So about a month ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with folks about their questions about the Portland startup community, finding cofounders, and the like. But we didn’t even scratch the surface of questions. So we’ve scheduled another session.
If you want to join live with questions — or ask your questions ahead of time — you can join us on Crowdcast. If you simply want to tune in, you can watch on YouTube Live. It’s all taking place Tuesday, May 5, 2020, at 5:00PM Pacific Time.
Questions from the first Portland startup community AMA
Want to see what questions have already been answered? Maybe check out the first installment of the Portland startup community Q&A. Or read through the transcript.
What are the benefits and costs of a SaaS startup joining PIE?
So cost? None. PIE is completely free and clear to founders currently. We don’t take equity. We don’t charge tuition. We don’t charge rent. It’s very much a program designed to support founders as they’re building their businesses without taking much needed capital away from them at their most formative stages.
In terms of benefits, it’s really kind of like I described before. The benefit of PIE is getting you more quickly networked, more connected within the community. Getting you expert mentorship, getting connections outside of the existing Portland community that we’ve built up over the past 10 years. And really trying to help you figure out, most honestly, if you even want to be a founder.
I think a lot of folks get into this startup thing, thinking they know what it means to be a founder. When in reality, it’s just kind of the mythology of being a founder. And what we try and do is expose founders to that reality as quickly as we possibly can, to ensure that you know what path you’re on, and that you want to be on that path.
And it’s fine if you don’t.
Sometimes at PIE, folks realize being a founders isn’t what they thought it was, and they don’t want to be doing that anymore. A lot of our work tends to be around, forcing you to do the unfun stuff about building a company.
So the things you might not want to do or don’t realize you need to do? That’s where PIE can help you most. I hope that answers that question. If not feel free to drop another one in.
Where do you think there’s the most room for improvement in the Portland startup scene? What do we need to learn and just do better as an ecosystem?
So I think the greatest room for improvement with Portland now is we’re seeing — at least up into the point of this weirdness that we’re in right now — a huge influx of population into Portland. Prior to that, the Portland startup community had really been operating as a very kind of small town startup community. So not a lot of infrastructure. Not a lot of scale. It was very difficult if you’re somebody new coming to town, figuring out how to get connected. Or if you were making the leap from a day job to being an entrepreneur, it was very hard to figure out where to start.
And so I think the greatest improvement that Portland needs now at the scale that Portland the at the scale the city has become, is that we really just need more infrastructure and and more ways to efficiently scale so that it’s not as hard to be a founder here. So that you don’t have to figure your way on your own.
I think we could do a lot better with some, you know, some frameworks, and some way has just provided a repository or more resources, more obvious to people.
And then what do we need to learn and just do better as an ecosystem? You know, I think ecosystems take a while to mature. So I feel like Portland’s in a good spot for the age and maturity that the Portland startup ecosystem is. We’re gonna have growing pains. The lack of infrastructure is one of those growing pains. And I think we will kind of continue to work at that.
But it’s going to be frustrating. And it’s going to take time. So I can just encourage more folks to get involved. More folks to build those resources that they feel are needed.
I think that’s the other thing about the kind of small town dynamic is there’s the assumption that if one person is doing it, then that problem is solved. And that’s often not the case for a city of our size.
So I would encourage more people to do more things, even if it creates more noise in the short term. Because having more resources accessible to people will improve over the long run. So I think that’s the best way to go about it.
What is the Portland startup community doing to address the long term effects on the local ecosystem due to the public health crisis we’re in?
That’s a really great question. Unfortunately, the answer right now, I think is just “not much.” I think folks are still in shock. I see folks being very tactical and trying to solve easy problems. Or trying to do things that make themselves feel better, to feel like they’re contributing in a meaningful way to helping to solve this problem.
But I haven’t started to see that kind of strategic stuff shake loose yet. So I don’t see a lot of like long term vision from folks. Which is fine. I mean, most folks have only been kind of sheltering in place for a couple of weeks. I think a lot of us are still grieving and mourning what was normal life and trying to deal with this new reality that we find ourselves in.
And we find ourselves in a unique situation that I’ve never encountered in my professional career. At least in my experience, you know, I went through the dotcom days and the dotcom bust. I went through the mortgage crisis and all those kinds of things. This is the first time that I’ve ever seen the globe going through a very similar situation.
And I think it’s a unique opportunity for founders and entrepreneurs to take that global pause as an opportunity to be more thoughtful, and take the time to think and, and rest and, and build up things that could be world changing. I think, you know, there’s no way to hustle your way out of what’s happening right now.
