Wieden + Kennedy last year embarked on what was seen by many as sort of an odd breed of adventurism for an advertising company, especially one in Portland. The Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE for short) is a mentored accelerator for start-up companies, with participants chosen from applicants around the country.
In exchange for a six percent stake in the ventures—and assumed grateful back rubs from the mayor—PIE offered the free use of the W+K offices and $18,000 apiece to nine different companies attempting to turn their bare-bones concepts into functional companies, with a three-month ramp-up and mentoring from Google; from Wieden clients Nike and Target; and from local companies such as Intel and fellow-start-ups Meridian, Plexus Engine and ShopIgnite.
Tuesday afternoon at the Bagdad Theater, it was demo time for the first class—although PIE had housed start-up companies since 2009, including the now terrifically well-endowed Urban Airship, this is the first test of the new mentoring model. It was also these companies’ first fully public sales pitches. The auditorium was filled with over 400 of the generally like-minded: tech people, other start-ups, and perhaps (the PIE companies hoped) potential investors or customers.
Being as the event was put on by an advertising agency, there was of course nothing lost in symbolic presentation. Next to a remarkably faithful miniature of the classic building-side Portland sign from the Schnitz, two lit-up triangular signs advertising “Pie” formed the backdrop for the stage, evoking both roadside diner dessert signs and Portland’s two ever-visible mountaintops, i.e., in pictorial terms both a pinnacle and the approachably authentic home-grown.
PIE co-founders Rick Turoczy (the reader should know that Turoczy is working with Willamette Week on a separate project -- Ed.) and Renny Gleeson were emcees for the event, which existed mostly as a showcase for the eight brands that survived the three-month start-up—a Chicago start-up had folded early, and was neither represented nor mentioned.
So how are they all doing? Well, in many ways following any kind of business is a lot like policing narcotics trafficking: if you want to know what’s really going on, you have to follow the money. In this regard, the two bookends to the event were the ones to watch.
Cloudability, a company that manages the various aspects of business that companies outsource to the web—“the cloud”, in tech-marketing parlance—had managed to secure $1.25 million in funding in their brief three months of existence. It was easy to see how: their spokesperson was suave enough and confident enough in his delivery that he’d have an easy career narrating documentary film or hosting Apple technology expos if the start-up thing ever fell through.
VendScreen, however, an unexpectedly nuts-and-bolts entrant among the otherwise abstract, social-networky or techy-wonky business concepts, was the one that dropped the truly stunning numbers: $5 million already in dedicated sales and an early $12 million in funding. What do they do? They made a little device that can hook up rickety old vending machines to the Android network so companies can track inventory and accept credit card payments for all those Cheetos and Cheez-Its.
AthletePath, a cell-phone app company that helps athletes track results and sign on to events, has also secured substantial funding, in the hundreds of thousands.
The world of start-ups is still a foreign one to Portland’s largely hands-on, artisanal craft culture; we are used mostly to making tangible things with no discernible profit motive, rather than intangible services that are intended to produce gobs of speculative income from clouds, from abstractions like social networking, process management and content architecture. Substantial early funding for three out of nine companies is a somewhat encouraging sign, however, that our lifestyle capital might yet figure out how to get those everpresent clouds to rain money, which is of course always the hope in a city where—as they say on the TV—young people go to retire.