Why I’m insanely excited to open source our learnings from PIE
tl;dr PIE, the ongoing experiment between the Portland startup scene and corporations which I helped cofound, has served as a community hub, a coworking space, and a startup accelerator. Now, we’re hoping it can serve as an example with the PIE Cookbook. (If you’re interested in reading more and feel you’re already up-to-speed on our backstory, please feel free to jump to “Embracing open source.”)
tl;dr P.S. Apologies for this being such a long read. Admittedly, even the “too long; didn’t read” is too long. I’m just incredibly psyched about getting to do this whole thing and, clearly, at no loss for words. Inspiration is like that. Wordy. And effusive.
A little background on PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment
We have been working on PIE for roughly eight years. During that time, it has taken two primary forms. First, it served as a coworking space for the Portland startup community — truly without designs on becoming anything more. But after a series of interesting companies worked their way through and out of the space, we realized that we could have a far more significant impact on the Portland startup scene if we quit playing such a passive role in the relationship and took a more active role in the growth and development of these founders. That’s when we were inspired to start the second phase of the experiment, an accelerator for early stage startups which offered mentorship, capital, and space for startups in Portland — or those willing to join us in Portland.
Unlike the coworking phase, we created the accelerator with an intentional expiration date in mind. We decided that we would experiment with three classes of startups and then reassess whether or not we were actually providing any value to the Portland startup scene. Truth be told, we ran the experiment so lean that we were able to carve out four classes. And so after the Apple, Blueberry, Coconut Creme, and, finally, Derby PIE classes had run their course and we’d had the opportunity to continue to work with our amazing portfolio of alums for another year— a phase which we dubbed Elderberry PIE — it became clear that we needed to stick to our proposed checkpoint.
To stop. To assess. And to ask ourselves some important questions. Most notably, was it time for a new flavor of PIE?
You see, over time we have learned to take the “experiment” in our name to heart. Admittedly, part of that is because we get bored easily. But it’s also because we feel that there is value in continuing to try new things, to avoid comfort in the status quo, and to always be looking for ways to make new mistakes.
After some analysis and soul searching, it dawned on us. And suddenly seemed obvious. What we had learned over the past eight years was valuable. Not because we had an expertise gained over the years mentoring thousands of startups like Y Combinator nor because we had honed and revised our process and program around the world like Techstars.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. We were not expert. But we had learned stuff. Valuable things about mentoring and startups and acceleration. And interesting mistakes and missteps. And happy accidents that we managed to bumble into. What’s more, these were things that we were willing to share with anyone who cared to ask. And that’s when it hit us.
We realized that all of that — all of the knowledge and learning and experience and mistakes — had become unnecessarily proprietary. And difficult to scale. And so the focus of the next experiment suddenly came into sharp relief.
And that’s why I’m ridiculously excited — and nervous and scared — to be embarking on the next phase of our journey with this experiment. The next flavor of PIE — Filbert PIE — will be an experiment in sharing all of our learnings as an open source project. To take the experiment a step further, we’ve asked the Kickstarter community to help.
Not simply because we can, but because we should.
And as I sat here at the edge of the precipice before the dive — the deep breath before the plunge, as it were — I was garnering strength to take the leap by remembering some of the reasons that got me here in the first place. And so, I thought I would capture some of those for you. To give you an idea of why this is important. And why I am so motivated to plow ahead on this crazy experiment.
By engaging in this project, I gain the following: a very real opportunity to embrace open source, a chance to turn inspiration into action, a way to experiment with Kickstarter, the hope of fostering the next generation of amazing startup accelerators, and, most importantly, an opportunity to give back to the community who has given so much to me — and to do so, expecting nothing in return.
Embracing open source
I encountered the concepts of “startups” and “open source” in rapid succession, the first time I joined a startup. Well, honestly, it was more the phrasing of “open source” than the concept. I had always thought of code as an ongoing conversation. But it wasn’t always necessarily an “open” one, for me.
In the 80s, when I reversed engineered Pac-Man on my TRS-80 — pressing PLAY and RECORD more often than I struck keys on the keyboard — the only thing open about the pursuit was BASIC, itself. Figuring out collision detection, learning how to move the character, getting it to ingest dots… all of that was fairly opaque. Filled with trial and error. And, most definitely, all written from scratch starting with line 0.
