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Ex-YC partner Daniel Gross rethinks the accelerator (techcrunch.com)
86 points by vo2maxer 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

To best honest I don't see the point of this. I tried Pioneer and all the updates people wrote were vanity updates designed to look impressive and impossible to validate. I used the platform for a while with the hope of perhaps winning some perks in the future. But then I found myself spending all my time on trying to market my project and present my updates to be appealing to the rest of the "contestants" rather than... you know... working on the actual product. Like, what is the point?

If you're working on highly technical problems no one is going to understand what you're doing anyway until you're basically at the stage where you're so polished you can spoon feed people everything... By which point you probably don't need any outside assistance. If you look at what goes on at Pioneer it's basically the startup equivalent of Instagram: lots of glamour shots with no actual substance. And at the end what do you get if you do manage to "win" something -- nothing that would help you out beyond what you can already do mostly for free yourself.

I found the app more useful as a diary than anything related to its intended purpose. And I don't really have the time to dress up boring engineering challenges to "advance" in the tournament. For what it's worth, I've checked out a fair few of the projects part of that tournament and there are some gems there. But I'd say the quality overall is low and the platform is more geared towards marketing bros than complex research or engineering projects.

Yes. I think it has the same problem as IndieHackers (which stripe also invested in / acquired), where it’s mostly for people who don’t have anything going for them. If you already know what you need to do it’s a waste of your attention. It’s becomes social media for founders.

And anything social will promote what is popular or trendy to the tribe, and some of the actual better businesses are neglected because they aren’t “interesting”.

This brings the quality of the whole experience down since the best contributors are absent because they are building a company.

i personally would rather just get funding and take advantage of investor connections via introductions, and maybe occasional strategy advice. I don’t want the extra work. I currently have a side business making over 70k/mo in revenue and don’t have time to do anything extra. (Yes, side project, not solo)

I sort of agree but Indiehackers does have loads of useful content especially the interviews with successful bootstrapped founders (who I agree aren’t really on the forums much)

Yeah I agree. I go on IH several times a week out of habit. The podcast is solid.

Is your side business a B2B SaaS?

Edit: I had more I wanted to add that wouldn't fit in this comment so I wrote it up as a blog post here: https://blog.roboflow.ai/how-to-win-pioneer/

I don't think that's the case. We're working on a highly technical startup (we make computer vision developer tools) and have been #1 on the leaderboard for quite some time now.

You're right that to be successful in Pioneer you certainly have to be able to clearly explain what you're working on to a general audience.. But this is an important skill to develop for the success of your company as well.

Regarding the lack of substance in updates, it really helps to link to verifiable supporting documents for your progress. For example, here's one of our recent updates: https://imgur.com/a/x63BAPn

We link to an imgur album every week with screenshots of the things we said we'd do. Eg, this is the album linked from that update: https://imgur.com/a/rJiKBD6

That is kinda true, since the peers who would be rating your weekly progress update wouldn't necessarily be your target audience.

So, you'd have to optimize your products pitch to be appealing to your peers, that means spicing up your landing page, adding cool graphics etc. I even went as far as having an option of easily creating a test account to play with the product without needing to sign up and sadly no one used it. For the first 2 weeks, I was getting more downvotes than upvotes. After which, I focused more on sharing metrics (sign ups etc) rather than solely focusing on reporting the work I have done. This did have a material impact in the peer rating process. Once I made it to Top 50, my project was selected by one of their experts, quite fast.

I do agree that some stuff needs to be fixed: For example, your weekly update stands out more if you add emojis.

However, it's flawed to think that you can't win building something highly technical and abstract. We won with a highly technical project. A PCI compliance-as-a-service cloud container. A self-contained Docker distributed through a Kubernetes pod.

Not everybody understood the technical jargon, and it's ok. People liked us because we were trying to solve something important.

I thought I was going to have the same problem with my blockchain project, and ended up becoming a winner despite the jargon in my updates. The updates pushed me to work on a "wow feature" every week in hopes of winning support from voters, and encouraged me to communicate progress better (helps with storytelling and good practice for product/investor updates). Also, promising applicants get vetted by experts.

I have been 'playing' with pioneer.app for two month.

I kind of of like it. But I am biaised : I have always liked innovation...

