The godfather of Portland startups talks about what’s special in Rose City tech—and what it must improve.
To Portland startup founder Mara Zepeda, he’s the “north star of Portland’s entrepreneurship scene”—or just “Yoda.”
To Wieden + Kennedy managing director Renny Gleeson, he’s the “unofficial mayor of startup Portland.”
To Dylan Boyd, director of new programs development at R/GA Ventures, he’s the Don Quixote of Portland tech. “There is only one Rick,” he says.
For more than a decade, Rick Turoczy has been a vital connector in the Portland startup scene. His résumé runneth over, starting with his role as co-founder and manager of Portland Incubator Experiment, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary as the granddaddy of Portland startup accelerators.
He is author of the tech blog Silicon Florist, where he opines on everything from the deal flow surrounding local startups to mental health problems among founders. He helps steer Business for a Better Portland, an independent chamber of commerce (Zepeda, who runs the startup Switchboard, co-founded the guild with him). He co-founded Built Oregon, a consumer product startup accelerator. He’s at the center of conversations about the Innovation Quadrant—a collaborative project between higher-ed institutions, governments and businesses that aims to create a “center of gravity” for inventions. And he was instrumental in getting TechfestNW (the largest startup and tech event in Oregon, produced by WW) off the ground.
Throughout, he has done so with a style people describe as both supportive and savvy.
Perhaps most remarkably, in a world that has been called out for homogeneity and insularity, observers say Turoczy is opening doors to all, and centralizing cultural humility. “It’s been great to see him, PIE and PIE Shop prioritize support to promising businesses founded by people of color and women,” Prosper Portland’s Kimberly Branham says.
In late September, Turoczy, who played lacrosse at Whitman College and spent his early years as a marketing manager for Digimarc, answered questions via email.
WW: To those who aren’t a part of it, the local startup world can seem opaque. How would you describe it to a space alien that just moved here?
Rick Turoczy: First and foremost, that opacity is informed by a specific culture in the Portland startup community. I refer to it as “aggressive humility.” Folks around here seem disinterested—if not completely reticent—to self-promote or brag about what they’re building. In many respects, it’s incredibly charming. But it also has the downside of feeling like you don’t really know what’s happening in the startup community because it’s not especially noisy.
A lot of it tends to happen behind the curtain. Because our community is largely composed of engineers building tools for other engineers. So it’s not a lot of consumer-facing technology with the opportunity to become household names. Rather, it’s people building tools that help people build those kinds of products.
But it’s not just technology startups. There are a ton of consumer product startups in town, as well. Food, beverage, apparel, footwear…these companies are tapping into the wealth of knowledge in the region to help inform their businesses. Whereas a Bay Area startup is likely to be driven by the financial outcomes and upside of building a company, Portland founders seem more motivated to build the best products.
Your Portland Incubator Experiment accelerator just turned 10. What’s an accelerator, and which startups that went through PIE had a big impact?
Our name is a bit of a misnomer. We’re called an “incubator,” but we’ve really morphed into an “accelerator.” That may seem like splitting hairs, but in our industry, they’re two very distinct pursuits.
From our perspective, an incubator, as the name would imply, is designed to protect entrepreneurs and their ideas from the outside world, giving them the time and protection they need to mature an idea into a business pursuit, like a traditional incubator does for eggs. Accelerators, on the other hand, are designed to expose early-stage companies to the real world as quickly as we possibly can to determine whether they have the potential to survive and excel in the outside world. We’re more likely to be breaking eggs than saving them.
Using an automotive factory analogy, incubators are the design, prototyping, and assembly of a vehicle. Accelerators are the folks putting the crash test dummies in the vehicle and slamming it into walls to see how it performs.
In your Silicon Florist blog, you include amusing cultural anecdotes about the Rose City, such as when you wrote that the “P” in “PDX” stands for “procrastination.”
Portland is a weird place. It’s driven by different motivations than other regions. It’s ridiculously collaborative. Sometimes to its own detriment.
Do we have enough skills, education and talent in the local ecosystem to support continued startup growth?
The challenge isn’t the amount of talent. We have plenty of talent. The challenge is being able to afford to pay for that talent when they’re being courted by far more lucrative salaries and benefits elsewhere. As our once affordable cost of living continues to erode, this will become an even bigger issue.
