What we’ve learned running a virtual startup accelerator during a global pandemic and what we’re doing next
[Note: We shared this information with current PIE and PIE Shop startups and PIE mentors on Pi Day. PIE Consumer companies have been on a different track, this time around. In the interest of transparency with the PIE community, we also wanted to share it with you.]
PIE never wanted to be a virtual program.
Since its inception, PIE has been a place for startups and community to call home. Not just a program to run founders through. Not a curriculum. A home. A physical home.
Being a physical space was the primary motivator for starting the project. And that’s really about all we knew when we started a coworking space in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District in 2009. We had a space. Some unwieldy furniture. Power. An Internet connection. And a dedication to the prospect of running an ongoing experiment. That’s about all we had.
Well, and a kitchen with way too many light switches and never enough forks. I guess we had that, as well.
And when it was time for PIE to leave the physical space where PIE itself was incubated, we immediately sought out another physical space. And another. And another. Because that was at our very core. Physical space for founders to call their own. And to share with other founders and teammates and mentors.
So being a virtual program wasn’t simply something that didn’t dawn on us. It wasn’t something that wasn’t “on our road map.” Being a virtual program was something we had intentionally and wholeheartedly avoided. Our target market didn’t want or need a virtual program. They needed space for community. Or at least — as with our newer PIE Consumer program — they needed the opportunity for that community to regularly gather in a space with one another, even if they all had already workspaces of their own.
And so we were a physical space. And a physical experience. End of story.
But experiments must sometimes change. Not because they want to. But because the environment around them changes. So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the experiment to change, it changed. And we chose to experiment with a fully virtual accelerator for our residential programs like PIE and PIE Shop. And we moved to fully virtual meetings for PIE Consumer. Because the only other choice was to shut the program down altogether.
And here at PIE we don’t give up. To be honest, we actually don’t even know how to do that.
So here we are. Running all flavors of PIE as different flavors of fully virtual programs. Because experiments.
But it hasn’t been going as well as we would like, to be honest. While the founders are definitely getting value out of the program — we wouldn’t be running the program if they weren’t — it’s not the same kind of value. It’s different. And while compelling and impactful, the virtual programs are missing certain aspects of the program that physical spaces — or physical gatherings — inspire.
There is an organic, serendipitous nature to physical spaces. A place for random collisions. And overheard conversations. And chance encounters. And that can’t be part of the program, this time around. So it’s not really PIE. It’s a piece of PIE. But it’s not a whole PIE.
It’s not just the lack of physical space that is causing issues, this time around. Decisions we made as we began delivering a virtual accelerator program are causing issues, as well. In fact, we made two critical — and in hindsight, naive — assumptions going into a virtual “Pandemic PIE” that are having a significant impact on the program and the outputs of the program.
Because both of those assumptions turned out to be incorrect.
So in the spirit of experimentation — where even failures have valuable learnings — we wanted to share those insights with you. And explain how they are impacting and influencing the remainder of the Pandemic PIE class.
Incorrect assumption #1: Extending the time of the program would result in PIE founders achieving similar outcomes, even under the weight of a pandemic.
We recognized that our founders would be under far more stress and pressure than they ever had been before. Because in addition to creating a product, building a business, and finding a way to capitalize that business, they would be dealing with the (hopefully) once in a lifetime experience of managing their lives in the midst of a pandemic. So they would be founders thrust into an even more awkward situation than being a founder. And they would also be serving roles as school teachers, caregivers, remote workers, and a myriad of other stressors we couldn’t even imagine.
“Give them more time and breathing room,” we thought. More time to manage those issues. Less pressure from PIE staff to get everything done in a few months. Keep PIE a priority, but prevent it from being a stressor. To that end, we have been running the classes with a lighter touch and fewer mandatory elements in deference to the schedules and stressors everyone has been experiencing.
And yet, we expected to arrive at very similar outcomes to those we previously accomplished over a shorter period of time within physical spaces. And that expectation has proven to be misguided.
Conclusion: While providing more time and space has successfully mitigated some of the stress, it has had a discernible and negative impact on achieving similar outcomes. To be blunt, the elongated timeframe has had all of us falling further behind and drifting further apart than if we had simply remained on our original timeline. This isn’t the founders’ fault. This is simply what we’ve learned as we’ve worked in a virtual format with our founders under these extraordinary conditions.
Incorrect assumption #2: Mentors would be as engaged as they ever had. Perhaps moreso. And we would be able to better utilize more mentors than ever thanks to the virtual environment.
Mentors. They’re what make PIE, PIE. And throughout our existence, it’s been their willingness to volunteer time to work with founders that makes the program work.
How are mentors in a position to do that? Well, mentors have often worked their way into roles where they now have the time and energy to give back. They’re often in control of their schedules. And they’ve learned to manage the stressors in their lives in such a way that they’re able to carve out time — and dedicate energy — to supporting founders in programs like PIE.
You want to guess what makes everything we just said wrong? That’s right. A global pandemic.
Assuming that our mentors would be any less impacted by the situation in which we find ourselves was, at best, naive. And, at worst, idiotic. What became obvious is that mentors were falling under the same extraordinary pressures that founders fell under. And, as such, they have been less engaged in the program — and less able to commit time and energy to PIE — than they have in the past.
Again, that’s not a judgment or an accusation. It simply is what it is. As we’ve all figured out how to deal with this new life under new conditions.
Conclusion: The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. But every single person on earth is dealing with some aspect of it — and dealing with it in their own way. As such, mentors have struggled just as much as founders to remain engaged and active given all of the stressors of the pandemic.
We don’t want our conclusions to come across as negative. They are simply conclusions. And there were some positive learnings, as well. If only as a reminder of how this community you all have helped build worked. And continues to work. We realized that we truly underestimated the positive impact that the intangible parts of PIE provide, impacts that are practically impossible to recreate in a virtual environment. And we were reminded that startup founders are some of the most resilient and adaptable people you’re ever likely to meet.
But like any good experiment, we must learn from our mistakes. We must reassess our environment and outcomes. And we must adapt our experiment to explore new challenges and opportunities, rather than continuing to repeat mistakes we’ve made in the past.
As such, we’re reheating PIE. Specifically our residential programs, PIE and PIE Shop.
That’s right. It’s a do over. A start from scratch — but with the same folks. And this time, we’re doing it without projecting any outcomes. We’re just going to reboot PIE and PIE Shop and continue with PIE Consumer. And we’re going to see what happens. Without a great deal of expectation. Just experimentation. And learning.
PIE isn’t over. Far from it. In many ways, we’ve only just begun.
As part of this reset, we’re pushing back PIE Demo Day. So please mark your calendars for June 28, 2021, at 3:14PM Pacific Time. Because that’s when we’ll be having… something. We don’t really know what this demo day will look like. And we’re not going to make any more assumptions. So what happens there is going to be as much of a surprise to us as it is to you. Frankly, it usually is.
But we sincerely hope you continue to stick with us for this next phase of the journey. And we’re looking forward to reconnecting and re-engaging with both founders and mentors as we reheat PIE.
Let’s get started.
Originally published at http://blog.piepdx.com on March 15, 2021.