Pioneer, the most consuming part is on Monday evening where I comment, judge 10 startup match. It take a few hours if you do it well. You are in a position like people at YC receiving pitchs. Most of people in my surroundings would find this 'job' painfull. I just love it. If you do it seriously, it's great to help creators, to give them a few advice sometimes, to celebrate their achievements. So yes, pioneer is-and-was a very good fit for me. And as a result, with my startup, I get often great advice. I would say a mix of many'consumer' advices (often), and entrepreneur cleaver ones (sometimes). The most interesting is perhaps to understand that, when a consumer critic comes back often and repeatedly, you, as a startup founder understands that THIS critic point has to be fix right away. It's clever ! In a way Pioneer's comments enlightens and ranks the differents small failures of your startup. Be it, the 'ugly web site' or other things...

In a way I find pioneer to be the more energetic and an interesting bijective experience, much more than Ycombinator. Because it successfully solves the big downside of YC as a startup founder : At YC you pitch, you describe everything of your startup. And then ... True(interview,great) or False (nope... ). I mean, there is no in-between : you do not know if you were far-away ranked or close to being accepted for an interview.

Here at pioneer.app the process of selection is crowd-sourced to us founders, and I believe it works : 1) I know my rank in a weekly base. It can be harsh but it's instructive. 2) I believe it scales better than YC in the Long run because us founders do the (tiring) selection process.

In a way, crowdsourcing as long been a very successfully trends in consumer startups.

Now with pioneer.app we can perhaps see this crowdsource trend finally entering the elite business angels business.

Crowd of selected people are 1) Less biaised perhaps, 2) Divinding the job to hundreds of volunteers can be a good way to GARANTying that the selection job is equality done for each startup 3) And most of it's free.

I'm also backed. I'm working on Squally, a PC game to teach low-level comp sci.

My two cents:

Other accelerators are under pressure to only fund companies that will be "top of their batch" come demo day.

This often means rejecting small projects, solo founders, and pre-traction companies.

However, Pioneer welcomes these companies with open arms. Make no mistake, it's still hard to get in. It took me ~8 months of sustained effort before I was accepted.

But once you're in, you're in the company of helpful people who are just as hard working and talented, and have access to valuable mentorship.

I disagree - if you aren’t planning to become a 1-in-100 company, you shouldn’t be taking VC period, otherwise your VCs will destroy your company in 3-4 years.

I'm one of the founders backed by Pioneer and Daniel Gross, we make Karma: peer recognition and appreciation platform (https://karmabot.chat). We have passed a 'Python script' phase and actively enjoying the tournament.

just wanted to say, your landing page is awesome

Thanks! team++

Even though 3 of my friends won and got accepted, it still didn't make sense to me. After a few weeks, my friend James recommended me to join. I was a skeptic. But was I right?

I joined. After the first week, we could feel the energy every day. We had to meet our weekly goal—which we ourselves set, not anyone else. We were naturally building faster, marketing and talking to users every week. Got our first paid client $$$ in the third week IIRC. I found voting to be fair, but you need to be able to clearly explain what you're doing and optionally add links or screenshots, etc.

It's a very helpful format for planning that we're still doing with my co-founder. Also, every week you need to pitch your project in a one-liner again. It's so good to hammer your pitch based on feedback. After all, as Micheal Seibel, CEO of YC says, your parents need to understand it in a 1-2 sentence.

We won! Every Monday at 10 am my cofounder and I was staring at the leaderboard, hitting CMD+R every second. We were close to the top. But... Boom! Leaderboard changes show that we're... #120? Another refresh. Couldn't believe. We're #1!!! Probably their system was still applying the scores. Damn, we were running around the room. With more progress stayed #1 for multiple weeks until we decided to take a break. We won in August 2019.

From the email we got: > Congratulations to our newest Pioneers: Mohamad & Behnam Rajabifard, who are building There, a virtual office for remote teams.

After winning, we have frequent AMA live sessions with founders, product managers, CEOs of top tech companies. Every month we have 1-2 office hours with Daniel were we can get help on what we're doing. There's our Slack community exclusively for winners and has channels for everything.

In 6 hours we're having another live event where we're sharing our meal remotely and catching up with friends in Pioneer.

(Just in case you're looking to join and have any questions feel free to DM me on twitter.com/morajabi, I'd be happy to answer any of your concerns)

Pioneer really worked great for us. I think there are 2 reasons:

(a) The reality of starting up is that nobody cares about what you do. This can make things hard to explain to people around you. Pioneer provides feedback and recognition even people outside of the startup bubble understand. “See, there must be something to it - some people get what we do.”

(b) Pioneer helps to track things over time. Starting up is a lot about hacking things together and iterating: Finding a good idea. Building an MVP. Getting in front of first customers (..). Having the log of my tournament submissions is a great way to collect what worked and what didn't.

