The catchiest (and wrong) assertion is this:
"even for highly technical aspects like deep learning, fast.ai has shown that people with 1-year of coding experience can become world-class deep learning practitioners"
Yes, any Joe can train deep network with dozen lines of Keras. Sure, your startup can use off-the self models and tweak it a bit... That doesn't make you "world-class deep learning practitioner". If you are designing the network for new problem domain, there are thousands of decisions to make - everything from hyperparameters to network architecture to distributions in data. Making these decisions without having developed lots of intuition and good foundations is very hard. I often find usual developers without ML background and experience completely lost in these cases. Debugging a model that doesn't work is super hard. There are no IDEs, no breakpoints, no watches and in fact not even error messages. Its purely statistical debugging and probabilistic fixes.
I don't want to diminish the success that this company is having being run in their own way, but give me a break with these blog posts.
VC is a "trend to avoid"? Avoid "Hypergrowth"? I guess companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Stripe, Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest and a hundred others all really messed up.
I mean I could go point by point and give examples that are the opposite of these trends, but that isn't any more meaningful than these suggestions. You can choose to run a company however you want, and you should. If you believe these things are bad, don't do them. Attract employees that agree with you. The market will decide if you are right or not.
But enough with the blog posts about it, especially if they are dismissing critical tools that many companies use very successfully. Every company is different, every product is different, every team is different. Use some common sense on what tools make sense for you, and keep an open mind.
I have a vested interest as a VC, but I disagree that VC funding is a negative signal. That's a very blanket statement to make, and there are lots of toxic VC-funded companies but also lots of amazing ones. (Similarly, there are tons of toxic non-VC companies and tons of amazing ones.)
The way I'd frame it is:
1) If you want to build a company that is venture scale, taking VC funding is a great option to consider. If you don't want to build such a company, VC funding is a very poor option.
2) There are good and bad VCs. The bad ones suck. The good ones will help you and support you even if the outcome is 2x or 0x. Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures articulates this attitude well in several posts:
a) "If you look at the distribution of outcomes in a venture fund, you will see that it is a classic power law curve, with the best investment in each fund towering over the rest, followed by a few other strong investments, followed by a few other decent ones, and then a long tail of investments that don’t move the needle for the VC fund.
But that long tail is comprised of entrepreneurs and their teams. People who have given years of their lives to a dream that was ultimately not realized.
And as I have written many times over the years on this blog, I spent the majority of my time on that long tail. This is irrational behavior if you think about fund economics, but I believe it is rational behavior if you think about firm reputation." (http://avc.com/2015/11/power-law-and-the-long-tail/)
b) "There are two interesting things here that I always think about. The first is that even the very best investors in the VC business only get a hit about 1/3 of the time. That means that they have their share of "slog it outs" and "hit the walls" too. I am certainly in that camp. The second is that we end up spending an incredible amount of time and energy (hopefully not money) on the 2/3 of our investments that don't work out. When everything goes well, you really don't need that much from a VC. Of course, I have added value in all of my winners. But its the ones that don't work that I have left my blood, sweat, and tears on. And that's the paradox of being a VC that cares. Which is the only kind of VC you want to work with." (http://avc.com/2013/03/when-things-dont-work-out/)
The common mental model of a fledgling software startup is too large by at least one order of magnitude.
For a decent, traction-but-no-rocketship product oriented startup, you need one solid back-end+ops guy, one solid front-end+UX guy, and one programmer for each mobile platform you wish to support. Add a CEO+sales+finances person, to keep the business side of the business compliant.
Yes, you won't get a cool continuous integration autoscaling whatnot doodad. YAGNI also applies to infrastructure, people and organizational hierarchies. Don't build them just because Google and Facebook have them.
Look for a profitable company that's just one size bigger than you are today, and aim for that. They've already proven that it's possible to operate at that size with the whatever they've got. Repeat as you grow.
Yep, all the points are the truth. I've got some of those mistakes in the past especially VC funding, and it's really painful. Staying small is not a big lose or something, actually you can earn 10x more money by staying small than burning billions and keep working crazy hours. For example you can look on what's up for the price of 19 instagrams they had around 30 employees. They were small and output was way bigger than in general VC - funded company.
Great points. Strongly agree with #3 in particular ("like a family") because I've made this exact mistake with companies I've led in the past.
To elaborate on what the piece touches on but doesn't specifically say:
> You will need to make hard decisions for the sake of > the business. You can’t actually offer people anything > remotely close to lifelong loyalty or security, and it’s > dishonest to implicitly do so.
To be clear(er): You will have to fire people, and firing someone who thinks of themselves as a family member or who you think of as similar makes the whole thing much more painful. Further, it can make you, as a leader, hesitate when it's an action you really need to take ("but this person is like my brother - we'll make it work!").
At my most recent company, we took the opposite approach -- we all liked each other a lot, we worked well together, and we ate lunch together as a team, but at 6pm everyone went home to their own lives and families. The lines were clear, the understandings were there, and I think it was a much better way to run things.
Hmm, this article took a quick turn into a story about how it takes just one year of coding experience + something from fast.ai to become "world-class deep learning practitioners"; make of that what you will.
I agree a lot with #3 but disagree heavily with #4.
There are canonical examples of PhD theses that became successful companies, not to mention the dozens of companies who exited (e.g. CV companies to Qualcomm).
Pretending to be a family is bad news. Especially if you tell prospective employees that and then remind them that employment is "at will".
Negative trends 4 and 5 are not, contra the article, AI-specific; AI just happens to be the intellectual problem of the moment.
