Jul
20
2021
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How we built an AI unicorn in 6 years

Today, Tractable is worth $1 billion. Our AI is used by millions of people across the world to recover faster from road accidents, and it also helps recycle as many cars as Tesla puts on the road.

And yet six years ago, Tractable was just me and Raz (Razvan Ranca, CTO), two college grads coding in a basement. Here’s how we did it, and what we learned along the way.

Build upon a fresh technological breakthrough

In 2013, I was fortunate to get into artificial intelligence (more specifically, deep learning) six months before it blew up internationally. It started when I took a course on Coursera called “Machine learning with neural networks” by Geoffrey Hinton. It was like being love struck. Back then, to me AI was science fiction, like “The Terminator.”

Narrowly focusing on a branch of applied science that was undergoing a paradigm shift which hadn’t yet reached the business world changed everything.

But an article in the tech press said the academic field was amid a resurgence. As a result of 100x larger training data sets and 100x higher compute power becoming available by reprogramming GPUs (graphics cards), a huge leap in predictive performance had been attained in image classification a year earlier. This meant computers were starting to be able to understand what’s in an image — like humans do.

The next step was getting this technology into the real world. While at university — Imperial College London — teaming up with much more skilled people, we built a plant recognition app with deep learning. We walked our professor through Hyde Park, watching him take photos of flowers with the app and laughing from joy as the AI recognized the right plant species. This had previously been impossible.

I started spending every spare moment on image classification with deep learning. Still, no one was talking about it in the news — even Imperial’s computer vision lab wasn’t yet on it! I felt like I was in on a revolutionary secret.

Looking back, narrowly focusing on a branch of applied science undergoing a breakthrough paradigm shift that hadn’t yet reached the business world changed everything.

Search for complementary co-founders who will become your best friends

I’d previously been rejected from Entrepreneur First (EF), one of the world’s best incubators, for not knowing anything about tech. Having changed that, I applied again.

The last interview was a hackathon, where I met Raz. He was doing machine learning research at Cambridge, had topped EF’s technical test, and published papers on reconstructing shredded documents and on poker bots that could detect bluffs. His bare-bones webpage read: “I seek data-driven solutions to currently intractable problems.” Now that had a ring to it (and where we’d get the name for Tractable).

That hackathon, we coded all night. The morning after, he and I knew something special was happening between us. We moved in together and would spend years side by side, 24/7, from waking up to Pantera in the morning to coding marathons at night.

But we also wouldn’t have got where we are without Adrien (Cohen, president), who joined as our third co-founder right after our seed round. Adrien had previously co-founded Lazada, an online supermarket in South East Asia like Amazon and Alibaba, which sold to Alibaba for $1.5 billion. Adrien would teach us how to build a business, inspire trust and hire world-class talent.

Find potential customers early so you can work out market fit

Tractable started at EF with a head start — a paying customer. Our first use case was … plastic pipe welds.

It was as glamorous as it sounds. Pipes that carry water and natural gas to your home are made of plastic. They’re connected by welds (melt the two plastic ends, connect them, let them cool down and solidify again as one). Image classification AI could visually check people’s weld setups to ensure good quality. Most of all, it was real-world value for breakthrough AI.

And yet in the end, they — our only paying customer — stopped working with us, just as we were raising our first round of funding. That was rough. Luckily, the number of pipe weld inspections was too small a market to interest investors, so we explored other use cases — utilities, geology, dermatology and medical imaging.

Jun
10
2021
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The fintech endgame: New supercompanies combine the best of software and financials

If money is the ultimate commodity, how can fintechs — which sell money, move money or sell insurance against monetary loss — build products that remain differentiated and create lasting value over time?

And why are so many software companies — which already boast highly differentiated offerings and serve huge markets— moving to offer financial services embedded within their products?

A new and attractive hybrid category of company is emerging at the intersection of software and financial services, creating buzz in the investment and entrepreneurial communities, as we discussed at our “Fintech: The Endgame” virtual conference and accompanying report this week.

These specialized companies — in some cases, software companies that also process payments and hold funds on behalf of their customers, and in others, financial-first companies that integrate workflow and features more reminiscent of software companies — combine some of the best attributes of both categories.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures

From software, they design for strong user engagement linked to helpful, intuitive products that drive retention over the long term. From financials, they draw on the ability to earn revenues indexed to the growth of a customer’s business.

Fintech is poised to revolutionize financial services, both through reinventing existing products and driving new business models as financial services become more pervasive within other sectors.

The powerful combination of these two models is rapidly driving both public and private market value as investors grant these “super” companies premium valuations — in the public sphere, nearly twice the median multiple of pure software companies, according to a Battery analysis.

The near-perfect example of this phenomenon is Shopify, the company that made its name selling software to help business owners launch and manage online stores. Despite achieving notable scale with this original SaaS product, Shopify today makes twice as much revenue from payments as it does from software by enabling those business owners to accept credit card payments and acting as its own payment processor.

The combination of a software solution indexed to e-commerce growth, combined with a profitable payments stream growing even faster than its software revenues, has investors granting Shopify a 31x multiple on its forward revenues, according to CapIQ data as of May 26.

How should we value these fintech companies, anyway?

Before even talking about how investors should value these hybrid companies, it’s worth making the point that in both private and public markets, fintechs have been notoriously hard to value, fomenting controversy and debate in the investment community.

Feb
17
2021
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With software markets getting bigger, will more VCs bet on competing startups?

This morning I covered three funding rounds. One dealt with the no-code/low-code space, another focused on the OKR software market and the last dealt with a company in the consumer investing space. Worth a combined $420 million, the investments made for a contentedly busy morning.

But they also got me thinking about startup niches and competition. Back in the days when inside rounds were bad, SPACs were jokes and crypto a fever dream, there was lots of noise about investors who declined to place competing bets in any particular startup market.


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This rule of thumb still holds up today, but we need to update it. The general sentiment that investors shouldn’t back competing companies is still on display, as we saw Sequoia walk away from a check it put into Finix after it became clear that the smaller company was too competitive with Stripe, another portfolio company.

But as startups get more broad and stay private longer, the space into which VCs can invest may narrow — especially if they have a big winner that stays private while building both horizontally and vertically (like Stripe, for example).

Does that mean Sequoia can’t invest elsewhere in fintech? No, but it does limit their investing playing field.

Which is dumb as hell. Nothing that Sequoia could invest in today is really going to slow Stripe’s IPO, unless the company decides to not go public for a half-decade. Which would be lunacy, even for today’s live-at-home-with-the-parents startup culture that leans toward staying private over going public.

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