How Artificial Intelligence Startups Struck Gold
Their founders aren't any smarter, luckier or more privileged than you or me.
Whenever a hot new field starts to take off, you’ll inevitably hear sighs of regret by the many who wish they’d gotten into it when they had the chance. The billion-dollar question is, why didn’t they? The answer is, they chose not to. That’s what separates successful people from the pack: the choices they make.
There’s currently a talent war going on in the deep learning space. Web service leaders Amazon, Google and Microsoft are scooping up talent and buying startups left and right in a race for facial and speech recognition technology used in cloud-based searches and other red-hot machine learning applications.
Last week, Ford invested $1 billion to become majority shareholder of Argo AI, a self-driving car startup. Microsoft bought natural- language research lab Maluuba in January. Last summer, Intel paid more than $400 million to acquire 48-person AI startup Nervana and Apple bought Turi. Salesforce acquired MegaMind in April. And so on.
The thing is, the entrepreneurs involved in those ventures didn’t just wake up one day and opportunistically decide to do something that’ll make them a fortune. Some were pioneers in the field. Others took big risks and even bigger leaps of faith over long periods of time to get to where they are today.
Argo CEO Bryan Selesky led hardware development for Google’s self-driving car project and hails from Carnegie Mellon’s famed National Robotics Engineering Center. Naveen Rao was an engineer for a decade before the AI lightbulb went off in his head. He went back to school, earned a PhD in neuroscience, them cofounded Nervana.
The point is, none of these people knew the field would take off. Maybe they thought it might, but they certainly did not know in advance. That’s not why they got into it. They got into it because that was the path that felt right to them and only them.
I’m always telling young up-and-comers to take their time finding the right career that captures their imagination -- the one thing that gets them excited, sparks their creativity, and makes them happy to do, day in, day out -- and focus on being the best at it. And I’m always hearing dumb excuses about why they can’t, won’t or shouldn’t do that.
They read a book or an article somewhere by someone who said they should build their personal brand, fake it ‘til they make it, join the growing hoard of self-employed gig workers, or start lots of little online businesses and hope that it all adds up to something someday.
That’s all nonsense that will get you nowhere, except maybe living hand-to-mouth and further in debt.
The spoils go to those who follow their passion, take risks and focus only on doing what they do best. That may not apply to everyone, but if you don’t want to end up looking longingly at success stories and wondering why you’re not among them, then it applies to you.
Nobody ever knows in advance if what they do for a living will pay off in the long run. Nobody has a crystal ball, and everybody gets just one life to live. There are no do-overs. So career decisions always come down to basic fundamentals that haven’t changed in ages:
First, understand that everything you do is a choice made of your own free will. Make it wisely. Make it because it makes sense and feels right to you, not because someone you don’t know from Adam said you should do it. After all, you’re the one who is going to have to live with the consequences. Own it.
Second, the only way to make good choices is to have good choices. That means getting out in the world, working hard, and learning from those with experience doing what you aspire to do. The more exposure you have to smart people and new opportunities, the more experience you gain, the better your available choices will become.
Lastly, remember that you are human. The rules do apply to you. There are laws of physics, biology and economics that no amount of wishful thinking or positive psychology can overcome. By all means, shoot for the stars, but try to keep at least one foot planted on the ground at all times.
Those who got into AI aren’t any smarter, luckier, or more privileged than you or me. All they did was stay true to the path that felt right to them. Simple as that.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.