And so I encourage folks to kind of take that time. Think about longer term. And how they could be helping those in need.
In particular, if you have any things that you’ve seen happening in the community, or some projects or, or folks have hackathons. I know TechStars is organizing a global hackathon. I’ve seen a couple other regional hackathons and that kind of thing. Like if folks have free resources, I encourage them to drop them into the chat. And let’s see If we can start working on some of those issues.
I’d also encourage folks to join the Portland Startup Slack (https://pdxslack.com/). That could be good for folks. That would be another valuable place to kind of compare notes.
I also know that the Portland Startup Switchboard (https://pdxstartups.switchboardhq.com/) has seen an uptick in activity. And so that could be another way to kind of compare notes and share ideas.
Does PIE work with entrepreneurship programs at PSU, OSU, or UO?
So PIE has, for a long time, worked with Portland State because Portland State had the first accelerator, incubator program, really of consequence in the city. With this generation of startups, folks may remember Jive. Jive was in the Portland State business accelerator back in the day. And they’ve had a long line of really amazing companies that have come through there, so Portland State definitely.
With Oregon State, the more we’ve gotten into hardware and engineering, the the more we’ve been chatting with OSU because of their, their depth of expertise and their huge patent portfolio
The projects they’re incubating out of the University of Oregon, on the Built side, we’ve had a number of conversations with their more sports oriented programs or sports entrepreneurship or product design.
That goes for PSU as well. They’ve built consumer products expertise, that we’ve been working with them on that as well. No real formalized program. But definitely lots of conversations.
We share many mentors among those groups, and we are always looking for ways to engage more effectively with those programs, both for current students, as well as alums.
Are there ways to volunteer to become involved in the startup community?
That’s a great question. As I was saying before, sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to engage with the startup community. Especially now that we’re all kind of sheltering in place in our own homes that can become even more restrictive and confusing. So what I always encourage folks to think about is areas where they have a skill or expertise, and how they are willing to kind of provide that skill or expertise. And that could be through mentorship.
I’m convinced anyone can be a mentor. I think some people, I have a great deal of respect for mentors and people who take the time to mentor. But I think some folks discount their ability to mentor. I think a lot of folks in the professional environment have forgotten how truly talented and creative and insightful they are. Because they do the same job day in and day out. And they start to assume that their common sense is common. And it’s not.
And so mentoring for programs is a really great way to get involved in the startup community and kind of get you exposure to all of the things that are happening here.
Once the world kind of settles into a new normal, I think volunteering for events — be they virtual or eventually in real life kind of events — can be a really great way to get engaged with the community. There are locally programmed and managed events. But also, you know, during the summer a lot of either national or international startup and tech events wind up happening in town. So that can be another really good way to get involved.
Again, I’ve kind of already alluded to it but the Portland Startup Slack can be a really easy way. It’s got an open invite. That’s a great place to just start poking around there, hundreds of channels in there.
But going back to the mentorship, you know, there are a number of programs in town. I mentioned Portland State Business Accelerator and PIE. There’s also WeWork Labs that does a lot of mentoring for people. XXcelerate Fund has a bunch of mentors that help them. So there are other programs you can look into, to see if your area of expertise matches their need. But that’s a really great way to get involved.
And then this may sound weird, but it’s from back in the old days of the Portland startup community: Twitter. Like folks are super active on Twitter and kind of remain so. So that could be a really easy way to engage in the community. I’ve seen folks recently just kind of that’s become their their on ramp to the community. And just helping get into conversations there or amplifying content can be a really compelling way to participate with a very kind of low barrier to entry.
What qualities do you find most valuable for startup founders to execute and succeed?
I’m going to answer this from the context of my experience, because experience in PIE is very different than maybe an experience in the real world or an experience in another accelerator program. So I will just speak specifically from a PIE perspective, what we appreciate in startup founders, and then the types of people we try to recruit to our program.
So we always think that the most important dynamic of a successful founder is coachability. I think people often think being a founder means you need to be stubborn, and, you know, have this very like, strategic vision of where you’re going. And no one can dissuade you from that.
And what we’ve discovered in PIE is, we do much better with founders who are coachable, who are capable of assimilating feedback — not necessarily directly following that feedback — but assimilating it, processing it, and then making a meaningful decision based on that feedback.
I find that skill very impressive.
I think we also need to understand that being a founder is extremely stressful and has a significant emotional toil. So founders who have figured out ways of managing that stress effectively can also be very good founders. The founders who have ways of coping — or healthy ways of dealing with the pressure they’re under — tend to be more successful in the long run.