..I think you shouldn’t play pioneer with an entitlement to win. It is foremost a free feedback tool. As well remember, you only see a small subset of the other players. I really enjoy reading about other projects during the weekly voting. There must be soo many cool teams out there!

Pioneer made all the difference for us! It really gives you an amazing amount of focus and energy to do the best thing for your startup, which is what should be obvious but isn't: to make actual progress (i.e. make something users want, not e.g. do startup competitions or get featured in the press). That's the one metric you're evaluated on — progress — which is the only one that matters to the life of your startup anyway.

Thanks so much to Daniel and everyone else for making Pioneer a great experience!

P.S. — My cofounder and I are building Deft (shopdeft.com), which is product search for humans, not robots. You can type how you speak, search by image, and search over every product site!

Hey it's nice to see this here, I just got in last week, I'm the one with the "remote adoption" (for pets!) platform, something I wanted to do for quite some time but never found the right motivation.

If Daniel or partners come here, I have a bit of (unsolicited) feedback:

When you join late it's easy to feel like no matter what you do you will not be able to reach the top 50% just because of first-mover advantage. Perhaps you could try a dynamic where even latecomers have a good chance as well.

Also, it would be good to be able to see all your historical activity within the site, as well as some kind of chart on how has your score been growing through time. I keep this in a notebook, but you could do it for all of us with a few lines of code ...

Last but not least, it would be very cool if you could show the complete leaderboard, not just the ones above/below you. This is the main criticism I've seen here and there directed towards the scores on the site being manipulated. If you make this transparent, the problem will go away.

> The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups, give them guidance via a network of experts, and toss some other substantial perks like $100K worth of cloud credits and a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco to inject a bit of face-to-face time into the process.

Question to those of you who are in the program: what Pioneer perk is most valuable to you? Is it access to the Pioneer social network? Or the status signal for being part of a startup accelerator? Surely it's not the help with incorporation or the round-trip ticket to SFO.

I'm not sure the perks are what encouraged me to apply in the first place. They always sort of felt like a nice add-on. Rather, it was for validation that what I was building seemed valuable. Perhaps this ties in to your status signalling point.

Also, it was refreshing to be able to compete on weekly progress as opposed to writing some lengthy business application.

Validation of product is useful. Makes sense, thanks.

For us, the community and the weekly updates. We got feedbacks from all over the world and it is awesome.

For us it’s actually the weekly updates, voting system, and leaderboard itself. It gamifies productivity.

The peer group is awesome too.

I’ll add the caveat that we “won” relatively recently so haven’t participated in many of the formalized programs yet (eg summit in SF, livestream).

> Y Combinator invest $150K in startups for a 7% slice of equity, by comparison, a $20K investment from Pioneer will cost founders 5% of their company plus the 1% they gave up to join the accelerator in the first place.

The 1% for advice, status, etc. sounds like a good deal. $20k for 5% though sounds really steep unless you're planning on a very low exit (under $1M).

Disclaimer: I'm one of the founders being backed.

Not really. YC used to invest that amount 10 years ago for 6-7%. Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, etc. were definitely not planned for "very low exits."

These days people get into YC with pretty elaborate stuff. I think that an underrated founder with just an idea or an mvp with little or no traction, wouldn't get into YC today (think Airbnb, Reddit, etc.).

Pioneer is building a model to invest in deals earlier in the pipeline. It will probably give them outsized returns in the future.

Pioneer and Entrepreneur First are probably the most compelling attempts of rethinking the accelerator.

Haven't contributed to the Pioneer community too much (also backed), but it's clear that things are picking up internally with frequent talks, office hours and "remote dinners" - the first of which is tomorrow.

Really excited to see what other companies spin out of Pioneer

"Talent is global and evenly spread, but opportunities are not" <-- if I had to define Pioneer

Being part of Pioneer until now has been a great experience! We are in early stages of building https://www.kaapi.team/ (easy performance management for remote teams) and running in the Pioneer leaderboard was a huge factor of us being able to "ship" things like https://timewise.how/

1. Leaderboards can be gamified, yes, and I am sure some participants try to do so. But that froth gets cleared in final evaluation by experts. And you can fool a small percentage by showcasing vanity metrics, but I always climbed higher in the tournament when we got actual customers and product growth.

2. If you are not from the valley, getting access to a strong network of peers who help keep you accountable is great

3. Also, you get back what you put in. I feel as if I am yet to get the maximum "juice" from Pioneer, but that is on me. I haven't yet asked for enough intros and personal mentorship help from the Pioneer team. But since winning the tournament, and joining the camp, we have talked to 20 potential customers, and have beta customers lined up.