Many years later, when I entered the world of startups, I was introduced to the concept of sharing what you had learned and built — out in the open. For others to use, critique, and build upon. And I was inspired. But I lacked any of the coding chops required to participate at even the most rudimentary level. So I just remained a fanboy of the concept and the pursuits of those with more skills than I had.
But this was Portland. And the concept of open source kept returning — to my happiness — time and time again.
As I continued to foster this admiration for open source, this exposure highlighted that Portland was somewhat of a bastion for this flavor of development. And that startups were springing out of open source user groups and hackathons. And that really interesting open source projects were being developed right in my back yard. In an effort to participate —again, lacking the coding chops — I started Silicon Florist. In my mind, it was a way to “open source” my writing, marketing, and promotional abilities. And maybe, just maybe, a way to contribute to what was happening here.
I was part of open sourcing a few projects, here and there. And I managed to contribute to documentation or submit bugs from time to time. But in the long run, the closest I ever came to participating as an Open Source Citizen was to provide some seed funding and put effort toward the inaugural Open Source Bridge, itself a new take on how open source conferences could be run.
So with the PIE Cookbook, getting the chance to actually help lead an open source project…? That’s been a long time coming for me. I’m looking forward to learning — and probably making some mistakes. But no matter what, I’m really interested in seeing where the community takes this project.
From Inspiration to action
Throughout our time with PIE, I’ve been inspired by hundreds — if not thousands — of people. But I always see “inspiration” as a double-edged sword. It’s great to have. But unless it translates into action, it’s almost worse than having no inspiration, at all. Inspiring people to do nothing is a tribute to no one. I honestly feel that you’re doing those inspirational folks a disservice if you don’t convert that inspiration into action.
So that’s what I’m trying to do. And the following folks were critical sources of inspiration, to whom I’m trying to pay tribute by turning that inspiration into action.
- Ward Cunningham — Portland is home to some of the most interesting people I’ll ever hope to meet, let alone with whom get the chance to work. Ward is one of those folks. If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you use a product he created, practically every day. Ward is the father of the wiki. He’s also a huge proponent of open source. We were lucky to have Ward in PIE while he worked on an open data project with Nike — and he continued to serve as a mentor throughout our accelerator program. I’m going to paraphrase this badly, but one of the most interesting pieces of advice I ever received from Ward was a tip on both open source and community development. “If you want people to participate,” he shared in my nostalgic memory. “You have to put something out there. Not something perfect. Something broken. But a start. Something that others see the opportunity to fix or enhance. That’s why open source works.” I’m looking forward to putting plenty of broken and fixable thoughts out there, Ward. Thank you.
- Brad Feld — While we’ve only met a couple of times, it’s Brad’s actions that continue to serve as inspiration for me. And those actions were direct motivators for pursuing the PIE Cookbook. You see, Brad has this way of giving folks a look behind the curtain that’s changed the way many of us think. Be it with his blog. Or things like Startup Communities and the Boulder Thesis. Or even with the modern day Rosetta Stone — and what should be required reading for every founder, ever — that is Venture Deals. Time and time again, Brad has proven the value of sharing what you know. And making it accessible to as many people as possible. I can only hope that the PIE Cookbook has even a fraction of the impact.
- Y Combinator and Techstars — It’s no secret that the accelerator portion of PIE began as a jumbled amalgamation of what we saw happening at YC and Techstars. How could it not? At the time we started the conversations around the project, we were already enamored of both of those — then still young — programs. Almost as if we have some premonition that they would become the gold standards of accelerator performance around the world. But it was something seemingly insignificant and non-program-related that both of these entities did that was the most inspirational. For the good of the community, YC and Techstars both open sourced their terms, which currently exist as YC’s SAFE and Techstars’ Seed Documents. Techstars’ continued diligence around transparency only further solidified that respect. If the archetypes for PIE were being open about what they were doing, it only makes sense for PIE to follow suit.
- Automattic and Puppet Labs — Even if you argue against the concept that Portland is the hub of open source, you cannot possibly argue that it isn’t a major hub for open source. Needless to say, we have a lot of examples from which to draw. And open source models to follow. Most specifically, we were inspired by Automattic — which had team members reside in PIE for years — and Puppet Labs — which we watched grow into one of the most successful companies in Portland. Each had a strong open source ethos and a successful business. They both continue to successfully straddle the fence dividing open source and proprietary. And they both manage and engage with a passionate community of both users and contributors. So in a very “how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” sort of way, they both inspired us to think about how to make PIE more open. And to stop thinking about our model as some secret sauce. And how to share more. Knowing that there was a very real way to both keep the organization alive and make our learnings accessible to more people. In short, these two reminded us of our humility and the potential to create something more by creating out in the open.
