Since we were accepted to PIE, I often have been asked what life in an accelerator is like. There is no short answer other than maybe ‘accelerated’. So, here is my long answer.
We were part of the PIE class of 2014, PIE’s fourth class. If you still don’t know: PIE stands for Portland Incubator Experiment, a startup accelerator in Portland, Oregon, USA. It’s listed in the Top 30: http://tech.co/startup-accelerator-ranking-2014-10. PIE was James’ and my first accelerator experience. There were pleasant experiences and rough ones. In retrospect, they were all good for Krumplr.
A Three Month Journey
Let me start with how it all ends: Demo Day. Demo Day is a relatively big, live event. All companies of the class pitch their product and generally try to make a good impression on the audience, the people watching the live stream, the people who gathered in several locations to watch the live stream, and eventually on the people watching the recordings. If you have not seen it yet, here are the recordings from our Demo Day, October 24th.
The class started 3 months earlier, at the beginning of August. From the first minute on we were reminded of Demo Day. A large countdown timer was placed so that we could not ignore it even if we had tried. Unsurprisingly, our perception went quickly from “sooo much time left” to “sh.., only x weeks left”. We tried to turn that sense of urgency into positive, creative energy. It mostly worked. But there were also days of despair. They pushed us to make changes that we otherwise would have delayed.
Overall, James and I were lucky. Over the years, we had gathered sufficient experience so that dealing with expectations and time pressure was nothing we had to learn in this class.
PIE gave a nice rhythm to each week: Monday evenings Family Dinner, catered lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, experience reports by visiting entrepreneurs on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays.
Family Dinner: basically the class turns self-help/support group. We talked about the last week, what worked and where we struggled. Family Dinner gave me deeper insights into other companies and their founders. It provided good hooks for conversations for the rest of the week. Family dinners were a good experience but I think we had a chance to make it great that we let slip away. I’m not quite sure what it was. Maybe we were too concerned about the image we projected, not strong enough to show real weaknesses. But there were exceptions and those moments were great.
The Tuesday and Thursday experience reports were stellar, no exception. The people who talked were genuine. They let their guards down. They either had already succeeded with their companies and thus had nothing to prove to us, or they had failed and had already dealt with their pain.
When I was a child I watched a few movies over and over again. As I grew older what I took away changed. With those experience reports I suspect it’s the same. As I gain more business experience, I’ll find that there was even more in those talks than I understood when I heard them.
PIE does not only introduce you to people that talk to you. They also regularly bring in people, mostly investors, that listen to you pitching your business idea. Naturally, this is less relaxing than eating your lunch while listening to somebody else.
This arrangement is an interesting give and take between PIE and the investors. The investors get an opportunity to talk to the class and learn first hand what’s happening while PIE gives its class a chance to practice pitching to and talking with investors.
To spice things up, while some investors show up with a few days’ notice, others appear pretty much unannounced. Not all of those interactions are fun and sometimes you walk away with concerns or even doubts about your business. Resolving those concerns takes time. Since the next meeting does not wait, you have to learn to manage the concerns while not losing your confidence. It helps to grow a thick skin if you don’t have one already.
I particularly enjoyed the conversations with those investors who were founders before they became investors. There is something about them that everybody else has a hard time matching.
There are not only the people PIE puts in front of you and makes you listen or talk to. There is also the PIE Mentor Network. A fabulous database lists professionals and their areas of expertise that are willing to answer your questions and advise you. You simply reserve a time slot with them and they show up. What those conversations are all about and how they are structured is up to you. These mentors deeply believe in “giving back”. That’s what made them mentors in the first place. So, you should be prepared when you meet them. It’s a simple question of courtesy.
In case you don’t know, PIE is backed by Wieden+Kennedy. We asked W+K for a brand review of our company. You heard right: W+K professionals reviewed our brand. Clearly something a startup like ours can afford any time… The brand review was a unique experience as we had no comparable experience whatsoever. One of our main take-aways was their compilation of our actual and desired brand attributes. We pinned those to the pillar next to our desks for daily guidance.
Getting Ready for Demo Day
Demo Day is the first occasion for the class to give back to PIE. Demo Day is the highlight of the year in PIE’s public life. So, it’s not only about making your own company look great but also about making PIE look great!
It’s no surprise that the closer we got to Demo Day, the more its preparation took over our daily PIE life.
It started with a 4 minute product pitch exercise. From there we went to a 90 second pitch competition about what the world would miss if your product wouldn’t exist. (Just in case you care, we won that competition for the dubious reason of “the best improvement”. The lesson learned: “You can win competitions by screwing up first.”)
After that it got real. Beginning of October we started to work on the full pitch. We worked on messaging, story, flow, slides, and presentation style. Once you were done pitching, the floor was open for feedback. Every company pitched, everyone including the PIE crew were listening. For some of the pitch practices mentors showed up. To my count we pitched 13 times in this setup before we stepped on the Demo Day stage.
Refining your pitch over so many iterations is tiring. But honestly I was one of the lucky ones. I could present. Those, like James, who didn’t talk were listening all the time. I’m sure that was even more tiring. So, it was astonishing to me how precise and down to the point the feedback was every single time.
When I watch the Demo Day presentations, I think the process works. However, if someone finds a way to turn that process from tiring into energizing then future classes will be thankful (although they will not know for what).
I had my own personal excitement right before Demo Day. The evening before my voice turned hoarse. Honey, hot water, throat drops, giving my voice a rest. I don’t know what of that in the end did the trick, but my voice was fine for the final presentation.
PIE’s Virtual Life
In addition to the real life interactions, PIE also has a virtual life. It’s a shared chat room that I’m sure contains enough materials to keep forensic psychologists busy for years. Let me say only so much: For someone who did not grow up in the US it is quite easy to miss the point of whole threads of conversation because you missed the cultural reference that started the thread in the first place.
You Will Be Spoiled
One more: PIE also spoils its pupils in surprising ways. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how because if you apply for PIE and get accepted there wouldn’t be any surprise left for you.
Although the class is over, we still work in the PIE office. That’s part of the deal. When the next class arrives in the Summer of 2015 we will get kicked out. Fair enough. Until then you know where to find us and we are always happy to meet with you.