The Business of Being a Tech Founder

March 15, 2023 Fusemachines Season 2 Episode 20
The Business of Being a Tech Founder
Show Notes Transcript

Our guest this month is Amir Feizpour co-founder and CEO of Aggregate Intellect.

In this episode, you’ll learn about 

  • The importance of community in a startup 
  • The similarities between pitching to investors and dating
  • The technical and business sides of being a founder 
  • Transition from academia to industry 

For more information about Fusemachines, please visit https://www.fusemachines.com 
For more information about Aggregate Intellect, please visit https://www.ai.science

Music: Welcome to the Show by Kevin MacLeod

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4614-welcome-to-the-show License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Umar  0:00  
I am absolutely super excited to finally have this conversation. I love your description of yourself as a recovering quantum physicist and data scientist. Absolutely adore that. I wish I had something nearly as clever on any of my socials. But I do find it amazing how small the world is, how small this community is, in terms of how our connection happened. And I will drop a name, I am super grateful to our mutual friend Christine Silva. She might be one of the she's one of my circle of friends that actually listened to the podcast. So I wanted to make sure I dropped her name. And, but I also I should be more thankful to my four year old son and her four year old son for becoming friends, which then obviously led to eventually through a series of events of getting us here. But Amir, welcome. I've been like I said, I've been really, really dying to have this conversation.

Amir  0:54  
Thanks for having me. I'm excited to talk to you as well. 

Umar  1:01  
I would love to get a full sense of your path. I always love this question. I start with this question every single time because it's always regardless of it being the exact same question. It is a very different answer each time and it's an I and also, I imagine some very linear path to where you are today, like from education and all of your experience to to your your current role. I'd love to love to learn a little bit more.

Amir  1:30  
Yeah, for sure. So I'm originally from Iran, I grew up there until I was 25. Did my undergrad and Master's there in physics, I got really excited about quantum physics. Funny anecdote about me was that I wasn't one of these kids that were, you know, completely taken away by physics and always dreamed about physics, etc, I came to physics play accidentally, and really fell in love with it. Especially when I got to the quantum physics parts. So I ended up doing my masters in that area. And, you know, sort of that was sort of a jumping point for me to come to Canada, because I came here to do my PhD in that area. And, you know, quantum computing was becoming a thing at that point. So I did my PhD that area. So the assumption always was, you know, that I'm chasing an academic career. So I do the next linear step, as you put it, and did a postdoc, so went to England, I worked at one of the top quantum computing labs in the world, at the University of Oxford, and sort of didn't love it at that point anymore. Because, I mean, I still was really in love with, you know, the research itself. But sure, the prospects of what I could do with that, as a career was not very attractive, you know, the whole, you know, the fact that you have to always chase money, you have to teach all of these admin side of things were not very attractive, and also uncertainty of the future, like, you know, what would you live? What kind of job you would get in academia, etc. Right? That sort of pushed me away from that path. And sort of like, I was tired of moving around. I thought I was, but I'm still moving around. Apparently...

Umar  3:36  
Moving around for you isn't to another city, it's across an ocean, potentially. 

Amir 3:43  
I'm moving around on my terms now. Like before, I would have been moving around because there is a opening in the second tier university and God knows where, right. So so I came back to Canada and sort of went through this identity crisis of who am I what am I doing, and ended up deciding that I'm a problem solver? It doesn't matter if it is quantum or so, ended up working at Royal Bank as a data scientist. That's where I met Christina. I really enjoyed data science work for a good three months. Then I was bored, it was partly you know, the corporate environment partly just the fact that data's like the idealistic picture of what I imagined data science was was not so so that was very quickly disillusion. So I began like a huge identity crisis, that you know, what am I what am I doing? I thought, you know, moving on to the senior levels will be better. So, you know, I took a senior role in RBC eventually didn't love that either. But I found my love in product development, sort of like, when I started, you know, thinking about, Okay, what kind of products can be built here? Right. That's where I really felt excited. And that led into, you know, building the community. I did and then the company. Right.

Umar  5:24  
Right, right. Well, perfect, perfect segue. I can imagine not not your first podcast, you seem to know what you're doing in terms of our line of questioning, and I appreciate the hell out of that. But having having said that tying, exactly into Aggregate Intellect and the communities you built, what walk us through how that's it's a hell of a story.

