PIE: From side project to startup

A few years back, I had the opportunity to run a BarCamp Portland session called “From side project to startup.” I’ve always liked that thought. Because it’s a dream that so many of us have. To work on something we love—even if it’s on the side. And for that project to build so much momentum and find users and find revenue. And that we could make it our job. Day in and day out.

Well, I never believed it would happen to me. But with Silicon Florist and PIE, it has.

I’ve told this story at least a thousand times. So forgive me if you’re heard it once or twice. But I thought now—as we’re entering the next phase of PIE—it might be a good time to commit it to paper. Or pixels. Or whatever.

Because while you may have heard bits and pieces, I don’t think anyone has really ever had to sit through the whole thing.

Lucky you.

And so, to make a short story, long…

PIE 0.1

Around two years ago, in mid-2009, I got a direct message from Renny Gleeson, the head of global interactive strategy at Wieden+Kennedy.

Renny and I had a met a couple of times. Most notably at the first Ignite Portland, for which he had graciously offered up the W+K space to host. But honestly, I had no idea why he was contacting me.

So we met, at the maze that is the W+K Portland office. And he started to describe an idea he had.

It seems that the first floor of W+K had some vacant office space. A former retail location. That had been sitting open for a while. At 1227 NW Davis.

Renny had two concerns. First, he thought that W+K was missing an opportunity for a stronger connection to the tech startup community. Second, he thought W+K was missing an obvious connection to the Portland community in general. Something they had tasted with Ignite and Lunch 2.0—but something that had never been fully realized.

Renny thought he might be able to use the space to solve those issues. To reconnect W+K to startups and Portland. And for some reason, he thought he would ask me if I would like to help.

Strangely enough, I had been having very similar conversations about “a space for Portland startups.” First with Justin Kistner and then with Scott Kveton and Jason Glaspey. We’d even begun to formulate a bit of a list about who might be interested. And what we might do there.

So I put Renny in touch with Scott to talk more about all of our ideas.

And a month later? We were all standing in an empty space in the Pearl, describing the concept to a bunch of folks whom we hoped would participate.

PIE 1.0

What we had in our mind for the first version of PIE back then was very much along the lines of what Kevin Rose is currently pursuing with Milk.

We thought that if we brought a bunch of strong individual contributors into close proximity with a bunch of fledgling startups that, not only would the startups have a better chance of succeeding, but we’d have the ability to get everyone together to collaborate on interesting side projects. Hack things together on the fly. Test ideas. See if we hit upon anything.

And we did launch a couple of projects. And we did work together. Although our most promising one was scrapped after the company who hired us to build it suddenly remembered that they had acquired a company for that very functionality—more than a year before they hired us to build it.

I hear you. What was in it for Wieden+Kennedy besides warm fuzzies? Well, as a benefit, W+K would have the opportunity to come down and pick our brains. Or throw challenges at us. Or ask us to poke holes in their ideas.

It was a think tank of sorts. Something to help keep W+K in touch with the bleeding edge of technology. And to provide criticism on rusting edge ideas.

And it seemed like a great idea.

That said, in hindsight there were—admittedly—two huge bugs in PIE 1.0:

  1. People who have just left their day jobs to work full time on their startup are very interested in focusing on said startup. No matter how side-project-y they’ve been in the past, they’re not much for the side projects at that point in time.
  2. A strong individual contributor who is used to rolling out of bed and going to work finds it very difficult to justify a commute to an office space—no matter how compelling his or her coworkers might be.

And a third, lesser but still critical bug: We were all so busy running in a thousand directions, we never did a good job of describing what PIE was or what we were trying to do. We failed to explain that to the folks upstairs. And we failed to explain that to the outside world.

But we had momentum. And there were some interesting things happening. So it didn’t seem like it was holding us back. We kept charging ahead with the side project that was PIE.

PIE 1.5

You know those releases that are designed to be bug fixes but they seem to change the very nature of how your product works? Yeah.

With Bac’n sold and Urban Airship taking off (pun intended), PIE was rapidly becoming the UA office—with some other startups tacked on the side. So UA looked for some other space, moved upstairs briefly, and then eventually moved out, landing in their current location on NW 11th and Flanders.

