How did PIE happen?
PIE originally began as a co-working space with Wieden+Kennedy. Based in their headquarter in Portland, this agency works for global brands like Nike, Coca-Cola and Heineken. But over time, they felt there were some interesting things happening in the tech scene around them – and they wanted to feel more engaged with that. So we started the co-working space of PIE in August 2009 in conjunction with Wieden+Kennedy. What we tried to do was to bring interesting startups together, give them space to work, and do some peer mentoring. We helped one another – and this organic atmosphere made very interesting young companies come through the space. But one day we stepped back and said “Why are we just letting this happen, why don’t we make more out of it?” At the same time, Wieden+Kennedy was getting a lot of requests from their clients for more exposure into this startup culture. So W+K said, let’s pull in some of our clients and set up an accelerator program.
What we tried to do was to bring interesting startups together, give them space to work, and do some peer mentoring.
How does PIE work?
At PIE, startups get a three to four month intensive mentorship. During that time, participating teams are exposed to mentors from business, technology, venture capital, and from cooperating brands such as Coca Cola or Google. Each week, we introduce two to three mentors to discuss everything from business related things, to product development, engineering, or even legal or accounting stuff. We invite co-founders and other CEOs to describe what their experiences were, what mistakes they made, and how they juggled their priorities. PIE is a very dynamic environment – a big wide open space – where even the startups are very collaborative: Everybody is looking over one another’s shoulder, so it’s a lot of mentoring from different angles. And at the end of the accelerator program, there is kind of a celebration – a demo day to show all products and results of the teams.
Why did PIE happen with Wieden+Kennedy?
Wieden+Kennedy are very startup like: They embrace risk and failure. Mistakes are considered a learning experience – so they are much along the startup side. Don’t waste a lot of time building stuff: Just get it out there, figure out if the people are going to like it, and then move on. That’s how W+K realize their ad campaigns, how they interact with clients and how they manage their organization. So there is a really good cultural fit for them – it just happens to be with technology instead of graphics or videos.
What can an agency such as Wieden+Kennedy learn from startups?
The way humans communicate with each other is changing drastically – and technology is facilitating a lot of that. So in order to create more effective communication campaigns, W+K wants to be exposed to different technological innovations. Despite of this, PIE has altered W+K’s conversation with clients: The program lets them step out of the traditional agency client relationship. Both sides become peers collaborating on very interesting projects.
Why are big corporations interested to participate in PIE?
Big corporations are seeing very small startups having a huge impact on the world. Just think about Instagram, which has gone from 0 to 25.000.000 users in a very short period of time. So the big corporations are very conscious of the fact that they are slowly moving, bureaucratic organizations. And they are looking to the startup culture to figure out how to break through this bureaucracy, how to realize things more quickly, and how to empower small teams to fix problems more effectively.
The big corporations are very conscious of the fact that they are slowly moving, bureaucratic organizations.
Do participating corporations invest in PIE startups?
On the one hand, we have corporations with a massive global scale that hunger for innovation. On the other hand, you have startups who are really innovative and very hungry for scale. It seems like there should be a way to get them work together – but this is not just putting them into the same room. So in the near future, I could definitely see some investments happen. But we call PIE an experiment for a reason, and it takes some time to find out how we can bring both sides together.
What was your biggest insight during PIE?
No matter how predisposed large corporations are to embrace this new culture, they are still big corporations. We discovered that it is easier to start a million dollar company than to sell something to a corporation. Everything there just takes a long time – and that has been a really interesting learning.
How do you select startups?
Our selection process largely has to do with the people and their team. If the idea does not work, we need confidence that these teams are able to come up with a new project. Mostly we invite web, mobile, or open source players because the only overhead they are carrying is the people they need to pay. So we are more focused on developers and small groups of three to four people.
Have you considered expanding PIE beyond tech industry?
The challenge is always to make sure you have the right mentors in place. Most of us come from the tech side, so we had kind of a network of people who could mentor for PIE – which made it an easy step. But I could definitely see a broader scope of PIE, especially with the help of W+K: They have offices in London, Amsterdam and Tokyo where they could try a similar model in another sector and see how it works within their culture.
How will PIE evolve within the near future?
People – even those who say they like it open – really want structure. They need an organized environment, so we are working on that. We also want to improve the interaction with W+K: In the beginning of PIE, were concerned that they might get lost in the chaos of a startup development. But now we are going to try what happens when they are there from day one. I always called it “upstairs”, because W+K is situated above us. But in future, we want to make sure that the whole building is engaged with what’s going on at PIE.
People – even those who say they like it open – really want structure.
Do you see co-working and peer mentoring as the future of business accelerating?
No, I think it’s just a cultural, very personal preference. Probably the most successful accelerator program in the U.S. is called YCombinator. And they are dead set against offering space. For them, founding is much more the traditional garage thing: Those types of startups are motivated to do their own thing in their own space. They are going to make progress much faster than people who share their space. But I think the garage is only right for some people. Others get much more benefit out of being in the same room with thirty other people who are just as crazy as you are, who are going through the same trails and tribulation as you are. So I think we will see any number of flavors of how to accelerate companies. And we’ll see amazing startups that don’t even need an accelerator at all.
What can you recommend to agencies trying to establish something such as PIE?
The most important part for an agency is to be authentic. W+K did a really good job of that in the Portland tech scene before they decided to do this accelerator program. So it was genuine and people were like “Oh that makes sense!” Second, you need to find a trustworthy partner in whatever industry want to approach. Otherwise you are just perceived as an advertising agency. Third, take your time and don’t rush into. Of course, be experimental with it, but bear in mind there are lot of different people affected. And sometimes you just have to stop and figure out if you are doing the right things for all those people involved.
Do you share your ideas and experiences with other accelerators?
PIE is about making mistakes, learning from them, and teaching the next class of PIE startup teams how to avoid these mistakes. The same way I feel about accelerators: We should all be making new mistakes, experimenting – but sharing our experiences with one another. At PIE we haven’t quite got that level of maturity where we can share knowledge and help one another as much as we should. Nevertheless, I would like to see more of that network effect during the next year.
Image Credit: Kveton on Flickr.