Building the Startup Predictor : AI-based Predictive Solution Predicts Viability of Startups with 75% accuracy

The fun ride

It’s like building a magic glass ball that predicts the likelihood of success of startups. Except that it’s not magical at all and has a predictive accuracy of 50% with a recent successful prediction of 75% accuracy!

The past two years have been a fun entrepreneurial ride with a small group of engineers, data scientists and program managers that came together to build out their passion project. We’re delighted to announce that this project will soon be commercialized and see it’s first real customer. As one of the three co-founders and CEO of this project, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a super talented team. Pushpraj Shukla, our ML guru and CTO, Zoey Zhou, the mastermind and our data scientist and Jim Brisimitzis, our visionary, fearless leader and COO who led us along the way!

So, what does the Startup Predictor solve for?

Imagine yourself as a venture capitalist or a corporate innovation leader looking at thousands of startups being founded every single day. Wondering if the ones you’re talking to and helping are truly the ones that will shine through and see an exit in the near future.

If you did your math right, if your startup has the right team, product market fit and customers; your chances of success are still at 5–10%. If you’re a top tier venture capital firm with a suite of MBA grads churning out financial models that rip at the heart of the business model and come up with a valuation that gives you a 10x return, even better. Regardless of your perch, you’re plagued with the phenomenon of startup failures. And even if your startup doesn’t fail, chances are they may be get acqui-hired or merge and you may not get the returns you were hopeful for.

Let’s add to that the problem of human biases. As investors, having expertise in an industry vertical or market is often seen as a positive. It also means that you’re likely to have a human bias for startups in that industry. Add to that the sheer volume of deals that a venture capitalist will see in a year.

So here’s the pitch

The Startup Predictor solves for the qualitative biases around startups by creating an unbiased, data-driven, ML-based health score that helps investors and corporations make better decisions and save millions of dollars by making intelligent bets on startups. Unlike solution providers in this space, the Startup Predictor combines proprietary Bing data with insights that are publicly available to come up with a health index that has a 50% probability of success.

We built this AI to assist humans (and not to replace humans), be it tech scouts or VCs or executives to see startups beyond their personal lens. We don’t make any assumptions on what makes for a good entrepreneur or a good VC or accelerator or a good or bad area for that matter. We try to model the startup ecosystem as broadly as possible, across hundreds of attributes, as objectively as possible. We let our AI models learn the complex interplay of Team, Industry, Consumers and Financing that goes into making some startups successful sooner than others.” says Pushpraj sharing a bit about the nature of the model behind the predictor.

In Dec 2017, we predicted 44 startups across industries such as Retail, Pharma, Fintech, Education and Government. These became our ‘Companies to Watch’ for 2018 and for every successful round raised or exit, we would consider that milestone a validation of the prediction. It’s May 2018 and 75% of this list of startups has gone on to raise funding thereby validating the success rate of the Startup Predictor. A success rate of 75% is pretty high compared to the industry average of 10%. So if we were a venture fund investing in these 44 startups, we’d be off to the races already!

Where the magic happens

On the startup team, we started with the idea of leveraging machine learning to build a predictive AI solution. Turns out the Cloud & AI team at the time was building predictive models around the Academy Awards and sports events and the data-scientists and program managers on the team were pretty excited to help us bring this product to life. They had hacked on a similar idea already.

This was the perfect marriage of concept meets business need. What followed was a journey of two years where we consistently met as a team and brainstormed how we’d measure success. We talked about the test data that we would need and challenges around it. We also got very crisp about the use case we were trying to solve for. Data was the biggest hurdle and also the most fun challenge to solve for. From procuring to testing to training the data.

Predicting the next Unicorn or Dragon is a very ambiguous problem and we whittled it down to predicting the next funding milestone. This is important because a funding milestone is typically a sign of things going in the right direction, assuming the post-valuation was higher after the round.