And PIE morphed a bit, becoming very much a coworking space, full of like minded but largely disconnected companies—companies which seemed to very rapidly outgrow our space. First Urban Airship outgrew the space. Then? Refresh Media grew out of PIE. Gorlochs grew out of PIE. PHP Fog grew out of PIE. BankSimple‘s development team grew out of PIE.

Sensing a theme here?

But that was awesome. We loved seeing companies grow quickly. And take advantage of some of the peer mentoring we were able to offer. But that wasn’t really what we’d started out to do. But you know? Sometimes you have to go with the flow. Or what is that word the cool kids use? Oh yeah. Pivot.

So we continued to function as a coworking space. And to build our alumni network. And the collaborative atmosphere of PIE took a back seat to ensuring that people had desks and we were hosting events and whatnot.

Oh. And bear in mind, that this is still just a side project for everyone involved.

So we’ve got companies renting desks at PIE, growing quickly, and then leaving to make room for new companies. And we’ve got some companies who’ve been at PIE for awhile. Long enough to remember the old days. And we’ve got alums doing amazing things and landing more funding.

And then there was this interesting dynamic happening upstairs.

You see, it turns out W+K was making some phenomenal hires. Folks who understood online. And who knew mobile. And who got the whole tech thing. I mean, really got it. Folks who were stronger and more thoughtful than many of the folks at PIE. And who got to focus on that kind of thinking full time. Not just as an aspect of their startup.

And so, PIE began to wane as a think tank, as well.

Should PIE stay or should PIE go?

So the beginning of 2011 rolls around. And the cofounders have to sit down with W+K management to discuss what’s been happening with PIE. Because, let’s face it. It’s still Renny and W+K’s experiment. We were just serving as the willing lab rats.

And I’ll have to admit, it was one of those stomach churning, nail biting, sweat inducing meetings.

We were walking into the meeting knowing full well that we had failed to meet the original objectives of PIE. We hadn’t really created any new products—other than the startups we had launched. We hadn’t hit upon a new revelation in platforms that multiple W+K clients would find helpful. We hadn’t really ever gelled as a think tank for the account teams.

Fail. Fail. Fail.

So tail between our legs, we walked into the meeting. Expecting to leave with boxes for cleaning off our desks. Expecting that we would be looking for somewhere new to sit. Or heading back to our home offices and coffee shops.

But that’s not what happened.

Oh I mean sure, we discussed what abject failures we were at meeting our intended goals of the original experiment. And how we had failed to release any meaningful work as a collective. Don’t get me wrong. We reveled in that for a while.

But then, the discussion turned to what had actually happened. And where we had succeeded. Succeeded beyond our expectations.

Mentoring and accelerating.

You see, organically and largely through serendipity we had managed to create a space that had become a hub of activity and intelligent people. A space that was capable of making connections, providing guidance, and accelerating companies. Helping startups get their footing, find funding, and hire people more rapidly than they would have without PIE. Helping them find their way. Helping them make it.

Really, just mentoring them.

And so that’s where W+K asked us to focus. Not on fixing where we had failed. But on putting more momentum behind where we were succeeding. They asked PIE to become a full fledged mentoring resource. To help accelerate and incubate companies.

And it turns out, Renny offered, that they had some folks who would help us in that regard: Wieden+Kennedy’s customers.

PIE 2.0

And so we’ve embarked on the next stage of the experiment. The next version of PIE.

It’s an incubator fashioned after the TechStars model. We provide space, mentorship, and a small stipend in exchange for an equity stake in the companies who participate.

And we’re hoping to work with folks from TechStars, Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and any number of other organizations focused on helping startups succeed.

We just want to see startups make it.

We’ll be running the incubator with amazing people from the Portland tech community, the broader tech community, and well-known brands like Target, Coca-Cola, and Nike.

And we’ll be working to find awesome startups—either within Portland or without—to come spend three months us at PIE, building their dreams into going concerns. Maybe they’ll get funding. Maybe they’ll stand up on their own. Maybe they’ll be acquired. Maybe they’ll just be ready to step into Y Combinator or TechStars or the Portland Seed Fund.

We just want them to make it. To move from side project to startup. And to focus on building good solid companies.

