Portland startup guru Rick Turoczy '93 talks tech and the liberal arts
By Gillian Frew
Rick Turoczy '93 was once a young English major dreaming of life as a literary agent. He even worked briefly for a literary agency, right on the heels of his less glamorous post-college gigs as nanny and club lacrosse coach. Twenty years later, he figured he would be at the top of the publishing game, with the gold watch to prove it.
Instead, his name has become synonymous with the Portland startup scene.
"I'm always amazed at the ability of people who come from a liberal arts background to embrace the chaos that is startup activity, because you're always doing so many things at once," he told students who gathered for his Nov. 11 talk in Brattain Auditorium, made possible with support from the Sava and Danica Andjelkovic Endowed Lectureship. The title? "A Series of Happy Accidents: How Whitman Prepared Me for the Startup Career I Didn't Even Know I Wanted."
It's a far cry from where things started out for him at Whitman.
"Very few of my peers even had computers," he said. "I got my first email address at Whitman. I don't think it's still active. If it is, it's probably full of plenty of spam."
Turoczy is the cofounder and general manager of PIE, or the Portland Incubator Experiment (a group that provides mentorship and seed money for select startups), backed by local advertising giant Wieden-Kennedy. His popular Portland tech blog, Silicon Florist, has been featured on Mashable. He's known around town as Portland's startup guru, and with an active Twitter following of more than 15,000, he's well on his way to joining the ranks of other Portland tech celebrities like Linux founder Linus Torvalds or Ward Cunningham, the computer programmer who developed the first wiki.
"One thing I took away from his visit was to be unafraid of failure," said Brock Wade '16, a mathematics major who had dinner with Turoczy. "Rick talked about several startup failures of his, and how—if he'd given up—he wouldn't be where he is now."
Turoczy, who has worked in marketing and communications for 16 years, got his start in tech by using his writing skills to assist coders who often couldn't describe their own products in ways the average person would understand. In many cases, they also weren't communicating with one another about upcoming projects, which is part of what inspired Turoczy to found PIE in 2009.
"As I was meeting with these startups, I would go from one coffee shop to the next, where they were usually working," he said. "Sometimes I would have conversations with three different people in three different coffee shops, and each of them was working on exactly the same thing, and they had no idea."
Though Turoczy had been blogging since the late 1990s, he only stumbled onto tech reporting as a side-project after he had become more involved in the Portland startup scene.
"For whatever reason, that struck a chord," he said. "And it wasn't that I saw business opportunity there, it just seemed like something fun and a way to use my writing skills to support a community that was valuable to me—and it took off."
He explained the origins of his blog's name, Silicon Florist. The first part was easy: Silicon Forest is a nickname for the Portland metro area, particularly Hillsboro, which is home to a cluster of high-tech companies like Intel and Hewlett-Packard. However, the "Silicon Forest" domain name he wanted had already been claimed—by fellow alumnus Mike Rogaway '93, who now covers business and technology for The Oregonian. So Turoczy did what any self-respecting English major would, and came up with a pun.
"I was like, what else can I do with Silicon Forest? And since Portland is the Rose City—Silicon Florist! It makes total sense. You would not believe the amount of wedding requests I get."
During his time on campus, Turoczy also visited one of Associate Professor of Computer Science Janet Davis' classes, Human-Computer Interaction, where he answered students' questions.
"My takeaway from Rick's visit and talk is that a liberal arts education prepares you not just to follow existing career paths, but to be the author of your own career," said Davis.
Tim Morris '17, an economics and environmental studies major, appreciated Turoczy's focus on how "Whitman teaches students to think dynamically and solve a variety of problems. Rick indicated the broad juggling of ideas, priorities and objectives that Whitman promotes is the perfect preparation for somebody working at the forefront of an emerging startup."
Turoczy echoed these sentiments in his evening presentation, where he stressed the link between a well-rounded undergraduate education and greater career options later in life.
"There's no right way to do this," he said. "If I could go back and visit long-haired, 1990s, lacrosse-playing me, that's the knowledge I would try to impart to myself. If you want to start your own thing, start your own thing. If you want to follow a prescribed path, follow a prescribed path. If you want to juggle a bunch of things, do that. There is no safe move after college. You just need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because that's just how it is, and that's a good thing."
His message resonated with Zac Shaiken '16, a psychology major who is also in Davis' computer science class.
"What I took away from Rick has less to do with startups and more to do with being okay with not having a plan, and realizing that there is an immense network of Whitman graduates who are genuinely interested in sharing their experiences with current Whitties," he said. "Listening to Rick really solidified the idea that I should use this network when I begin looking for jobs."
Turoczy encouraged students to strike a balance between academics and taking advantage of the full college experience: "Random trips to the wheat fields or sporting events or road trips or times when you have to study late for exams and you're all commiserating—those are the experiences you remember," he said.
And as far as his particular career path is concerned, "There was no plan. I just took risks, I used what I'd learned and I figured out obtuse ways to apply my English degree or took advantage of opportunities because of skills I had—it's as simple as that."