Blog: Artificial Intelligence Startups, Have You Put Together Your Dream Team? – Forbes
There are surely lone wolf entrepreneurs out there who can develop a highly technical product and market it to a target audience all by themselves. But those standalone workaholics are rare exceptions to the rule. Oftentimes the best products come from a team of people working together on a shared vision. The most viable businesses aren’t always solo acts: They can also be group efforts. And if that group is developing an interesting AI solution, investors might be interested.
I used to be the founder and chief technical officer of a company that brought artificial intelligence to manufacturing. I ultimately sold that company and now invest in emergent AI companies. I use the knowledge and experience from my education and career to guide my investments in other teams working to bring the next generation of AI technologies to life.
I get to meet teams around the world, learn crucial details about what they’re working on, and vet the solutions they’re building. When all the puzzle pieces come together in the right way, I’ll cut a check to pour some gas on their fire and otherwise try to make myself their resource and connector. I have a strong sense of what it takes to succeed here: Artificial intelligence companies generally require a special dose of humanity if they’re ever going to make an impact. I tend not to invest in the lone wolf entrepreneurs, but instead favor companies with multiple co-founders who have complementary skill sets. These businesses seem to operate a little better than those with a single founder. (There are exceptions, but I’ve found the bar is higher.)
Most members of the strongest teams I meet can fit into four different archetypes, which I’ll outline below. These are the people who should be attached to your AI project before you ask someone to invest in it.
One of the co-founders ought to be the technical brain. Many investors are looking for an AI geek with a background in computer or data science. This person ought to have some academic credentials to that end, such as a bachelor’s degree or better. I’ll stay open-minded if they have no credentials, though. At the very least, investors will want to see other projects they’ve previously completed in the space.
This person should also have real-world experience dealing with the messy aspects of machine learning. Can they automate a data pipeline to deliver reliable information without a lot of manual interaction? If they live on the hardcore research end of the spectrum, investors may look for any papers they’ve published on the topic or see which lab they’re coming from. This person needs to be highly credible and highly experienced.
In short, investors like seeing someone on the team who’s a technology rainmaker. They get to go deep on the technology, leaving room for someone else to go deep on whichever industry the AI solution touches.
At least one of the co-founders needs to be a domain expert. If the team is developing an AI system for retail, one of the co-founders needs relevant retail experience. If it’s for real estate, then they’d better be able to explain their credibility in the space.
This person doesn’t necessarily need to have a technical background. It might even be better if they’re nontechnical — for example, if their key strength is communication, they can speak well to the limits and capabilities of the solution the team is developing, and they know how to pitch it to a target audience. This requires human appeal and understanding, not deep technical knowledge.
That’s why it’s important that this person knows when to step aside and bring in the CTO. I’ve seen nontechnical CEOs try to give technical answers, and it just doesn’t work. If the relationship between this person and the technical expert isn’t highly complementary, then it could be a liability.
If the company has built a team of developers by the time we’re talking investment, many investors will want to see these hires happen locally. I’m not in favor of bringing in an affordable army of programmers working from China or Russia to get a project to the finish line, at least for core IP. Not only can localization make the company more cohesive and nimble, but it also guards against iffy spats over intellectual property.
Service companies are incentivized to use their past portfolio to bring in new clients. What’s your next move when a foreign development team likes your work so much that they decide to make it their own? I believe that kind of effort needs to stay local with founders.
Depending on how scientific or technical the company is, it may be appropriate for them to have an adviser on board already. This might be a co-founder’s professor from grad school or another academic with specialized knowledge, but in any event, this person’s role is to be a general-purpose question-answerer and problem-solver. It’s a role that even I have played before.
The earlier the stage of business development, the more critical the founding team is. Even though their finished work product might be intangible computer code, the people constituting that founding team are up to 80% of the picture. They’re the people working to execute the vision. Investors are in the position to bet on their success or pass on it.
There are all kinds of people developing next-generation technology to inform and direct our lives. When it comes time to consider investing in these people, investors like myself look for expert communicators and technologists using a local team to build the future. That’s because we have skin in the game with them.
Because when they’re not alone, they’re more likely to succeed.