The team I was on waaaay back in the prehistory of the web era was warned against hiring too many PhDs. We disregarded the advice. (These were smart guys, yo! They had PhDs!) We spent a couple of years tackling interesting problems instead of relevant problems, and just about entirely missed out on the first web bubble as a result.
I love smart academic people. I love those big brains. I'll never hire one ever again. Give me someone who's more interested in working around a problem than in studying it, and we'll get things done. Give me a PhD and we'll have a nice paper about it about 5 years after anyone other than their thesis advisor cares.
First of all fast.ai is awesome and most of the points they make align quite well with my personal views which of course doesn't mean they are the right views ;) but...
"""Hiring a bunch of academic researchers will not improve your product and harms your company by diverting so many resources (unless your goal is an aquihire)."""
Disagree. Ceteris paribus a previous academic researcher isn't necessarily a worse hire than a graduate or someone who has worked at other tech companies. I'm really not a fan of this "don't hire people from academia" narrative. A good scientist is well versed in systematic problem solving which doesn't sound like a horrible skillset for someone working at a startup. Sure there's enough people with PhDs that can't write working code but there's also enough people that can. I'm not sure about the US but hiring a PhD isn't necessarily more expensive than hiring someone with job experience in the tech sector either. I get their basic idea but it's news to me that even AI startups are on "only PhDs all the time" hiring frenzies.
Without hyperbole, one of the biggest trends to avoid is overgeneralization.
A large part of one's experience at a startup is unique to that context.
Certainly not all. But certainly a lot -- Probably the majority of what counts as advice.
Being able to filter what's generalizable and what's not is the most useful skill an advisor can develop -- ironically, even more than the experience. (And I'm breaking my own hypothesis by giving advice there).
> Then I realized that most of the startups were indistinguishable from one another: nearly everyone was following the same destructive trends which are bad for employees and bad for products
This is rich coming from the founder of a startup that's indistinguishable from all the other coding bootcamp, MooC startups out there with a dash Deep Learning thrown in to make it extra trendy.
As for the actual advice, I think it's pretty hit or miss.
> 1. Venture Capital Nothing in her description of VC is wrong here. But the lesson: "VC is to be avoided" is an oversimplification. VC money is a tool. It's not always the right tool, and it certainly has its downsides. But it has its upsides too. In many cases it's the only way to get a business off the ground.
> 2. Hypergrowth I don't really know where the author puts the line between hypergrowth and just growth, as PG has said: starts are growth. They must always be growing, is there such thing as too much growth? Maybe, if really bad things are happening in the company because of the growth like people are burning out and quitting... but really that's only bad because eventually it will hurt growth. So I think the simple lesson is grow as fast as possible, don't be short sighted.
> 3. Trying to be “like a family” This one I agree with. Trying to be like a family in a professional setting is dishonest, and eventually the truth of the situation becomes clear. It's better to be honest from the start.
> 4. Attempting to productionize a PhD thesis We'll have to tell Larry Page he's wasting his time trying to turn that dumb Page Rank thesis into a company. There are a lot of companies that fail this way and there are a lot of PhD theses that shouldn't be commercialized but people try none the less. As with all things startups, there's a thousand failures for every success and the only way to tell the difference is to actually found the company.
> 5. Hiring a bunch of academic researchers The only company I've really observed doing this is Google and it seems to have worked out for them. I can easily believe that their are companies out there that higher a bunch of researchers to do a job they're not really capable of doing. I've also known academic researchers who were able to have a huge impact in the role they were hired for even though it wasn't really research. The general statement of this is that you needed to hire people for roles they want to and can perform. Researchers might be a particular anti-pattern in this but it's far from the only one.
Is doubling in a year even "hypergrowth"? Doubling revenue every a month or two? Sure. Doubling revenue in a year is a very strong growth rate for an established company, but it doesn't strike me as particularly hypergrowth.
Doubling headcount in a year seems also fairly routine for early-stage companies (assuming funding and cachet is in place).
> You and your adviser picked your thesis topic because it’s an interesting technical problem with good opportunities to publish, not because it has a large opportunity for impact in an underserved market with few barriers to entry.
This is obvious, yet an easy mistake. Behind it is applying the same values to a business as to a PhD - not only in topic selection, but also in execution. It's related to the conundrum that solving a problem that real people have now does not always require a technically great soluton. Even a revolutionary business does not necessarily require a technically great solution.
Academic success requires academic values and skills; business success requires business values and skills.
Of course, if you want to create a technologically revolutionary business, you'll need both.
#3. This is so truth. People have no idea what they talking about when they say "we are a family". Forget this whole family crap! Hire skilled and talented people. Let them do their job. Give them freedom and don't stand in their way. Employees barely know what a friendship is, let alone a family.
A trend that I would like to see more startups buck is the use of the independent contractor model. While I believe startups like Uber and Lyft could not achieve the scale that they have w.o this model, there are smaller startups & markets where I believe the increase in value to customer service can really differentiate a product.
Studies have shown that customer service, ability to execute & perform, and general quality of service correlate with whether or not the employee is an IC/temp or not. I've wondered if any startups have gone the opposite direction and hired folks FT/PT for roles that otherwise would seem to be filled by ICs.
I thought the definition of 'startup' is a company aiming for massive growth. If not you are a regular business.
So maybe the message is "You don't have to be a startup"
Negative trend 6: adopting a trendy, complex web stack before you absolutely have to when a simple one would get you to market faster
>Negative trend 3: “Our startup is like a family”
No, just no. I disagree with this. I’m just a lowly employee and I spend 1/3rd of my life with the office.
I want that office to be my family when I’m spending so much of my life there.
How does fast.ai make money?
Avoid trends in general, unless they make sense.
Well, that's what an AI told me to do.