This complaint often comes with the mention of a lack of “senior-level executive talent.” But the fact of the matter is that there is a ton of that talent in town, too. Sure, they’re at Intel and Nike. But they’re also hiding in our midst. They just often work elsewhere—commuting to the Bay or somewhere else for part of the week—and then live here in Portland with their family. Some of them work for distributed companies. So they’re working in Portland, but they’re not working on Portland or our community.
Do Oregon’s biggest corporations do enough to support the state’s startups and tech fields? Why or why not?
No. The amount of capital required to drastically improve the trajectory for the startup community in Oregon is an insignificant rounding error for most of the major corporations in town. They could probably forgo one company picnic and substantially impact dozens of startups and founders.
But the problem isn’t the capital. The problem is that the startup community isn’t telling a story that inspires corporations and government to participate and support what’s happening here.
Personally, this is my biggest failure in the work I’ve tried to do. It’s the heaviest albatross around my neck.
Female founders received just one-twentieth of local venture capital dollars last year. Yet PIE’s most recent “Demo Day” in March included people of color and women and a new fund called Black Founders Matter Fund. How are we doing on funding startups led by women and people of color here in Portland?
Yes, we have women and people of color in PIE and PIE Shop, but that doesn’t mean there’s local funding to help those companies grow their business. There’s still a dearth of local, risk-tolerant, early-stage capital in Portland.
Raising capital is hard for anyone. Raising capital in Portland is harder still. But all of that gets exponentially harder if you don’t pattern-match in an industry that relies on patterns to make decisions. And so founders who happen to be women and/or people of color find themselves unfairly facing insurmountable odds to raise capital in an industry that is constantly claiming to be a meritocracy.
I can’t even begin to empathize with how incredibly frustrating this is for these founders. It’s insane.
What about employee diversity at local startups and tech companies?
I hear a lot of talk. I don’t see a lot of work. And therefore, I don’t see a lot of change.
The cannabis industry may give the state its long-overdue first startup “unicorn,” or billion-dollar company, Cura Cannabis. Can you share some thoughts about our cannabis startup scene from where you sit?
I am fascinated by the cannabis industry. Name any other time in modern history we’ve had the opportunity to watch an entire industry come into being with absolutely no existing infrastructure. Whether you’re participating in the ecosystem or not, you have a front-row seat for watching an entire industry being built from the ground up. It’s super-interesting from an academic perspective.
In a February post on Silicon Florist, you wrote about founders being “stressed out, never sleeping and always on,” and in another, you wrote of their susceptibility to “burnout,” “depression” and substance abuse. How do you support people’s mental health at PIE?
No one tells you how shitty it is to be a founder. It’s awful. And lonely. And soul crushing. Even if you have co-founders. It’s just rough. And every founder is on this horrendous roller coaster of manic-depressive imposter syndrome.
Being a founder is hard. And draining.
The prevailing mythology convinces every founder that they should be raising venture capital, that they should be “crushing it” and “killing it” every single day, that they should be capable of solving any problem that comes their way and capitalizing on any opportunity they see, and that they should be insensitive and impervious to everything that doesn’t move their business forward. And that they should be capable of doing this single-handedly.
It’s all bullshit.
There’s so much work to do to create an environment that truly helps build more resilient and healthy founders. So we’ll keep chipping away at it. In the hopes that, someday, having a behavioral and mental health professional as part of accelerator program staffing is as natural as having a program manager.
From my perspective, modern-day entrepreneurship is the most mentally grueling thing many people will ever experience. We owe founders the support that gives them a realistic chance of succeeding.
Your beard seems like it’s become a part of your “startup guru” image. But is there a story there? Ever lose a wireless mic or flash drive temporarily?
Honestly, I just wanted to see if I could grow a decent beard. And I’ve never really wanted a tattoo. So it seemed like a thing to do for Portland cred. I mean, I’ve only been here 25 years. It’s not like I’m a local. I’m just trying to blend in.
Prominent companies to have emerged from PIE: Urban Airship, AppFog, Geoloqi, Simple, Cloudability, AppThwack, Nutmeg, AllGo, Krowdsourced, MilkRun and Workfrom.
This story first appeared in Willamette Week.