Want to start an accelerator? Don’t start an accelerator

You don’t get to start in the middle. You have to start at the beginning.

When we started the experiment with Wieden+Kennedy that became PIE, Renny and I didn’t set out to build an accelerator. We just kind of stumbled into this whole thing. To be honest, it wasn’t even on our list of objectives when we started. Or part of the conversation. It’s just where we wound up for a time. But oddly enough — even though we never set out to build an accelerator — we managed to build a very effective one.

To summarize: Who knew?

This is a recurring theme. Throughout PIE’s life, we have been part of an ongoing series of happy accidents. Starting with the relationship with W+K and kind of cascading from there.

Well, honestly, to be more accurate, it was a whole bunch of mistakes, failures, and missteps that happen to be punctuated by some happy accidents. And we have lucked our way into some things — once the timing was right and all signs pointed to an opportunity — that enabled us to solve problems for the Portland startup community. By identifying gaps and then building something to satisfy that gap. Again and again. And we’re still trying to do that.

Simple, right? Well, sort of. Simple, but convoluted. So maybe give us the opportunity to be your accidental sherpa. To help you along a similarly incongruous—but beneficial—path.

If Renny and I had started with an accelerator, we’re confident that we would have failed. Miserably. And that’s why we’re recommending that — if you’re thinking about starting an accelerator — you do anything but that.

So if starting with an accelerator isn’t the right place, where should folks begin? Well, how about we give you a brief timeline of PIE’s existence. And maybe you’ll find commonality in your community that gives you a more appropriate starting place.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover that you’re one of the rare few who has already done all of the legwork. One who has completed all of the prerequisites. One of those lucky few communities that can, in fact, dive straight into the deep end of the pool. Because they’ve been ramping up all along. And they’re ready to take on that accelerator opportunity.

But if you’re not there yet, please do not skip ahead. Do not pass go. There is no shortcut. It takes time.

The PIE accelerator, unbeknownst to us, started in 1995, 15 years before PIE officially became an accelerator.

It doesn’t have to take that long for your community. But it did for ours.

This isn’t a guide. Or a regimen. This isn’t the answer. This is simply how PIE became an accelerator. There is no right timespan for this. For some communities, it happens more quickly and organically. For others, it takes a long, long, long time.

I would argue that, in many ways, we’re not done. And an accelerator might not be the final answer. And we’re still working toward even becoming something truly valuable and sustainable.

So with that in mind…

Building a startup accelerator in seven easy steps

tl;dr You’re not starting an accelerator. You’re building community.

Step 1: Found your own company. Or at least work at a startup.

Per Brad Feld’s advice in Startup Communities, if you’re going to truly succeed in building a startup community then “the leaders have to be entrepreneurs.” With that in mind, we realize that PIE’s journey started when Renny and I started working in startups. Sometimes as founders. Sometimes as employees of startups. But in startups. In the trenches, as it were.

On the surface, this is the price you pay for credibility.

But, more importantly, it’s also this time—mired in the struggles of startups—that allows you to see the real problems and opportunities from the trenches.

And it’s that direct startup experience that will inform the accelerator you want to build, eventually.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s that time working with other startup types, meeting people, and building a network of intelligent and driven folks that becomes the most critical element of this first step. Because it’s those people who will provide the foundation for a broader community. A community that will be critical to your accelerator. Because these are your colleagues, mentors, advisors, investors—and potential applicants.

And not just local community, mind you. Because building an accelerator takes more than just local flavor. It takes expansive and extended networks. And a multitude of viewpoints. And getting outside of your comfort zone.

Step 2: Participate in the community.

The most important part of beginning to build community is to meet the existing community where it is, currently. Because we can guarantee—whether you think there is community or not—that there’s community. It’s just not evenly distributed. It’s disconnected. It’s in hidden pockets, here and there.

There is community already. Your challenge is to find it. And meet it. Where it lives.
At the Green Dragon for Beer & Blog (Image courtesy Hockley Photography)

PIE’s founders attended coffee gatherings, happy hours, user groups, tech meet ups, startup discussions, open source gatherings, BarCamps, tradeshows, and on and on and on.

But we also did things far less organized and structured. Sometimes, we just sat in coffeeshops and struck up conversations with other laptop-wielding denizens. We talked to people both in Portland and outside of Portland. Because we needed that diverse network. And diversity of viewpoints. We tried to figure out what was going on and who was doing what.

But we did it on their turf. Not ours. We tried to provide value and get invited to their gatherings. We didn’t egotistically start our own events. And in so doing—from that collaborative standpoint—we continued to build up the network that would be the most critical component of PIE: community.

Step 3: Talk about the community.

There’s something about a tree falling and no one hearing it. Community is the same way. You have to talk about it. And blog about it. And tweet about it. You have to connect it. And highlight what it’s doing.

Why? Because, for the most part, community is not immediately self-aware. As such, people don’t just realize that there’s “a community.” Even if they’re deeply involved in that community. You have to tell them. And then tell them again. And again.