Amir  5:44  
Yeah, definitely. So in one of the identity crises that I had, when I was working in a corporate, I want I went to one of the executives in a bank, like I, whenever I get to, you know, this phase of crisis, I usually go to people that I respect their careers and say, This is what I'm dealing with, I think you're a successful person in your career, how did you navigate these kinds of things. And one of the best advices that I got was look like you could move to a more of a managerial role. But the reality is that you might lose your technical touch, which means that you become irrelevant very quickly. So. So his advice was focus on you know, managerial work nine to five, but keep yourself technical outside of that. And that was like, literally, the seed for how the community started. Because, literally, that week, I contacted one two people and said, you want to get get together after work and read scientific papers about machine learning, and apparently tens  of people are interested very soon, hundreds of people very interested, very soon, you know, that community got to a few 1000 people, all of a sudden, the YouTube channel, etc, etc. So, you know, the process was very organic, and, you know, really predicated on me seeking knowledge and seeking, you know, what is next in my career, What do I need to learn? How can I activate all of these things that I'm learning and turn them into real things.

Umar  5:54  
I love the strategic move on keeping, you know, building out that managerial skill set, but not losing the technical aspect, I think I've known a few folks that have, you're making me realize that have fallen victim to losing that technical piece, or they stay very much on the technical side, which is fine. But I imagine also, then there's competition with young folks coming up, that are, might be a little bit more in tune with some of the new technologies. And you might be on par despite your you know, your decades of experience. So that's a really interesting way to navigate both and have the best of both worlds. That's an interesting piece of advice, I might, I'm definitely gonna steal that for anyone that comes to me with a with a similar issue. And I do love that. But then wonderfully in terms of the company right now. And and the the platform that that you've built, you know, what, what walk us through, tell it tell audience for those that may not be familiar with what it is that you're currently working on, and some of the magic, I think that you've been able to accomplish?

Amir  8:29  
Definitely. So as somebody who is trained in academia for probably two decades, and then started working in industry, for the past six or seven years, in very technical areas, I'm very accustomed to having to read technical documents. The reality is like scientific papers, documentation, you know, coding frameworks, etc. Right? So, but the reality is, I absolutely hate that activity. That's, in my opinion, a very, very inefficient way of achieving the goals that I had, like, it's being researched and quantum computing being building products and industry later. It's just, in my opinion, largely a waste of time. But it does help me get a bigger picture if I have enough time to go through the process. But sometimes I want to just quickly get something done. I sometimes want to just activate the knowledge that exists, I have or the people around me have to do something. So the core of the idea came up when I was sort of transitioning from academia to industry. And I came across natural language processing and I was, like, needed, like the very, very first idea that came to mind was, Wait, can I get machines to read these papers and tell me more, right? 

Umar  9:54  
Yeah I usually hire insurance for that purpose. It's not nearly as efficient as what you've done. 

Amir 9:59  
So that's sort of what the core of the idea was. And we've gone through many iterations. But the vision, the mission has still remained the same, like, we want to create a system that is capable of understanding technical documents, and providing the answers you were looking for when you're designing a practical system. So, you know, initially, we thought that this is sort of an educational thing, like we thought that other people need this in the context of education. Now, after many, many experiments and several years of learning, we came to the conclusion that what is missing is a tool for thinking, what is missing, that guides you, as you think through things that you internally know people around, you know, and exist in the documents that you have. So, today, the way I like to describe what we're building is as a knowledge navigator, it is a typical knowledge management tool where you just write notes, it's not your typical slide where you go ask people if they happen to exist around your app, and to know your answer. It's a combination of all of the above. It's an intelligent agent using language models, you might have heard of ChatGPT these days, something very near to that that essentially answers technical questions, but ChatGPT that struggles with factuality, you know, we're creating a lot of guardrails around what you're doing to make sure the answers that you get are factual, but also targeted towards a system that you're designing rather than just a completely open ended conversation. So in that sense, it's a navigator in a sense that you're starting from somewhere, you're aiming to go somewhere else, this navigator is guiding you how you can get there, using all the knowledge that is available to you. 

