In September 2010, a three-person AI startup called DeepMind Technologies launched in London, with the goal of “solving intelligence.” Four years later, Google acquired the company for $500 million. And by 2016, it had achieved a major victory in AI: Mastering the complex game of Go.
This story represents the fantasy of many AI researchers, eager to launch their own ventures in the AI startup space. But the field has become saturated, and the terms “AI,” “deep learning,” and “machine learning” are often overhyped and misunderstood. Companies and VCs often hear these buzzwords but don’t know what, exactly, it is that they are investing in.
So how can you start a successful company, grounded in AI, that can rise above the noise?
Prateek Joshi, an immigrant entrepreneur, recently launched his own startup called PlutoAI. Hailing from a small town in India, Joshi realized that water quality is critical to the health of a community. His company was created to address water wastage, predict quality, and lower operating costs at water facilities—by using AI.
Here are four tips from Joshi from his experience getting an AI startup off the ground.
1. Don’t sell AI
“Every single company you talk to is doing some kind of AI,” said Joshi. “The problem is, it gets a bad rap since many companies don’t even know what they mean when they say ‘AI.'” In order to build a successful AI company, said Joshi, “you shouldn’t sell AI to customers.” Instead, he said, “AI is a tool you use to solve problems.”
2. Think outside of the box
A lot of AI research, said Joshi, is focused around image recognition, voice recognition, and robotics. “But what people don’t realize is AI is a fantastic tool to solve any other problems,” he said. Joshi recommends that entrepreneurs start looking for important problems to address, to see how AI can contribute to solutions.
If you remove AI from the company, said Joshi, and still have a valuable product, you’re on the right track. But “if AI is your only thing, then neither the customers nor investors will be excited about it,” he said. “AI is too hyped—and once the hype dies down, your company shouldn’t die down.”
3. Highlight your mission
Since the market is so saturated, said Joshi, many businesses that want to invest in AI are struggling to choose the right solution. “They are going after AI companies, but they have a thousand options to pick from,” he said. “In some cases, what happens is they’re like, ‘There’s so much hype. I don’t want to get burned, so I’m just not going to do it.’ And that’s the worst outcome.”
“You don’t want people to stop believing in data science or AI just because of a few bad apples,” he said.
AI shouldn’t be a part of your story, said Joshi. The story should be about the mission. “Your customer will use you because you save them something, make their life easier, save them money, save them time,” he said.”AI is a thing that you use to enable that.”
4. Understand your customers
In Silicon Valley, people “get so wrapped up in their own technology that they forget why would the customer would buy it,” said Joshi. “They spend like a year building it, and then realize, ‘Whoops, you know what? The customer didn’t even need it.'” Before you start building, he said, try to understand the needs of the customer. “Silicon Valley is dominated by engineers, and they start writing code before talking to customers,” said Joshi. “You should do the opposite of that.”
Also, when selling to industries such as water or manufacturing, “learn how to articulate your mission of origin in terms of something they’d understand,” said Joshi. “If you say ‘Hey we are building this new electro-space, blah blah,'” they’ll stop listening. Removing the tech jargon from your story is very important if you want to grow as a business.”