And yes. I keep saying “we.” That’s the side story. I’m happy to announce that I’ll be working on PIE full time. That’s right. My side project has become my startup. And like Silicon Florist, it’s a startup designed to help startups. I can’t wait to see where this goes. And I’m sincerely hoping you’ll take the chance to join me.

Don’t worry. I’ll still keep posting my drivel here. Highlighting the awesome startups in Portland and what they’re accomplishing. And we’ll still be more than happy to host hackathons and gatherings and celebrations for the Portland tech community. And hopefully more.

You can’t get away from me that easily, silly.

Apply to PIE

So now we come to the close. And here’s the request I have. If you’ve got a startup or a side project and you’d like to work with us, please apply to be part of the first class of PIE. If you have friends who have awesome startup ideas, please point them our way.

Applications close August 1. And class starts September 1.

Questions? Interested in mentoring? Please feel free to drop me a line at rick@piepdx.com.

For more information, visit PIE, follow @PIEpdx on Twitter, or like PIE on Facebook.

  1. […] format and is now accepting applications for new startups to come join the space. [Full disclosure: PIE is my day job.] You may have also heard that part of the new PIE is the fact that startups get mentors from […]

  2. […] format and is now accepting applications for new startups to come join the space. [Full disclosure: PIE is my day job.] You may have also heard that part of the new PIE is the fact that startups get mentors from […]

  3. […] format and is now accepting applications for new startups to come join the space. [Full disclosure: PIE is my day job.] You may have also heard that part of the new PIE is the fact that startups get mentors from […]

  4. […] was attractive because it was vibrant and full of smart people. But until I read Rick’s history of PIE, I still didn’t get […]

  5. […] backstory, PIE started just like a typical startup, as a side project. They played a key role in the startup ecosystem over the years, helping out with Ignite, BarCamp […]

  6. Great write-up Rick. It was great hearing this story from you in person last week, but this is a great supplement to our conversation. I am so excited for what PIE 2.0 has in store for start-ups and for Portland in general. I look forward to seeing what lucky start-ups you choose from all the applicants and how PIE works to accelerate them. l truly believe that collectively this town is on the cusp of something huge! Thanks for always working hard to shed more light on the Portland tech scene, support women in tech, and to put this town on the map as one of the big players! Oh yeah and thanks to that little agency W+K too!

  7. This could prove to be one of the kicks in the ass Portland needs and will be great if it achieves it’s stated mission and isn’t just another Portland big fish/small pond/self-marketing opportunity for those involved. Will be watching to see what sort of companies apply to the program – seems like Ycombinator and the ilk would have almost a right of first refusal on the best of the best given their proven track record. Too bad it can’t be treated as a side project, I’ve been kicking an idea around for awhile that dovetails nicely with WK’s clients…

  8. Thanks, Ryan! To answer your question, our plan is to have the brand and W+K mentors actively engaged in the day-to-day goings on. They won’t be on site all of the time but they’ll be connected and tuned in throughout the class. And, we’re working to make sure they get to spend some time in Portland face-to-face with the startups during that period, too.

  9. Thanks for sharing the story Rick. Definitely enough ups and downs that deserve the short story becoming long. I’m excited for you that you were able to achieve your side-project to startup success. Well-deserved! Your hard work has been a boon to Portland as well, and with the new PIE, I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of great work come out of it.

    I am still curious about the W+K customer/brand involvement. It’s a new angle vs the other incubators you mention, will they be actively in the space or more providing feedback during demos? I imagine it’ll work itself out during the first run.

  10. That’s a beautifully told story of PIE. As I’ve watched it from those early meetings to where I sit today, it’s been a pleasure to be part of it. However, one part of the story not told above is how instrument Rick has been to every “point release” we’ve had, and how his vision and passion for it to succeed are why it is what it is. W+K deserves a TON of credit, as does Renny and Nick Barham, but Rick has really been the glue and the pain-in-the-ass that’s kept anyone from giving up on it.

    Couldn’t be happier that you’ll be able to focus on this full time Ricky, it’s all good things from here.

    Oh, and here’s to PIE 3.0, whenever it shows up and proves again what we can do (if a benevolent and forward-thinking agency provides space)

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