And then the other part of it is, you know, sometimes for us it’s the ability to say “no.” And that might make them not-a-founder, right? The thing they may be saying no to is being a founder. But we still see that as success. We see that as a, you know, a, a character trait that we want to have in our programs. And hopefully, a character trait that makes those folks successful in whatever they do.
What’s the best way to find out about startups looking for team members who have skills in mechanical product design and manufacturing, and would like to join up with a team?
This is a really common question for folks. It’s very similar to the “How do I find a cofounder?” I think it’s a question that a lot of people come to the table with, right? You’ve been struck by this idea. You’re passionate about it. You want help in making it happen. And you want team members to assist you.
And then on the other side, I have skills that I know are valuable to a startup, but I can’t quite figure out how to find those startups. What do I do in that case? Which is what this question is talking to and that’s… It’s not It’s not easy either way.
It’s a lot of just reaching out to people. Kind of figuring out who’s working on what. I mentioned it earlier, but some folks have found success on the Portland Startup Switchboard. That’s a place where you can post “asks” and “offers.” So coming from this perspective, you could be like, here’s what I have to offer. Here’s what I have to offer. Here’s my skill set. Is anybody looking for this? Or do they know people who are looking for this?
Again, I mentioned PDX Startup Slack, but there are a number of other Slacks in town that — Slack instances that people are, you know, sharing ideas and skill sets and that kind of thing. So be looking for that.
I would say, as we all kind of adjust to this, this new normal — this kind of virtual thing that we’re going through — be looking for virtual events where, you know, people either have your skill set or are seeking your skill set might gather.
Once we get back to being able to do in person events, that’s always something I recommend for people. Even if you’re just curious about the event, or what they’re discussing, show up. Portland people are super welcoming. You know, they love to have folks at their events.
I think that’s gonna be a little more difficult here for the foreseeable future. It’s going to be this weird, kind of like, Slack interaction almost rather than a traditional event. But that’s another good way to kind of start getting connected with people.
Most importantly, just continue to tell people and talk to people about what you have to offer and what you’re looking for. Portland is very much a word of mouth town. And if you talk to enough people about what you’re doing, or what you’re offering… So yeah, just talk to more people. And that will kind of socialize throughout the community and throughout the ecosystem.
It’s more challenging than it should be. As I said, we don’t really have the infrastructure that’s needed to support this kind of thing. But we’re building it. Sso in the meantime, it’s going to be a lot more heavy lifting than it needs to be. But we’re getting there.
For hardware startups that have R&D they need to do, rather than general business help, is there a benefit in joining an accelerator?
I hate to be wishy washy, but… it depends.
Some accelerators are going to be more focused on just purely the “business” aspects of it. Some are going to be more focused on the “pitch” aspect of it, where they’re not really terribly concerned about the R&D or the business model. They just want you to be able to tell a good story on stage so that you can raise capital for the company, acquire customers, or whatever that metric may be.
So accelerators are kind of like applying to a college. You want to look for an accelerator that focuses on an area of expertise that is valuable to you.
So taking PIE Shop, for example… with PIE shop, we would fully welcome a company that was still very much in R&D because our partner, Autodesk, is very interested in how their software is being used during that phase of building businesses.
So for a PIE Shop, our manufacturing accelerator, we take businesses all along the spectrum. If you’re working on the business, we can help you with the business. But we also appreciate people who are still really struggling with design for manufacturing. Like they’ve kind of cobbled something together with a breadboard or a Raspberry Pi or something and they’re looking to create a manufacturable product. That’s something that’s perfectly fine for PIE Shop now. For other hardware accelerators that may be more focused on the business aspects — or the kind of pitch aspects — might not be a good fit for you.
But I would look. There’s so many accelerators out there now. In the 10+ years we’ve been doing this, we’ve just seen any number of flavors of accelerator or locations of accelerator. And so the onus is on the founders to do their due diligence about the accelerators and figure out which one is the right fit for them.
Do you know of a platform to find a complementary cofounder?
Any there been any number of these and no one’s really kind of cracked the code on how to do this for folks. You know, there’s like cofounders seeking cofounders kind of things.
I know a lot of folks get feedback from either mentors or potential investors, that having a cofounder or a cofounding team is a critical aspect to moving forward with them. So I know that there are a lot of folks that are trying to figure that out.
