From a dark corner somewhere at the Snips office, peering at his laptop screen and preparing to lead an online masterclass organized by HackerUnit, Rand Hindi is gearing up to share his knowledge on how to run a successful startup. From advice on hiring and the importance of patents, to his thoughts on acquisition and how to pitch to investors, the data scientist and entrepreneur unveils his wisdom about starting a business and avoiding the mistakes he’s made. His audience is eager.
Rand started coding at the age of 10, founded a social network at 14 and a web agency at 15, before getting into machine learning by the time he was 18. A startup veteran at 21, he would then begin to earn his PhD in Bioinformatics. In addition to this, he has been listed on both the MIT Technology Review’s TR35, and Forbes’ “30 under 30” list; Rand has also been selected as a Rising Star by the Founders Forum and has received the Excellence Française award… Let’s just say he knows his stuff.
Snips, Rand’s AI company based in Paris, is currently developing an artificial intelligence app for connected devices. “How we use technology today is problematic,” explains Rand, “all these devices are competing for your attention by sending you notifications all the time. It’s essentially a nightmare. In the future, we’re going to end up completely overwhelmed with technology.” That’s how the idea for Snips was born: “We decided to refocus the company towards putting an AI on every connected device, so we barely have to interact with them anymore.”
1 • THE PERFECT FIT
In six months, the company has grown from eight to 30 people and Rand plays a huge part in attracting only the best. “We ditched VCs completely. Instead, we put an application form on the website with questions like, ‘Tell us about something you hacked’, ‘Why do you want to work for Snips?’. People who don’t really want to apply won’t bother. It filters them out.” The next step in Rand’s unconventional hiring is to send applicants a challenge, perhaps a data set or an engineering task, with one week to complete it.
“If the solution to the challenge was well-executed, the applicant will be invited to a very thorough, technical interview,” he says. “If that goes well, we invite you for a two-day trial; we even fly people to Paris. We want to get a good idea of the company/person fit and also give you a chance to decide if you really want to work with us. Only a few [people] get through the whole process and those who do, are the perfect fit.”
According to Rand, the key to recruiting talented staff is to be very good yourself and to offer them a great challenge to solve. Once you attract talent, more will come. “Your first hires are critical to the ones that follow,” he says.
2 • PITCH THE VISION, NOT THE PRODUCT
You shouldn’t pitch a product, according to Rand. Instead, you pitch the vision. After some less-successful attempts, he realized he had it wrong from the start. So he flipped the script. “Rather than laying out the product to investors, I started pitching it the same way I would to the people who were joining the company.” The key to acquiring funds was to provide a clear vision for the company over the next five years. “The first slide of the pitch was not a picture of the product, but a vision statement: Our goal is to put an AI in every device so that we can make technology disappear. From here, we’d introduce the product as the first step towards achieving that long-term vision.”
Raising funds can be quite simple, Rand believes. “You just have to build a product with ridiculously high retention and engagement.” In other words, invent a product that people will use. Next, look for funding from people who have already made investments in companies similar to yours. The beta testing for Snips was so convincing that the team began distributing it, albeit quietly, on the App Store to let people discover it organically. “We’re not going to start a PR splash until retention and engagement figures are optimal,” he says.
How does one grow retention then? By better targeting users. “There’s no point giving a product to someone who doesn’t need it. Target people strategically and build cool features and user-engagement mechanisms. We’re not trying to build a product for everybody, but for those who get it.”
3 • UNDERSTAND MONEY
The first and most obvious change after securing funding was that more people were immediately hired. Following that, the company moved to a better office. “People don’t work very well in a shitty office. Making sure we provided a great working environment was one of the priorities. It’s not my first company, but the first to grow to this stage.”
It comes as little surprise that Snips has been approached numerous times for acquisition. “There’s no team like us in any other space. We don’t want to [sell] because right now we actually have a great momentum, we’re launching our first product. There is no reason to sell.”
4 • GET TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE WITH THE RIGHT ADVICE
Naturally, launching a new business comes with lessons learned. Rand admits that he made two big mistakes in the earlier days of Snips. “If I started a new company now I would do it so differently — I mean, you have no idea. The biggest mistake was waiting too long before getting to a product and raising money. We thought we could bootstrap our way to becoming something big.” If given another go, he says he would have raised money a few months before he actually did. “The second biggest mistake was that we were not very serious in the way we were running the company. We almost ran out of money a couple of times before fundraising.”
If locking down that initial investment is something you’re struggling with, take solace in someone who’s been there. “Meet as many investors as you can. See the ones you don’t care that much about first. A/B test the pitch, then gradually get to the people you do want to work with.
“I wish I had someone tell me what I’m telling you right now. I read stupid blogs online about how to raise money. The blogs you read are only about products with zero intellectual property or technology involved. It’s super important to have the right advisors. Don’t get the ones who know nothing about machine learning if that’s what you want to do.”
5 • BE A PEOPLE PERSON
By the sound of it, one of the best skills to have when running a company is to be good with people. Judging by his masterclass, Rand is a natural at it. “You need to be super, super, super empathetic so you can make sure everyone is happy. I also talk about the company a lot and focus on promoting it to everyone. It’s simple, you just need to like people.”
*Article originally posted by HackerUnit, a remote accelerator and member of the BeMyApp Startup Group. Season 2 will focus on VR & AR.