Ready to start an AI business? Here’s a checklist from Zindi’s founder

In a recent survey, we discovered that about half of the users on Zindi were thinking about starting their own AI business. Zindi co-founder Ekow Duker dives into taking charge of your own destiny, and gives some tips on how to make sure you succeed.

Zindi is much more than a machine learning platform. It’s the place where people come to learn, collaborate, and connect while solving problems that really matter. In a recent survey, we discovered that about half of the users on Zindi were thinking about starting their own AI business. Zindi co-founder Ekow Duker dives into taking charge of your own destiny, and gives some tips on how to make sure you succeed.

Why now?

Let’s start with asking why on earth you would want to do this right now. There must be easier things you could do with your time; like solving global unemployment, or emigrating to Wakanda.

Firstly, technology is on your side — there is more data than ever before, much of it originating from our mobile phones. Secondly, computing power is exploding — we’ve gone from slide rules to cloud computing in my lifetime — and algorithms have advanced from what was science fiction 10 or 15 years ago to being very much an everyday reality today.

COVID-19 pandemics and lockdowns around the world are also driving a change in how the world does business. We seem to be more accepting of working remotely, and where digital tools are concerned, the world has moved more quickly up the ladder of trust than we otherwise would have done.

I don’t need to tell you that there are lots of problems to be solved. AI, if used responsibly, can help bring about a step change in how we address the most pressing problems of our time.

Why you?

Of the billions of people on this rock hurtling around the sun, what makes you The Chosen One? Well, you’ve been top of your class since kindergarten, so you know you’re smart. You’re by far the most tech-savvy person in your family. But most importantly, you’ve identified a problem you just know you can solve. It even keeps you up at night. But it’s more than just your feelings at work here.

For you, this isn’t an urge with no foundation. Maybe you’ve been working in a bank or a retailer as a data scientist for a few years and that’s given you a good understanding of your market. You might even know who you want in your team.

So you’re pretty clear that you just have to start an AI company right now, and you know that you’re uniquely suited to the task. But don’t write that resignation letter just yet. Here are a few things to consider as you set out on your journey to change the world with your AI startup.

Watch the video for Ekow’s top 10 AI startup tips.

What next? 10 important things to consider

  1. Speak your client’s language. When speaking about your business, product or service, use words your clients understand. Talk about revenue instead of regression, and cost savings instead of convolutional neural networks. Because unfortunately, if your sales pitch includes Python code, you probably aren’t talking to a decision-maker.
  2. Packaging matters. Devote some time and effort to making sure your offering looks slick and compelling. This means your website and any other marketing materials you create need to be professional. Get some help with branding and design — you won’t regret it.
  3. Get some wins on the scoreboard, so you can talk about your actual achievements and point to early wins for your AI company. It’s even better if these wins are endorsed by your client through a written or video testimonial; remember that clients believe other clients
  4. Try not to work for free. As a startup this is very tempting (see point 3). But my advice is to lock yourself in a dark room until the feelings pass, because unfortunately, clients tend not to appreciate work they don’t pay for. So charge something, even if it’s a nominal amount.
  5. Choose projects you can actually deliver on. Don’t promise the moon unless you can actually tie a rope around it and pull it down to earth. You’ll only lose credibility and make it harder for the next start-up that comes after you.
  6. Cash flow will kill you. Here is something that you might tend to forget as a data scientist or machine learning engineer: ultimately it’s a lack of cash flow that will sink your business. Remember that when you spend all night coaxing another 0.005% accuracy out of your model.
  7. Be kind and considerate. Your proximity to data means that at some point, you may have privileged access to customer information and insights, insights the customers may not know themselves. So use that knowledge with care and empathy. Why? It’s just the right thing to do.
  8. Invest in your reputation. Build your reputation and guard it jealously. There is so much hype around AI, that it might be tempting to take shortcuts. But taking shortcuts won’t serve you in the long term.
  9. Don’t get discouraged. Starting a business is hard, and it will be made harder by working with new markets, untested products and complex technologies. Learn to hang in there through failures and rejection. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and the former president of Y Combinator, says that determination is the most important indicator of success in an entrepreneur. Lots of people will waste your time, but don’t take it personally; they’re probably trying to figure out this AI thing as well.
  10. Family is important. Remember that your family, and especially your significant other, is part of your AI business venture, whether they want to be or not. It helps tremendously if they support your dream. Be kind to them.

So we’re clear on why you should start your AI business now, and why it just has to be you. We also talked about 10 things that I’ve learned in starting an AI business. If this article hasn’t scared you off, then stop waiting for the stars to align. Go forth and collaborate.

The world is waiting to hear you say, “Hello World”.

Ekow Duker is co-founder of Zindi and a celebrated author. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Zindi is a competition platform hosting a community of data scientists dedicated to solving Africa’s toughest challenges through machine learning & AI