Fact of the matter is nobody’s really done it terribly well. It’s really just a matter of, again, kind of socializing, what you’re working on and sharing as much as you can. Tell people about what you’re building, like, don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re building. I always tell people that if you’re afraid that sharing what you’re building is going to cause somebody else to be more successful with that idea, then maybe you’re not the best person to execute that idea. If it’s that fragile… like Ideally, you should be passionate and confident about the idea you’re pursuing and sharing it with anyone who is going to get you feedback and help from others.
So again, just kind of socialize that you’re looking for a cofounder. Be very explicit about the skill sets you’re looking for in that cofounder. So not just that you “want a cofounder,” but that you have expertise in engineering. And so you need someone who’s more business minded to be your cofounder. Or maybe you’re a successful business person, but you know, you’re building a technical solution and you need a cofounder who has a more technical mindset. Maybe you need several. Maybe what you’re pursuing requires a variety of skills and multiple cofounders.
While we’re on cofounders, another thing I would just touch on is be very careful with getting into that relationship. It’s like any other substantial relationship, it shouldn’t be done lightly. You, you should take your time and do the appropriate due diligence. As should that cofounder. Of you and your concept.
So while realizing startups are hustle, hustle, hustle and rush, rush, rush, take the time to find the right co founder, and make sure they have both complementary skills to yours. But that you also — both or the three of you or whatever — have very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Where you understand what your job is, and you trust them to do their job, and that you’re actually working at it as a team. That’s one of the most critical aspects.
I see more startups fail because of cofounder problems. More than I do because of funding or marketing or any of that kind of stuff. So just just be very careful in that regard.
Playing off of mentoring and the question of a startup looking for help, maybe beyond mentoring, is there a platform or mechanism for those of us that want to help and have time, a few hours a week even?
We do a lot of this work kind of, you know, in a very high touch kind of way, at PIE. We don’t require our mentors to contribute significant time, we realize everybody has different schedules, and different skill sets. And so like our, our qualification or or commitment from a PIE mentor, is you need to be willing to have now one zoom meeting with one of our startups once a year. And that’s that’s about it.
We’re not not looking for you to show up every week or every day.
Some mentors choose to do that, and we love them for that, but that’s not a requirement. So PIE is an option there. I know other accelerators and even venture funds in town. Have people contribute a few hours a week.
There are always the needs for critique, like people will have pitch sessions or, or kind of demos of or like founders live as another good example or NewTechPDX where they’ll have founders stand up and speak, you know, kind of attending those kind of attending those events and, and just kind of hearing from people and what, what they need help with. That can be another really good way of engaging kind of with the light touch.
Then I know I’ve kind of mentioned it a couple times. I don’t want to keep like hammering on it, but nor do I just want to throw technology at a problem but the PDX Startup Slack or Switchboard could be another good way to kind of offer up those. Those mentoring hours per folks.
How polished of a hardware prototype, MVP, or minimum viable product for folks who don’t do the jargon would you recommend having before applying to PIE Shop or a hardware incubator?
So, I think PIE does its best work — PIE Shop in particular does its best work — where you have a fairly polished and working hardware prototype. You know, you don’t have to have designed and printed your own board. You don’t have to have milled your own housing or anything at that point. But if you have something that works, and that kind of demonstrates the function you want it to achieve, that’s probably where we have the most opportunity to accelerate your company forward.
Because you’re at a really good point in time for us to bring all of our resources to bear. That being said, if you’re struggling with the prototype, or MVP, and getting some of that kind of expert mentorship or assistance from Autodesk or Fresh Portland or some of our other corporate partners on that project, we will look at those opportunities as well.
So, we judge stuff more by the people, and again, how coachable they are, how far we think they can get in the accelerator, how much benefit we could actually provide to them, because it’s not about us. It’s about them as founders. That falls all along the spectrum for folks.
Again, I kind of spoke to this a little bit earlier, but you know, some hardware incubators or accelerators are going to want a very well thought out, designed prototype MVP, like ready for market designed to be manufactured. It just kind of depends. And I think a good way to kind of figure out how an incubator and accelerator might judge products is to look at their, their alums, and kind of see who’s come out of classes and how far along they were when they came out.
If you’re seeing a class where most everything is kind of first product, then obviously they’re taking stuff a lot earlier. And if you’re seeing an accelerator/incubator where people are coming out with millions and millions of dollars in funding, then, you know, it’s likely they’re probably taking much more mature products then than an MVP.
So again, kind of do the due diligence, and don’t be afraid to ask the incubator. Or accelerator.
I mean that’s how we are at PIE. We’d be more than happy to have that conversation with folks just to ensure that they’re not getting themselves into a situation that would not be beneficial to them. So don’t be afraid to ask the incubator or accelerator what their expectation is.