Behind the scenes

There are three key components to the Startup Predictor —

  1. Company data: this is information about the startup, team, social presence, news, web traffic etc.
  2. Industry data: this is information about the industry vertical of the startup and the market forces behind it. Depending on what’s hot, we evaluate AI vs. Saas vs. VR startups differently.
  3. Financing data: this is information about the investors and the rounds of funding. Were the investors successful as a fund and what were their returns? How many investments succeeded over the past 12 months?

Bringing together these signals is fundamental to the model. We then overlay features such as the social media reach, founder’s education and several other nuances that go into the model. Training data comprises of past successes and failures in the startup ecosystem and we train the model with decades of startup records.

Lastly, we backtest with portfolios of venture funds and measure how the predictor performs relative to human decisions.

The thing to note is that we don’t model this as a single monolithic AI problem. There are several layers of AI and Machine learning models which solve different tasks, like understanding semantically if two companies are similar based on what they say vs. how people perceive them, modeling the lifecycle of a startups, modeling consumer and industry trends with Search, Social and Web data, among others.” says Pushpraj.

Moving forward

The applications of a predictor that consumes company data and predicts the likelihood of success are varied. From lead-generation to match-making between traditional enterprises and startups, there are many ways to use this health index and the underlying industry trends that surface.

One application in particular for our team has been to scout startups in the wild that never join an accelerator and thereby have very little validation around them. We then pick the top startups and work closely with them to provide resources from across the organization.

Another application that we’re piloting is to build trends based on the startups that we’re seeing and build an analysis of emerging trends that are leading indicators for corporate innovation teams rather than lagging indicators of venture capital investments.

So, what did we learn?

  1. Exits and successes don’t always have to mean extreme failure or IPOs

There are a large number of companies that are doing exceedingly well over time that aren’t raising billions in venture capital. These are steady growing startups that are likely revenue positive and not hitting the news radar but, silently growing and eventually seeing successful liquidation events.

On the other hand, exits may mean mergers or acquisitions that don’t necessarily lead to a higher valuation. These companies are interesting because they indicate that either a sudden spike in valuation was inflated and post funding rounds didn’t match up or that the company merged and created mutual value.

2. Success in the press and media doesn’t equate to success in real business

3. You can build out an idea from concept to commercialization with a frugal approach and a dedicated team of intrapreneurs

4. Trying to remove any personal biases we had about success/failure as exits, IPOs etc. Are B2B startups better than B2C? Different industries have different startup ecosystems and success could be different. E.g. Food industry is more nascent vs Tech

5. Being able test our product internally in Microsoft. AI can be just as biased as humans if the data we feed it with is biased. Being able to learn, test and remove biases and test internally in Microsoft is huge. Its an opportunity not many companies offer. I think this was a perfect training ground for us to test our tech before we release it to other companies.

6. How startups lead and are at the forefront of driving trends various industries. Trend forecasting is a related R&D area for us, so plenty to learn from this project for that as well.

When we started out as a team, this was simply a business application for internal use. We hacked our way through the early days, fundraising internally to build out the product and even built an early prototype in Excel. Being an intra-preneur meant we all had our day job and initially had to rely on our belief that this project would work and the unwavering support of our leadership team. With a dedicated team and lots of sweat equity, we were able to build out this solution and are now taking it to market. In my 12 year journey, this is the most fulfilling piece of work that I was able to create and it couldn’t have happened without the most stellar team.

So to wrap it up, the biggest learning is that you can truly tackle the hardest problems and even predict the next Dragon or Unicorn if you have a rockstar team walking with you every step of the way! No problem is too big or too technically complex to solve and with AI as a tool at your fingertips, it’s the perfect time to pick your passion problem and build your startup!

Microsoft Team:

Sonal Mane, Director of National Programs, Microsoft for Startups; Pushpraj Shukla, Director of Data Science, Cloud & AI; Jim Brisimitzis, Head of Microsoft for Startups North America; Zoey Zhou, Senior Data Scientist, Cloug & AI.