Umar  10:02  
Yeah that's outstanding. I love the concept. Obviously, I've tried to learn a little bit more about it, the description of it being what if you could centralize your knowledge and let AI organize it for you that really, that really stuck out, I am drowning, and by no means am I remotely as technical as yourself or your colleagues. But even someone such as myself, I'm drowning, in documentation, I'm drowning in processes, if I'm onboarding and come to an organization, or coming on to a new project, and it is very technical I don't necessarily know where to start, I have lots of questions. I find myself working on legal documents, and by no means am I a lawyer, and we're redlining and you're going back and forth. But if you could be able to have that information, collected, organized, and then also be able to, to ask those questions without me having to wait on the PhDs at Fusemachines, or my lawyers or whatever it is just the speed at which you could just get right down to it, you described it as such, to be able to, like, just want to work, I just want to get to where I need to get to, I understand that I have to consume all of this. But the idea that someone can or you know, a tool can do that for you, and then just accelerate the process is, is outstanding, I'm absolutely blown away. And I can imagine I understand the growth, I understand the demand. It's always really cool when someone works with the community, and builds with the community and serves the community and you're part of that community. So you're not building something that doesn't make sense to them. You're part of them, you know, what your issues are, you're able to build something accordingly. Like that's, that's some really exciting stuff. I imagine the feedback that you got has been obviously given the growth of the company has been has been outstanding. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how what's what's changed how you've grown in the last few years?

Amir  11:58  
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I usually say our community has been a very crucial part of our journey. I don't think I would have been here today talking to you about, you know, what we were building if it wasn't, there has been, you know, obviously, in a startup, there are days that are super hard days that you're like, you know, what am I doing with my life, but then you think about the energy and the community you bring in, you know, the impact that you're having on their lives, not only through the tool you're building, but you know, through the network and connections that are meaningful in helping them grow. So, you know, obviously, as you can imagine, the problem you're working on is an extremely complex problem because it combines very, very, you know, nuanced human cognitive ability, which is thinking and social behavior, right, because it like collaborative knowledge work is a combination of all of them. So it's been very important for us to, you know, be really close to this community, observe, how they learn how they do work, how they, you know, leverage knowledge that is available to them. So, you know, really just started with, you know, myself convincing a few core people in the community around me, that is exciting. And over time, you know, things have been getting more and more formalized. You know, today, you know, my team is, you know, my co-founder, who's on the business development side of things. Very talented product owner, who is, you know, running with our product, is doing so many experiments with the community members every week, we have a product designer that is making everything pretty unusable. I have a few people at University of McGill and Metropolitan University, who are essentially our R&D team, they're doing a lot of very interesting research for us, we have three full time developers who are building the platform. So it's a team that is growing, it's a team that has really come together. And, you know, we all share that vision, you know, knowledge should be accessible, and usable by people who need it, and want to, to build impactful things. So it really helps us get over a lot of challenges that we have faced, and, you know, helps us keep forward.

Umar  13:53  
Right, I can understand that. I mean, I've worked in a number of firms in which, you know, you're employed, you're an employee, and, you know, whether you're, you connect with your colleagues doesn't really matter. I'm part of the team, I'm a soldier, and I'll get done what I need to get done. And, and now I really appreciate genuinely caring about the individuals I work with, working well with them, understanding the best ways to interact and, and that feels like a luxury and one that I try not to take for granted. And I imagine that that also for you is the same case. And I imagine that also makes things pretty easy. But it could not have all been rainbows and sunshine. From the start, there had to have been some challenges that you faced over, over the time as you continue to build and work with community, tell us about some of the things that you've been able to overcome.

