Seeding Startups [@MakingTheTrade] S1E8 – Rick @Turoczy of Silicon Florist, PIE, Oregon Story Board and TechFest NW with Clint Bowers
The man, the myth, the legend—you’ve read his blog, followed the companies he mentors and likely been to one of his many of events in Portland, Or. But what exactly is Rick’s take on all this entrepreneurship goings-on?
Thanks for joining us Rick. You’re known for being a startup advocate passionately focused on the Portland area. When it comes to business, people and startups, what makes Portland, Portland?
I think there are a couple really specific things that make Portland, Portland. One of the most important things—it’s not part of the culture or ethos, it’s just a kind of growing up thing that Portland has done—is [that] any startup scene outside of the Bay area goes through a period of time where they think they need to recreate the Bay area in their community. I think we’ve gotten past that. I think we’ve gotten past the idea that this needs to be the next Silicon Valley and we’ve really started to focus on how do we become a better version of Portland.
And what a better Portland includes is what this kind of driving-cultural aspect has been today. One of which is collaboration. Everybody helps one another, everybody is interested in seeing folks succeed. There’s not a lot of back-biting or Schadenfreude like you see in some other communities. Everybody’s kind of pulling for everyone else, and that collaboration and collegial nature I think is core to Portland and our success.
Hand-in-hand with that is this attention to craft and building the best product possible—be that a technology product or a physical product or graphic design…Portland doesn’t do scale very well. We would much rather build a small quantity of highly refined and elegant products than build a bunch of things that we can sell very cheaply. That focus on the craft and building something that is premium is something that permeates everything that goes on here and the quality of work that people deliver.
As Co-Founder of the Wieden+Kennedy backed business accelerator PIE (Portland Incubator Experiment) and having advised countless startups, is making the trade all glitz and glamour, or is it truly one of the hardest endeavors one could ever take?
I think you’ve touched upon something that not a lot of people talk about. [The] emotional roller coaster that is being a startup Founder or being part of an early stage company that there are highs and lows—one of my mentors Pete Grillo said “Often [in] startups, you have your best days and your ultimate worst days…and more often than not—that occurs on exactly the same day”. It’s just this rapid swing of emotions, constantly. And what I found is that it’s going to happen—you can’t avoid it, everybody craters, I crater. Even the accelerators or Silicon Florist are startup projects and I go through the same pervading ennui that any other Entrepreneur goes through.
Really the only thing I’ve found that really helps is being around other Founders who are either in the exact same position in the exact same time or who have been through it before and recognize those signs of what’s going on—and that’s why the accelerators are so valuable to me, because it’s a lot of people just as crazy as you pursuing crazy dreams, going through the same emotional roller coaster.
There is a time—at least for me, and I’ve noticed it in other Entrepreneurs—where everybody goes “OK, I’ve just bottomed out; I’ve hit the possible-lowest point, and now I can rebuild from here.” You can see it happen and you can almost sense as it’s occurring—that is really the most amazing thing to watch about Founders…that they recognize that point and they’re going to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and either keep going with that company, or start a different company or whatever—and that kind of willingness to bottom out time and time again and yet still get up and keep going—it’s amazing to be around on a regular basis.
In a world full of good business ideas, strong teams and high-dollar funding rounds…when all is equal, what things really contribute to success?
One of the things that people just need to realize…is that so much up startups is just timing. You could be the best Founder, you could have the best idea, you could have the best team executing on that idea…and timing could totally capsize that, and it could have absolutely nothing to do with anything else.
I think what people need to understand is—I think people get enamored by this big Earth-shattering vision for a company, or how they’re going to change the world…and [the] fact-of-the-matter is…every single person has those ideas. Everybody is capable of coming up with the wouldn’t the world be better if…wouldn’t it be great if…everybody has those ideas and those motivate Founders and Entrepreneurs to build companies, and that is great.
But what makes a really, really good Founder is the ability to balance that really broad world-changing vision with the ability to focus on very tactical tasks on a day-to-day basis. So many people either don’t start on their project, or have a hard time realizing their project because they’re so wrapped up in that vision…and that vision is unattainable.
It would be like if Jeff Bezos started with trying to build Amazon [as it is] today instead of trying to build the world’s largest bookstore. Right? A book store was attainable, and it was a big business, and it would have been successful even if it just wound up being a bookstore. He wasn’t trying to sell vacuum cleaners and food and launch drones and all kinds of other stuff…he was just building a bookstore! Zuckerberg started with Harvard…it was a small, encapsulated project to build a look-book for Harvard…
I think that is the real key; how do we balance that huge passion and huge vision with this is what I need to get done today, and this is what I need to get done tomorrow—and what I need to get done tomorrow may be off-course for the ‘grand vision’, but it is at least progress in the right direction. The really successful Founders are the ones who are capable of balancing those two extremes.
As hard and unpredictable as business is, is making the trade really worth it?
Is it worth it? [laughs] I think it’s definitely worth it. I think you need to be cognizant of what your true goal is though. If you’re setting goals that are unrealistic and unachievable, it can be a very disappointing existence. But if what you’re realizing is that you’re actually becoming a better Founder, becoming a better person, you’re becoming more adroit at dealing with situations and stress—if those are your goals, it’s absolutely worth it. If you feel like you’re only going to be successful if you make enough money to buy your own island, it’s probably not worth it.
That’s something that’s really important to look at as you’re building teams of people. That will always crater a startup no matter what: team dynamic. It’s either Founder conflict, or it’s unclear roles and responsibilities, who wants what, who has the last word…those are the kind of issues and you want to make sure your team is rallying around a similar goal, and that they are looking to solve a similar problem, or are motivated by similar ends because that’s the thing that is really going to make a company succeed. Product ideas can come and go—it’s always a people thing, it’s always how people work together and how they’re able to collaborate to achieve a certain end.
Now, a few years into the Portland Incubator Experiment, what are you looking forward as PIE matures?
We’ve kind of gone through, for lack of a better term, a generic tech accelerator bubble. You have Techstars and Y Combinator that are the clear leaders in our industry and PIE has done a good job from a local perspective. I’m very proud of the project and the people we’ve been able to work with and all of our mentors who’ve been so giving—but I’m really interested in how we can take what we’ve learned with PIE and—how do we help other accelerators? How do we help people who are subject matter experts in something that seems extremely focused, or [in an] extremely niche industry—and how do we enable those people to build really focused accelerators?
When technology becomes more and more accessible, more and more people are able to build interesting things. Communities that before may have been too small to necessitate an accelerator or a focused mentor program are now completely viable in that regard. You’re starting to see more and more of that focus in the accelerator industry. Over the next year, I would like to figure out—what is the next phase of the PIE experiment?
We’ve done a decent job of the accelerating startups, are there ways of accelerating accelerators? Are there ways of taking this technique that seemed to work for technologists and apply it to digital storytelling, or other creative industries? Can we accelerate activity there, using these same techniques? That’s the kind of stuff that’s intriguing to me, how can we take this sort of accidental knowledge base and make it more accessible to more people? We’re really starting to dig into that.
For more information on what Rick is up to, visit siliconflorist.com