Ten Myths Slowing Down Entrepreneurs In Emerging Markets

One of the biggest advantages of a rising ecosystem is that a rising tide lifts all boats. I found myself in Chicago in 2012 when the tech startup scene was budding and getting energy from a small coworking space called 1871. Today, 1871 boasts of being the largest innovation hub in Chicago and attracts entrepreneurs from all over the world. Just a tiny testament the growth that one can expect over a short five-year span. As such, if you find yourself in an emerging ecosystem such as India, South Africa or Dubai; know that not all roads lead to Silicon Valley. You can definitely swing by for a peek at the world’s largest innovation ecosystem and learn a thing or two about it’s ‘Can do’ attitude or learn how the ‘early adopter’ culture and mindset have made it stand part. Reality is that your ecosystem likely has a few key things that might just be the answer you’re looking for.

Here’s my take on busting some of the common myths that entrepreneurs are likely to believe in an emerging ecosystem.

1. Tech startups should not bootstrap.

Bootstrapping is not bad. Investors in a typical emerging startup ecosystem don’t want to invest unless there’s some revenue or customer traction. A lot of entrepreneurs stop at the idea thinking there may not be much to do without venture funding. Do think about how you can build a business that is revenue positive and not necessarily profitable. Even if you break even, you have discovered a good business model to start testing with. Contrary to perception, bootstrapping is in the DNA across the US and entrepreneurs here do not dismiss it. As an example, Contextmedia bootstrapped for a long time since it was founded in 2006 before raising venture funding as part of a Series A round in 2017.

2. It’s tough to be credible when no one knows you.

Unless you have a brand name mentor or advisor, or a brand name university it is likely that you’re not viewed as a credible technologist or entrepreneur. Taking your startup brand and yours up a notch will pay dividends. This is no means rocket science and doesn’t have to be hard. No one is expecting you to be on TechCrunch overnight. It coudl start with small steps, a simple partnership Microsoft or a local company, an even that you attended or a conference you spoke at. Credibility will build over time as long as you consistently show up. As an example, Chicago-based startup, Cleversafe had a partnership with IBM that they built over the years and eventually got acquired by IBM.

3. Local problems are just not cool enough.

Putting restaurant menus online was about solving a local problem in Chicago. Two college students were sitting late at night dreaming that food would just come to them instead of scouring the bitter cold streets that winter semester. Matt Maloney and Mike Evans applied for the business plan competition in their b-school and in a matter of ten years, the company had it’s IPO.

So, what are the nuances of your ecosystem? What’s keeping you awake? What are the problems around you in your city? Looking to solve local problems may not appear cool or innovative at first but, often you’re closest to the problem and in fact, may have hit upon a real problem to solve. Now that doesn’t mean you stick to growing your company locally or for that matter funding it locally either. For example, Grubhub kept their roots in Chicago but, ultimately took funding from VCs in the valley as part of their third round of venture funding. This helped them tap into expertise and scale the company across the east coast of the US.

4. Failure is not ok.

If you pivot, it’s ok. I’ve known one startup for five years now and they’ve had three solutions, multiple partnerships, 18-month pivots and have had 4 pivots so far. Failure is acceptable and we tend to be harsher when we’re bootstrapping. One of the advantages that entrepreneurs from Silicon valley emboy is the absolute tranquility with failure. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried and so, Failure is completely OK!

5. Traditional enterprise companies are boring.

At least a few times in most conversations with entrepreneurs, I hear how Microsoft or IBM are too big or too hard to work with. Take that up a notch when it comes to traditional companies such as Comcast or Statefarm that started out as service providers and are only now undergoing what we call a digital transformation. Typically, entrepeneurs will dismiss their local enterprise companies in favor of smaller innovative startups for partnership. Here’s the one thing you need to know. If you’re looking to solve for credibility or looking to tap into a huge salesforce or looking for an exit, which I’m sure most entrepreneurs are, the typical traditional enterprise has a lot to offer. You just need to be patient and work with them through the hoops. Very simply,

  1. Identify a Fortune 500 company that is local to you.
  2. Learn about their business model and offerings.
  3. Strategize and think about how can you can help them innovate or be relevant in today’s changing technology landscape.