Amir 17:16  
Yeah, definitely, you know, one of one of the principles that I sort of learned, like, I've always done community building throughout my life, you know, whether like associations or, you know, physical activity related things like hiking and soccer and whatever, to, you know, the current professional community that we have. And one thing that I learned, very recently, even though I've been doing it for a long time, you have to be super consistent with your community. And until you get to a point where these community members can interact with each other and build together, it's not really a community, it's at best, you know, an audience. So that's something that we really have to figure out how to do, you know, definitely got to go through many iterations of figuring out how to build a community, how to engage with them, how to keep them engaged on an ongoing basis. But honestly, the technical side, and, you know, to some extent, the human sides of what we've been doing, have been the easier parts for me, you know, being a technical person, like by training, but the business side has been challenging and obviously, not being very, very well versed in that area and had to essentially, one of my advisors was, at some point, I was complaining to my advisor saying, I wish I had an MBA, and she was like, You're the already have done an MBA, given all of the things you've done. So you had to really teach myself all of those ways of thinking and tools and things like that. And the business modeling, what we are doing is not trivial. So, you know, we have similar tools out there like the search engines like Google that views that have to monetize through advertisement. And and that creates a lot of problems a lot of competition, like, am I actually delivering value to the person who's searching information? Or am I delivering value to the person who's selling ads, right? So there are a lot of nuances when you're trying to monetize the system like when we are building system that, you know, helps people access information. So, we had to iterate a lot and figure out what works in that space. And you know, this is not a cheap endeavor, like it costs a lot of money. First I thought, you know, we are going to bootstrap this, you know, we are going to figure it out, we have a community. But ultimately we learned that we needed a lot of capital. And, you know, figuring out all of these aspects have been very, very interesting and instructive over the years.

Umar  19:59  
Yeah I can only imagine and to skillfully navigate all of those things, obviously, you had your core strength of expertise. And then knowing what you don't know, knowing what you should learn what you should, what you should give to other experts and bringing that expertise to your, to your team. But, but to your point, as you're building and building, it's not cheap. So you've must have picked up some of those tools in navigating the VC world. And I, you know, it's a space that I've been, I've been a mentor to startups here in Toronto, and you see that challenge of navigating those realistic expectations and level setting a little bit with VCs. How have you found that as I imagine that was part of your job as a founder?

Amir  20:52  
Yeah, definitely. Well, I mean, I have to give the disclaimer that we have  yet to raise money from major VCs. So everything that I'm telling you is, you know, however much I understand from that process so far. So one of the things that was very significant transformation for me over the past years, and I admit, I'm still in the process of learning, it is going from that, thinking that VCs and investors are, you know, counterparts that you have to convince to come along with you to thinking that you are actually partners that you're going on a journey together. And that's a very, very significant nuance, because in one scenario, it was very transactional. For me, it was like, oh, this is a template, that, based on this, I have to tell my story, very transactionally, they're going to look at it and say, No, or Yeah, sure. Now that when I'm thinking about them as thinking about investors, as potential partners, it becomes a dating process, it becomes a courting process, right becomes a process where I have to tell a story about the growth that I'm imagining for this business, how that growth is possible, how that growth is differentiated from other alternatives, and how the investors and myself, you know, and us, as a team, as a company, are going to grow together. And you know, what benefits you give each other. So the conversation becomes a lot more interesting that way. Because, first of all, you immediately can disqualify a lot of investors, that otherwise would not have been great partners, for you. Definitely the way they try to do the way they articulate their thesis, like, Oh, those are important things. Because if you get married to this person to this company, this is going to be a marriage for several years. Right. So.

Umar  21:53  
No, I love that analogy. I totally agree.

Amir 22:55  
Yeah, and, you know, again, like, I'm still in the process of learning what that really means. But I think that transformation that needed to happen mentally for me, you know, has started, I'm still learning it, I was still learning the rules and techniques, it's ultimately a numbers game to a large extent, because there are, especially in very early stages where there are not, you know, significant business metrics to talk about and, you know, bank on. So that process needs to, you have to learn the structure of the system of the playbook of how you essentially create these meaningful relationships that involve, you know, getting capital into your company and going forward. 

Umar  23:40  
Yeah no absolutely, not, not just necessarily jumping at the, at the first large wallet. I can't agree more with the analogy, the dating analogy, I mean, that ties into so many things in this in this space, but to really think about whether or not this is going to be a good relationship, a good partnership, you're entering into that marriage. And then confidence as well, ties into a good relationship. So you should be confident in your abilities and what you're bringing to the table. And then allowing, you know, sharing that with an individual and then ideally them having confidence in you as well and confidence in their abilities to be a good partner. It's an elegant dance, that I know, some, some young founders may just jump at the first, you know, the first opportunity to kind of expand and grow and kind of get past that bootstrapping stage. But I love that analogy. Now it seems as though  with with this high level expertise you have in your field, there's so much that you've had to learn in terms of things that you that you weren't an expert in and specifically on the business side, what were some of the ways that you continue to kind of build that, you'd said it's so funny to me that, you know, you wish to have gotten an MBA, but someone that was close to you recognized, you know, and I think you've got quite a bit of that ability already. What were some of the ways that you were able to get that, that that experience and kind of get that street MBA or that that I don't know what the term would be, but something which you didn't necessarily have to go to?

