, mid-stage and successfully-exited company founders and employees, VC’s, mentors and the hardworking growth hackers and innovators busting hump to redefine their businesses and industries to build the inspired companies and brands of the future.

We are Kickstarting this project to identify a community of co-conspirators. Please join us. We believe that together, we can help anyone, anywhere, accelerate the things they are most passionate about. Learn from our collective mistakes and happy accidents to build innovation communities we can be proud of.

Let’s accelerate all the things, together.