Daniel Gross is able to look back at a glorious career in Silicon Valley. As a native of Jerusalem, he took part in YCombinator, sold his startup to Apple, became a leading investor, and is now running a successful remote-first accelerator, that aims to give those same chances to people all around the world.
In our interview, we've talked about the challenges of running a fully global operation, why Daniel decided to build a remote accelerator in the first place, and why the system is different from other accelerators you may know.
"To get started, we don't even need to know your real name"
Let's start things easy – can you tell us what Pioneer is all about?
Pioneer is trying to build a little city on the internet. We are an online accelerator, but it's built entirely in software. Pioneer takes the shape of something that feels much more similar to Strava or Peloton for startups than a traditional accelerator. You go to our website, tell us a little bit about what you're building and then you try to accumulate points over the course of about two weeks or so, through doing a series of activities that for the most part involve making progress on your company.
If you accumulate enough points, you're turning into a Pioneer company. We help you incorporate it, we connect you to our community of other founders, set you up to fundraise properly and finally help you to raise money from leading venture capitalists like YCombinator, Village Global and a bunch of other funds.
To keep it short, if you have a project and you're not even sure if it's a company, Pioneer will help you get accountability and validation. If it does turn into a company, it'll help you get started. We’ve funded over 140 people in 40 different countries around the world.
Pioneer seems to be a really novel experience – What makes the offer better than one of the other accelerators, like YCombinator?
The biggest difference about Pioneer is that we hope to help people at an earlier stage before you're even thinking about doing YCombinator. Is this a project? Is this a company? Is this a real market? Pioneer is built for that stage. For many of these startup accelerators and programs, you have to apply and go through quite a lengthy process before you can get started. The beautiful thing about Pioneer is you can sign up, make a profile and start getting validation on your concept, we don't even need to know your real name.
We just ran a survey yesterday, and it turned out the main thing our users felt that they were getting out of the product is just that it helped them stay accountable and accomplish their goals. We see this in a lot of other domains, people can pretty much get whatever they want to be done as long as they can measure their daily progress and improve on that. Part of the issue with startups is, you often have no clue on a given day or week if you're actually moving in the right direction, especially before you get revenue or users. That's why you see in other industries, people quantify and measure things. Athletes are very focused on their performance times, weightlifters are very focused on how much they can lift.
Pioneer does that for your company before you get users. Just like you'll read stories about how Strava helped people run more, how Peloton helped people cycle more and how sales leaderboards helped people accomplish their quarterly sales quotas, Pioneer is kind of the same for your company.
"We're generating great founders that are overlooked by everyone else"
What makes a great Pioneer?
You can imagine for my perspective, if we can get better at identifying the perfect Pioneer, someone that may be underrepresented or doesn't fit the mold in another way, that's really interesting to us. At the end of the day, our economic model is that we exchange our work and all that the help we provide in return of 1% of your company. This is the type of offer that would have been incredibly compelling for a young Patrick Collison coming out of Ireland and incredibly uncompelling for someone out of Stanford raising their Series B. We are being rewarded for not just picking great founders, but picking and generating great founders that are overlooked by everyone else.
The thing that makes a great Pioneer is just energy and passion. I think it's an incredibly accessible thing for many people. Our goal is to get people out of the habit of self-editing and provide a space where they can experiment. Maybe it'll fail, but they at least have what it takes to do so.
To what extent are you looking at the person to become a Pioneer, and to what extent is it the idea they work on?
If you look at the founder of Airtable, his first company was called Etacts, which wasn't the size of Airtable. The founder of OpenDoor, their first company got acquired as well. Even Elon Musk went from Zip2 to PayPal and then to SpaceX. If you know the story of many founders, their first shot on goal is certainly not as great as their second act. That may imply that the goal for us is just finding great people.
On the flip side, the reason that you might argue against it is that there's a lot of founders who get funded by the virtue of solely their greatness, working on terrible markets. They spend three, four, six years kind of working on something before just shutting the company down. I think startups are the ultimate educational process. A founder will learn quite a bit from pursuing a market. They'll learn things that cannot be learned through books or through getting advice. There is just some type of learning that can only be done experientially. However, if a founder works in a bad market, I think we will do them a disservice to send them down a path that we already know has no luminance in it.
No one really comes to Pioneer with the idea of starting a restaurant. It would the criminal for me to give you venture funding to start a restaurant. There's a reason why, for the most part, restaurant financing is dead, and it's done by small banks. We will fund someone who has great potential in them if the broader market and space they're working on, has potential. If you're working on something in the developer tools ecosystem, for example, we almost know you'll get there at some point and you don't have to exactly describe to us how you'll do it.
"We're trying to mimic the advantages of a physical community"
What have been the challenges for you building a globally accessible accelerator? Starting from wiring money to building a company in an economy you don't know about?
We believe that at the end of the day, the benefits outweigh the challenges, but there is a steeper grade here. I would say there are three issues.
First, there's just the obvious challenge of funding people on a global scale. We're having conversations right now internally about what to do with a really great team that happens to reside in a country that's on the OFAC list. It is incredibly difficult for Western capital to invest in an entity like that. As I mentioned, nature puts talent everywhere, so funding global skills is an interesting conundrum and I hope we can provide a lot of innovation on that, for example by helping founders incorporate where it's best for them at the click of a button.
The second thing is trying to mimic the advantages of a physical community to one built online. In a physical city, a lot of things like serendipitous interaction and high-quality communication would happen for free. The bending experience of accelerators in San Francisco, London or Paris are hard to mimic over the web, so we have to come up with ways to not only making them as good, but even better.
The third thing is to figure out a way to translate and export Californian startup culture to people from around the world. If you look at different countries and regions, they produce great startups. Europe, for example, has Klarna, Spotify, SAP. Even in my homeland Israel, there are some interesting companies. Californian companies, on the other hand, are significantly more exploratory. If you think of Snapchat, Facebook, even Google, they all seemed incredibly stupid back in the day. Jeff Bezos was laughed at for leaving D. E. Shaw for working on Amazon. It feels obvious in hindsight, but I guess it would be the equivalent of someone leaving Goldman Sachs to work on a cryptocurrency. There's something beautiful about Californian optimism for things like that.
Where can people join, and what can they expect?
You go to the website pioneer.app and it should be pretty self-explanatory. As a bonus to your readers: If you do struggle with anything, you can email us [email protected], and we're pretty obsessive about reading our emails. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for you. There are so many reasons not to do something and we're trying to make it so simple and easy to just throw something out there. I would really recommend if someone's reading and they have an idea, even if it's one of the silliest side projects to apply. You can even pick a pseudonym and no one would ever know. I can promise it’ll at least be interesting.