Companies such as Samsung, Comcast, Statefarm, Kimberley Clark and many others have built innovation programs across the world. It’s not only about Google, AWS, Facebook or Microsoft. These traditional companies are not agile but have a burning need to survive via innovation and that’s where you come in!

6. Focus on building for one ecosystem only.

UAE-based Namshi and Souq(now acquired by Amazon) and all are focused on one ecosystem which seems to be working well for these startups because they’re tapping into a hyper-local need for e-commerce. But, if you’re building a technology solution, how do you build for more than one ecosystem?

Validating your business model locally may help but, if you plan ahead with a rollout strategy globally from the beginning that might put you on the map faster, literally! This is especially true for companies outside the valley that may be bogged down by government regulations and policy in their market. Even Uber had a global strategy to start with and quickly scaled across other markets internationally. Asking the question around scale and rollout upfront can save a lot of time cutting out the competition but, more importantly, tapping into the strengths of your solution which or may not be timely in your local market. For example, a video streaming solution in the Midwest may not be as attractive to an investor who is looking for hard revenue numbers. Scale that minimally to the west coast and now you have early adopter technologists with an eager mindset looking to invest.

7. Accelerators are the holy grail for startup success.

Accelerators and co-working spaces are great and if you get into one, hats off to you! However, if you’re in a deep pocket of South Africa or the Middle-east, chances are that your local startup hub may not boast of the typical brand names one hears about in Silicon Valley. That doesn’t mean you are passing up on an opportunity. You can look online for resources and there are plenty! Novoed is an example of one such platform which has great sources including the Technology Entrepreneurship course being taught for Free!

The classic mistake that entrepreneurs make is to think that they don’t need to think through and educate themselves much because they have the best advisors or had a successful exit in the past with another business. Building a tech startup may have similarities but, isn’t the same as building a commodity business. It’s also not identical to owning P&L responsibilities at a large corporation. Simply step back and take the time to educate yourself on how to build a technology startup vs. using the business model that may have worked in other commodity businesses. Fun fact – even if you did have a successful exit from a tech startup, chances are that you’re going to need to at least tweak your business model instead of going wholesale and applying it to another industry. Serial entrepreneur or not, a little of education and awareness will go a long way. Leverage online educational resources.

8. I need to grind and do everything.

You’re one person. There’s only so much you can take on when it comes to your startup. Start thinking about how you can automate the stuff that is eating away at your creative time. Online payments, payroll, expenses, logo creation are just a few things where you’re either not the expert or might benefit from some help. If you can’t find a local bank, write an email to an international bank or service provider making the case for why they should consider partnering with your startup.

Many law firms, banks, and other service providers give away free credits to entrepreneurs in the US and globally. Use them. Automate the non-critical path work items and get them out of your way. Enough said.

9. Showing up is tough.

With a million things on your mind including the challenges of your local startup scene, it can seem daunting to be in front of Sam Altman from YCombinator or Dave McClure from 500 startups. Showing up in Silicon Valley may mean spending lots of money on travel and with a scrappy startup budget, that is undoubtedly tough!

It is true that a lot of investments happen when there is an in-person relationship. Fact is that I’ve seen investors make bets and at minimum indulge in conversations with entrepreneurs overseas. From Canada or the Middle East, there are micro VCs and venture funds all over the US who would love low valuations and high returns. The unfair advantage that an emerging market brings is low cost to build and thus likely a lower valuation for investors. Moreover, some of the brand name VCs do take tours across the world meeting promising entrepreneurs. Several hubs like 1871 invite entrepreneurs from Kenya, India and other markets to connect with the local leaders.  Build relationships online via Skype to start with, learn and tap into exchange programs for entrepreneurs and grants. Ultimately, if you can, travel and be present in person to build partnerships with people that will truly drive your business. Showing up in person globally with a shoestring budget is tough but, it’s easy to show up and be present in your ecosystem and online.