Amir  25:12  
I'm going to add the street MBA to my LinkedIn.

Umar  25:17  
You're my, you're my, you're my model for that. But that's exactly what it is, you do have the same level of expertise. But where did that come from? How did you how did you achieve that without having to get another yet yet another degree on your CV?

Amir  25:30  
Um, so I'm, I like to think that I'm a very pragmatic person. And, you know, I, I admit, not everybody's in a position that I was, but, you know, I was in a position that I practically saved money for a few years, to be able to sustain myself, because I knew it was not going to be an easy journey. So I knew that I needed time to figure things out. But ultimately, you know, that, sort of, I'm not a very good planner, but you know, that planning really helped me to do a lot of trial and error. So to essentially try things, see why they don't work, and learn why they didn't work, and adapt and move forward. So definitely access to, you know, very good mentors, you know, I didn't really have anybody who has mentored me continuously. But, you know, any opportunity that I had to try to hit somebody who knew what I was talking about, I tried to convince them to stick around for a while, so that we can ask questions. You know, sometimes I felt well, accounting is an important aspect, I know nothing about it, I know how to work the numbers, but you don't know how to do accounting, you know, about it. So sort of like, just to start doing it, like the famous cliche setting is jump and build a plane as you're falling down. Right. So that's exactly what happened here that, you know, I started doing it, I went on to I was like, Wait, I don't know what to do now. And, you know, asked other founders as mentors and advisors. And having a community is so valuable here, because, yeah, it was the answer. You know, like, I've been part of some founder communities, like a list of being part of advisory groups like Mars, Discovery District, etc. And now Creative Destruction Lab, like having access to people who have done it. And you can go to them and say, I can't wrap my head around this, how do you think about it? Open minded, and go out and ask, has been a great way to learn. And one of the important things I think that I learned about myself, because a lot of people along the way, have been telling me, oh, when you pitch you don't sound confident, right? Especially when you're talking about the business side. And I really challenged myself last year, I said, when I'm talking about technical sides, I'm very confident. So how come I don't sound confident when I'm talking about the other aspect. And what I really learned about myself, was that I can't sound confident if I'm not internally confident. And that was a really huge motivation for me to just really learn the business side and write about it. Like I know what I'm talking about, because well, actually, I knew what I was talking about. And so being in that confidence comes with really knowing what is going on.

Umar  28:35  
Yeah, no, that's, that's really interesting, because I think I think you're making me recognize that I've had a similar realization and in a relatively short amount of time, in which, you know, I can put on the game show host, and I can I can, I can do what I need to do, and, and present and definitely. If I'm, if it's a subject that I can talk about all day, then I'm in a good spot. But if it's a subject that I'm not an expert in, I have to really deep dive in if it's, we're gonna dive into the finance and let me look at the underlying calculation. Don't give me the big numbers. How did you get there, let me. I'm a data guy as well to a degree. And I do like, going in line by line and figuring that out. And I found the anxiety dropped off dramatically when did not only did I understand that single slide that I was presenting that if anything, came up to slice and dice it in the 15 ways that I'm probably going to get sliced and diced. Because I helped build the final result or at least understood I was built and I'd be in a good good position to, to, to be comfortable. And that's it's fun. I'm like, oh, that's fine. It's a slide I'll get it. And then the anxiety kicked in and I'm like why am I not? Why is this so hard? The other things are easier. I get that. You know, it's not my expertise, but it's that it's that work that you put in to understand all those other areas. I know I adore that. But it's but it is comforting to know that someone with your pedigree would also maybe be a little uncomfortable up there while they're while they're presenting something. So it's not just, it's not just the rest of us. I mean, I've, I love this I could take I actually could take tons of notes and create an entire deck in terms of more advice to give to aspiring founders. What would what advice would you give to Amir from 10 years ago, five years ago, current Amir, past Amir, I always I always do that to myself in which I think I think past past Umar forgiving for doing something good for current Umar and also current and cursing past Umar for screwing current Umar. What advice would you give to yourself prior to this journey?