4. Personally for me, this is a refreshing way of going from idea to business. It's 2020 - geographical constraints of being in the valley shouldn't be a barrier!

5. I think it definitely has some kinks it needs to iron out in the tournament (e.g. advisors never replied, and the feature is now scraped). And also in the camp itself - but I love the fact that the Pioneer team is actively working on iterating itself like a startup!

PS Yes, I know you don't always need accelerators or funding or mentorship to build a business. There is no one way of getting it right, and this is just one of them.

Your mileage may vary.

I got into the program, like a week ago. Still learning the ropes, I'm having a great time with them so far. Their internal slack group is really fun and their team is also quite responsive when it comes to resolving your queries.

On a deeper level, I really appreciate the strategic approach they have chosen when it comes to supporting and nurturing the entrepreneurs that they have backed, where the default approach is not writing a check to make the problems go away. But, actually listening to the myriad problems that crop up over the course of your startups journey and actually making a concerted effort to solve said problems.

Related: https://nadiaeghbal.com/microgrants#designing-for-impact

Also backed my Pioneer and Daniel. Nothing but good things to say. Inside Pioneer is one of the more helpful communities on the Internet I’d say.

Pioneer has been a great productivity hack for us.

As an early stage founder there’s no benchmark for how you’re doing relative to your peers. Matching up head-to-head weekly is a great way to assess your progress.

Knowing I’m going to be judged against the milestones I set for myself on Monday has definitely pushed me to work late on a Sunday night or two to make sure I complete everything I said I was going to do that week.

Pioneer opens the opportunity for the people from various countries. We are Verihubs (veripass.verihubs.com) are backed by Pioneer and we are from Indonesia.

But this is terrible signalling for Pioneer "winners".

If Pioneer doesnt invest $50K in you, why should anyone else? And if they do, you are starting out with a ridiculous valuation.

However, the social/community aspects can be a net-positive for founders.

Playing the Pioneer tournament is super fun and https://airsite.co probably wouldn't exist without it.

I'm shocked by the lack of diversity of those who win Pioneer, given that this is supposed to democratize funding for anyone across the globe.

Right now, it's mostly peer recognition which is prone to favor projects the dominant demographic finds cool. But I could see the competition based on revenue be more democratizing.

I think this problem has more to do with the pipeline than their selection process.

YC has better diversity stats though? And I don't think it's because its pipeline is too different.

How about what it's like to be Asian and apply to Harvard? Insisting on equivalency of outcome leads to collective punishment discrimination of certain groups to pre-ordain a grand social experiment outcome with an agenda. Instead, focus on merits and potential of individuals, not on identifying groups labels or physical attributes. Please stop mindlessly-aping rhetorical, happy-clappy feel-good-isms and abusing words like "democratizing" when you condone discrimination.

Fair point about my misuse of words, :). "democratizing" was a poor word choice.

"Giving opportunity" would be more appropriate, and is the vocabulary Daniel Gross uses. He specifically mentions that he wants to find more female founders. I hope he succeeds; I am just a bit shocked by the state so far. It would be great to know what is causing this imbalance, whether it is its avenues of marketing, the messages it sends through marketing, or something else. Because there is a lot of diversity out there.

Sounds like you are concerned that it would be a move towards a direction that is less fair rather than one that is more. Asians/Harvard is unfair. I think the point is making sure opportunity is given fairly so that individuals can be evaluated based on merit.

Is this kinda similar to 'Entrepreneurs First'?

I would say not really, apart from the fact that they both fund individuals or projects at the earliest possible stage.

EF is in-person and more focused on matching co-founders and forming teams. You need to have a project for Pioneer, while EF accepts people based on their profile/interviews.

You can say that all accelerators are pretty similar: you get investment, listen to some speakers, attend office hours, etc. So what matters in the end is the network of people running the program and participating in it.

Our minds are constantly spinning on ways to raise awareness amongst female founders and we’re working with our community to improve female representation

We mostly don't even know how to get men and women to really talk with each other if the goal is not romantic/sexual in nature. I sometimes feel like I'm the only person on the planet trying to work on that and I get no credit and it doesn't pay spit.

I don't know how on Earth you think you can get people to work together if they can't even talk. And I don't know why that seems "non obvious" to most of the planet.

What's the best way to pitch Pioneer?

Not sure what you mean. To become a Pioneer, sign up (pioneer.app), rise up the leaderboard by making progress on your startup, and make the top 50 to be eligible to be selected. Not really a pitch-your-startup process to it.

This is for things that can be done in a few weeks. That feels like something that made more sense in the early days of the web or the early days of phone apps. Those fields are very crowded now.

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