10. Government regulations create a rigid top-down mindset.

Government regulations don’t have to prevent you from scaling your business. Build locally but, scale globally.

If you can incorporate in the US or at minimum partner in the US to get access to resources, you can start moving away from some of this local rigidity. Startups that have nothing to do with the US have also succeeded but, there is a fluidity in the ecosystem that may bring technical, business or education resources to you.

For example, Snapchat and Skype are banned in Dubai. If you have a partner in the US and are using those channels for distribution, you can seamlessly integrate and work around the ‘local system’.

As you solve locally, build simpler iterations that you can then roll out globally. As an example, Uber is working around the local regulation in the Middle East that prevents individuals from driving due to visa constraints. In Dubai, they solve for this by teaming up with the limosine service providers instead of the individual drivers. The thing to learn here is that the same product when rolled out globally may need tweaks that can eventually help boost the local business too.

Think about how you can creatively work around local regulations but, also the issues that you may run into in other markets where you may have the first-mover advantage. Leverage other markets to double down on your strengths. As soon as you hit barriers locally or have hit product market fit locally, start thinking about rollout outside your city or country.

Lastly, if you’re in an emerging market and running into one of these issues or seem to be stuck with your startup business, I’d love to hear from you! Write in. To learn more, you can see the full video behind this post. This is an excerpt from a talk that I gave at in5 in Dubai.

Startup Stories : Buzz Digital (Buzz Referrals)

In the chaos of learning about how to build companies, practice the perfect pitch while juggling mentor and investor meetings and successfully launch a successful business, we often forget to learn about the personal journey of an entrepreneur.

Last year, I started on a quest to dive into the minds and lives of these entrepreneurs. To find that moment that I like to call the ‘Spark’! The spark that ignites the passion for entrepreneurship, defy all norms and set on a sojourn of invincible conviction and infinite optimism.

With the help of my friends at Microsoft; we were able to put together a two day production at the Microsoft Technology Center. It was amazing sitting behind the camera and hearing these ambitious rockstars share their journey!

video

 

The series of interviews went live this past weekend!

Here’s an interview with BuzzDigital (previously called BuzzReferrals) CEO Jordan Linville. Buzz Digital provides tools to reward customers for referring their friends and has a great birth story! The startup is an alumni of ‘Excelerate Labs‘, a Chicago-based incubator founded by Troy Henikoff and the leaders in the Chicago startup community which is now TechStars Chicago.

Startups, Technology, and Investing in Chicago

Over the past decade, the Chicago startup community has seen incredible growth. More than ever, it’s possible to build a business anywhere and Chicago has become a uniquely vibrant tech community.

chicago

 Marina Dedes and Adam London from Lightbank have put together this amazing guide to Chicago’s startup ecosystem. The guide covers a little bit about Chicago’s history, who are leaders in the startup community and provides a great starting point for those that are new to the city. Lastly, the guide also covers the huge set of resources that are available to entrepreneurs. Amazing work by a brilliant team and a great summary overall.


Startup Stories : Solomo Technology

In the chaos of learning about how to build companies, practice the perfect pitch while juggling mentor and investor meetings and successfully launch a successful business, we often forget to learn about the personal journey of an entrepreneur.

Last year, I started on a quest to dive into the minds and lives of these entrepreneurs. To find that moment that I like to call the ‘Spark’! The spark that ignites the passion for entrepreneurship, defy all norms and set on a sojourn of invincible conviction and infinite optimism.

With the help of my friends at Microsoft; we were able to put together a two day production at the Microsoft Technology Center. It was amazing sitting behind the camera and hearing these ambitious rockstars share their journey!

video

 

The interview went live this past weekend.