- Every PIE mentor, ever — None of this — the learning, the sharing, the mistakes — would ever have been possible without the Portland community and the broader startup community who helped us build PIE. Their willingness to share their learnings — while expecting nothing in return — continues to serve as both an example and inspiration for me on a daily basis. And I remain hopeful that our effort around the PIE Cookbook can serve as a form of tribute to the inspiration they provide on a daily basis.
We don’t talk about it much, but early in PIE’s existence — back in the coworking days — we were lucky to have one of Kickstarter’s folks actually sitting in PIE. And because of that we also had the opportunity to host a gathering for the Portland Kickstarter community. Unfortunately for him, it also meant that we would bug him mercilessly about how to build successful projects or if our newest random idea had potential as a Kickstarter project. Needless to say, launching an actual Kickstarter project has been a long time in the making. But I mean, why rush into these things? Seven years seems like a nice safe number.
That length of time is not without it’s downside. We’ve a lot of pent up angst about the whole thing. And we’ve likely overthought it. But I’m happy that we’ve finally taken the plunge and created a project. Coming full circle, as it were.
Fostering a new generation of accelerators
Since PIE’s founding, we’ve seen a ton of new accelerators come into being. Hundreds, if not thousands, of folks are taking up the challenge of creating organizations to stimulate activity in their respective disciplines and communities. And because of this, more than a few folks are talking about an “accelerator bubble.” So how do we rectify this effort to help people build accelerators with the fact that there are already a ton of accelerators?
Well, we have a pretty simple belief: No one has perfected this model, yet. Least of all us. But someone will.
In other words, there’s still a lot to be done. And learned. And explored.
To provide context, I’ll share a couple of analogies to describe where we are today, in terms of accelerators and this perceived “accelerator bubble.”
- As far as accelerators go, we have our Ivy Leagues and our Stanford, but we have barely begun to scratch the surface for this educational model. Where is the Georgia Tech of accelerators? Where is the RISD? Where is the Reed or Whitman? Better yet, where is the state school or community college or junior college? Where is the vocational school of accelerators? There’s still plenty of room to explore this educational model. We have a long way to go before we’ve even leveraged the existing model, let alone begun to inflate the bubble.
- Accelerators are currently like the search engine market before Google. Remember pre-Google Web? Well if you don’t, suffice it to say that there were a few choices for searching the Web, back in the day. Like hundreds. And no single one had significant traction. Mostly because they were all variations on a theme. Some were directories. Some were aggregators. Some were really, really smart algorithms. Many of them were wildly successful at the time. But none of them had really nailed the way to find the most relevant information on the Web. That’s kind of where we are with accelerators, today. And I’m hopeful that getting more smart people thinking about the model will help us find a better way of doing this. For everyone.
Expect nothing in return
Finally, I would remiss without noting the inspiration of David Cohen, cofounder of Techstars, who has a great post on how to mentor called “The Mentor Manifesto.” (If you ever thought of mentoring — or are currently mentoring startups — it should be required reading.) And while I appreciate and try to follow each and every point, one resonates with me more than any other: Expect nothing in return.
I’m excited to build the PIE Cookbook because it seems like the right thing to do. I’m sharing what we’ve learned because if it helps one person forego the mistakes we’ve made, it will be worth it. I’m inspired to chase this crazy experiment because all of us are smarter than a few of us. But in the long run, that’s just me trying to be a mentor — and expecting nothing in return.
Hopefully, that provides a little more insight on why I’m so excited about this project. And the motivations behind it. In all honesty, the PIE model has become unnecessarily proprietary, not intentionally but simply because it’s stuck in our heads. We’re looking forward to fixing that. And I’m really looking forward to working with you to make that happen. Please join us.
Rick Turoczy (@turoczy) has been working in high-tech startups in the Portland area for more than 20 years. As founder and editor of Silicon Florist, he has blogged about the Portland startup scene for nearly a decade — even though numerous people have begged him to stop. That side project led Rick to cofound PIE (the Portland Incubator Experiment), a startup accelerator formed in partnership with global advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy. Those efforts led to the founding of Oregon Story Board, a project that is using learnings from the PIE experiment to accelerate companies in the services industry.
All because of a blog. Weird.