You have to cheerlead. You have to create a bully pulpit. And you have to use that megaphone to convince those outside of the community that the community is, in fact, real. And to encourage those who are starting to become self-aware of the community to connect more deeply with that community.

For us, those vehicles were things like Silicon Florist, our personal blogs, local publications, larger tech blogs outside of our region, and the—then nascent—social media landscape. All served as the means of talking about the Portland startup community. And to spread the belief that it existed and had the potential to be much, much more.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Portland startup community.

Note: This step is ongoing. You don’t get to stop talking about the community. Ever. Keep going. Keep talking.

Step 4: Invite the community in.

Now that your community is starting to solidify and formalize, you can start to host events. Shine a spotlight on talented community members. And invite people who would benefit from hearing those community members. Renny did this by having W+K serve as the inaugural host of Ignite Portland. And hosting events like Portland Lunch 2.0, among others.

Without—and this is critical—expecting anything in return. At all.

Don’t think that you have to acquire space before this happens. You can partner with existing spaces. Or pay to rent spaces that you make accessible to others. Or this can occur in a shared space or a known resource.

You don’t have to own the space, but you must do what it takes to make space available to the community.

With PIE, we were lucky enough to own space. Which had been generously donated by our patron, W+K, as part of the experiment. So we hosted community gatherings that we didn’t manage. We invited people into the space. We had them hold their events in our space. We let people crash out overnight for crazy caffeine fueled coding sessions. Heck, we even hosted the first ever 30 hour nonstop livestreamed Web telethon in the space to help the community raise money for charity during the holiday season.

We made the PIE space a resource by the community, for the community.

Step 5: Create a common space.

Nike Open Data Hack hosted at PIE

Events are great. But truly valuable community spaces are leveraged as a utility, all day, every day.

For PIE, forming a coworking space was the way to go. In part because Wieden had given us the space to do it. And in part because we thought it was what our community needed. It ensured that the space was being used throughout the day while making it available for events in the evening. Plus it gave the space ongoing and sustainable energy. Everybody wins.

Maybe your community needs the same thing. Or maybe it simply needs an event space that it uses throughout the day. Or maybe it needs a coffeeshop or a brewpub. Who knows? Maybe it needs a multistory complex that houses everything from startups through established businesses.

We don’t know what your community needs. It’s your community. There is no right answer. Or, perhaps more appropriately, there is no one answer that is right for every community.

Your task is to find the answer that solves an actual need within your community. And to find the partners and patrons who are going to help you get there. You need to create the space that your community needs to continue to thrive. And to continue the momentum you, as a community, have created.

For us, the space in the Wieden+Kennedy building afforded us opportunities for coworking and hosting events—which in turn provided all kinds of value for the community. In retrospect, there are three things we found to be most important about having a physical space:

a) As different groups in the community took advantage of the space, it created an opportunity for random collisions to occur and serendipity to thrive—from W+K and giant global brands to nascent startups. We found that those collisions created real and sustainable connections.

b) It provided a vantage point for us—the startup community and our patron—to better understand the dynamics of the community, where the momentum was, and where the gaps were. At times, it also provided us with an opportunity to simply observe, as an objective third party.

c) It served as a physical representation of the community, as a whole. So when folks were visiting town or were new to town, they had a place to land. And that space enabled others to discover and engage with the community more readily.

Step 6: Keep doing all of that stuff. But do more of it. Faster.

A late night hack session at PIE

Now that you’ve got some momentum, you’ve got a working space, and you’ve started to define your role in the community, you have to really get to work. Or maybe you have to build something else. But you get the gist.

There’s more to do.

In addition to hosting, you now get to start programming your own events. And using your network to make those events interesting, engaging, and valuable. But bear in mind, that this event programming has to occur in collaboration with — not in competition to — the events we mentioned in Steps 2 and 4.

It’s incredibly important that these events fill gaps. Not replicate existing content.

With PIE, we created our own programming and invited folks to attend. We held hackathons that combined the startup community with the creative community and corporate community. We offered our space for coworking sessions for the “friends of PIE.” Even if that meant giving space away.

In short, we were on the constant lookout for interesting opportunities to bring our networks together. For talks. For gatherings. And for all sorts of collaboration. Because connecting our disparate communities and adding value to the broader community is what helped us establish our space as valuable, needed, and sustainable.

And then, only then, were Renny and I ready to…

Step 7: Start an accelerator.

Now that you’ve done all of that work, you’re ready. I mean, if it’s even still needed.

At PIE, we needed to start an accelerator. The community needed it. W+K needed it. Startups needed it. Individuals needed it. First a bullhorn. Then a coworking space. Then an accelerator. Because we needed it. As a community.

But if you discover it’s not needed, that’s okay too.

Again, this isn’t the right way to do anything. This just happens to be how PIE came into being.

Please don’t take this as a roadmap to try to recreate PIE. This is just an allegory. To serve as an example of one potential path.

Whatever you choose to do—start a long journey or jump into the deep end of the pool—just remember that, in the long run, you’re not building an accelerator. You’re building a community.


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 creative services industry.

All because of a blog. Weird.