Featuring Solomo as part of this series.

Solomo is a web services platform that makes brands context aware and helps shoppers get personal deals around a digital identity that they manage for their retail experiences. SOLOMO’s solution bridges a gap between retailers who want to know how their spaces are being used, and how they can be better retailers, and customers, who want all the benefits of being able to shop with context, but who want to guard their privacy and individuality.

The startup completed a $1.7m first close of its Series A round in May 2013 and intends to use the funds to accelerate product development and increase its sales and marketing activities. The round was co-led by Venture Management, LLC and Don Layden, with participation from Wisconsin Investment Partners. The equity investment leveraged additional funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Here’s what Deepak Rao shared about Solomo,

Startup Stories : Adyapper

In the chaos of learning about how to build companies, practice the perfect pitch while juggling mentor and investor meetings and successfully launch a successful business, we often forget to learn about the personal journey of an entrepreneur.

Last year, I started on a quest to dive into the minds and lives of these entrepreneurs. To find that moment that I like to call the ‘Spark’! The spark that ignites the passion for entrepreneurship, defy all norms and set on a sojourn of invincible conviction and infinite optimism.

With the help of my friends at Microsoft; we were able to put together a two day production at the Microsoft Technology Center. It was amazing sitting behind the camera and hearing these ambitious rockstars share their journey!

 

Microsoft technology center
The interview series went live this weekend!

Featuring the first startup from this series: Adyapper.

I’ve worked with the Adyapper team for over a year now and they’re an amazing bunch of folks disrupting how advertising is measured! AdYapper tracks display and mobile ads, generating detailed verification data, consumer sentiment, and viewability monitoring on 95% of all ad impressions.

They have raised raised $1.2 million in seed funding. The round was led in Sept 2013 by KGC Capital and joined by angel investors, including David Cohen, Laurel Touby, Paul Sethi, Sameer Jagetia, Ari Newman, Vip Sandhir and Dave Lerner.

Here’s what Elliot Hirsch has to say about his personal journey with Adyapper.

Startup Profile : ChoreMonster

ChoreMonster is a suite of web and mobile apps that aims to make chores fun for parents and kids. Kids can earn points by completing chores that they can turn in for real life rewards like ice cream, an hour of Xbox or even a canoe trip. Parents can enjoy a simple, hassle-free, digital system that takes the tension out of family chores.
My favorite Monster is Frank RumpNoodle!!
ChoreMonster_Frank

The team is committed to making chores fun by engaging and rewarding your kids!

You can now download the Windows 8 app for ChoreMonster!! I love the cute monsters and was amazed by the art work! Here’s how the team works their ‘monster’ magic! Most all ChoreMonster monsters start off as rough sketches, some more detailed than others.


 

Startup Profile : WebCurfew

WebCurfew is a cloud-based platform to enable home automation by managing the routers (gateway) that people already have at home… and a simple dashboard to control the experience.

webcurfew

The first application is an “Internet Parental Control” service that allows parents to take back control over when and how their children access the internet from any connected device. It replaces the antiquated device-centric model of managing parental controls on individual devices, and provides a simple solution by managing the central point of all WiFi internet access in the home – the router.

Here’s an excerpt from the BizSpark blog. Rod da Silva, CEO of WebCurfew has your child’s best interest in mind. WebCurfew is a real-time internet parental control website that effectively provides a light switch for any internet-enabled device in the home. According to da Silva, “Our mission is to partner with all parents to promote a healthier life balance for their children offline by helping to manage their online time more effectively.”

“At the core of our offering is a platform for controlling, on your behalf, the single point of internet access in your home – your router.”

This is compelling. These are not parental controls that are really outside of a parent’s control — typical of some software solutions that are in-browser, or web-based. Even some downloadable software operates on the PC, not in the peripheral device that feeds Internet traffic into the computer.

The company has been featured on Built In Chicago and graduated from TechStars Chicago in Summer 2013.