Amir 30:49  
Yeah. I'm honestly, I always struggle without question. Because, you know, going back most probably I think to some extent, that question assumes, you know, the ability of my past self to make different decisions aligned with the privilege of making different decisions doesn't exist. And you know, that's something that I acknowledge. But one thing that I learned, you know, I, you know, change it a little, like, if somebody comes to me and says, Okay, I'm starting this journey, you know, what, why should I think about differently? I would say, you know, the importance of system thinking, in like, literally everything you do. So if you're designing a product, you know, that the most superficial layer is, oh, what color should these buttons be? The next layer? How is the user going to go from this point to the next point, the next point, the most abstract and important layer is the system thinking is like, okay, what are all the components that the user has to take into account when they get here, which of these are necessary to help them achieve the next step, etc, etc. That's the same when it comes to investment pitching. You know, when I pitched the investors, initially, each slide of the deck was its independent, you know, single thing. But now, like, the whole thing is a story. It's all components of a system that come together in a narrative that I'm telling, you know, the investors. So the sooner you learn, the sooner you acknowledge that that's what needs to happen, and learn how to actually do it in different contexts, the easier your journey will be.

Umar  32:37  
Oh, wow, that's lovely. And very, I mean, it's interesting, it's applicable, regardless of kind of the subject, whatever your if it's a problem, you're looking to tackle it and solve it and get to something, you know, get get to some finish line, that line of thinking will translate regardless of what you're doing. I love that, you know, putting that in terms of the storytelling on a deck, I wouldn't have I wouldn't have thought that that would have applied, but it applies elegantly, to, to that to that process that that, that makes a lot of sense. And yeah, giving you a different way to look at it, I enjoy the structure, I'm very much one of those individuals that if I've got a giant mess of problems, I just need to organize it, it always looks, it always looks like less of a mountain to climb, if it's just organized in and systematized as, as you said it that I think that's that's wonderful advice. I imagine it's, it's been been a busy couple of years, it's probably going to I imagine 2023 is looking to be incredibly busy as well. And interesting. Anything you can tell us about what's what's coming for, for Aggregate Intellect for yourself, what's what's on deck? What do you got planned for 2023?

Amir  33:50  
Yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, I'll throw out three things. So one is, you know, I run these small sub community of founders and machine learning people, investors, we meet almost every week in Toronto, I want to go out, like or, you know, sit somewhere and eat or do some other activity together, it's a very good way to get to know other people who are builders, operators, investors in this space. So if you're interested, reach out to me on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. So that's one thing. The second thing is we are starting to take on pilot clients. So if you are a team that is working on any sort of data science related problem that's interested in, you know, an agent that, you know, sort of acts as your experience engineering team, you know, reach out and we can talk about it. We'll put out more information about it on social media. So again, follow me on LinkedIn and such. 

Umar  34:53  
Yeah totally. We'll make sure we link to to your LinkedIn, to your Twitter. Absolutely.

Amir  34:57  
Definitely. And the third thing is you're fundraising. So if your angel investor interested in a space of AI in general, I know generative AI is a buzzword these days, for a while, you know, we're not the ones that were scared about it a month ago. So definitely excited to show you what we're doing.

Umar  35:20  
Wow, that is yeah, that is gonna be that's a lot to have going on right now but also seems like par for the course for you and your team. Always always a lot kind of happening and really excited to follow your progress. Again, with Christine I can't thank her enough for making the connection because now I'm just, I'm gonna I'm gonna I'm gonna go a little super nerd and make sure I pay attention to what's happening with the community and with Aggregate Intellect in particular and, and make sure to keep up with your YouTube channel and, and all of your socials. So I've taken up enough of your time today. I really appreciate the conversation. Like I said, I've been I'd been very excited to have this conversation and I know you've been really busy, so I can't thank you enough.

Amir  36:06  
Of course. Thanks for having me. Yeah, it was a fun conversation.