Another episode of the Solopreneur Grind Podcast is live!
In this episode of the Solopreneur Grind Podcast, I talk to Amir Feizpour about:
- How he went from an academic, then to the corporate world, and eventually starting his own business as a data scientist
- The ups and downs of getting into entrepreneurship with no business experience
- How to succeed in the startup world; fundraising, pivots, product-market-fit
And much more.
You can listen to the episode on your favorite podcast platform here, or watch the video/read the transcript below!
Where to find Amir:
[00:00:00] Josh: Hey everyone. This is Josh from Solopreneur Grind for episode and 121 for the Solopreneur Grind podcast. I’m here with Amir Feizpour. Amir, thanks very much for coming on the show today.
[00:00:12] Amir: Thanks for having me, Josh. Excited to chat with you.
[00:00:15] Josh: Absolutely, Amir. We know each other in person, so now it’s, it’s my chance to dig a little bit deeper and get to know what’s what’s under the hood, so I’m excited about that.
But for those who don’t know or, or maybe not heard of you or your company, can you just give a quick intro.
[00:00:28] Amir: Definitely. So I’m Amir. I am the founder and CEO of Aggregate Intellect. Aggregate Intellect is a, is a software platform and an ecosystem really. So the ecosystem is more of, you know, a community of AI researchers and practitioners and founder.
We’re building a lot of interesting things and the software platform is essentially a utility that helps them externalize their knowledge and share it and collaborate and you know, we, we dub it as GitHub for knowledge, if that makes sense. Right.
[00:01:01] Josh: Very cool. How’d you get into the Sameer? How, what was your, was this your first so into entrepreneurship or was there something before that?
[00:01:11] Amir: Yeah, the, the first serious one at least. So I’m a quantum physicist by training, so I did my PhD at U F D and I worked at University of Oxford as in a research position. And there I had a couple of patterns, you know, based on my research And my very, very first interaction with entrepreneurship was trying.
Essentially commercialized one of those patents, you know, five or six years ago when I was stealing academia that did not go well. You know, there was really no market for. Quantum computing at the time, you know, which was my area of work. You know, I remember we were talking to a lot of potential customers and everybody was looking for some flavor of what we were doing, but without the quantum computing part.
So definitely a very, very interesting experience. Then I, you know, moved back to Canada, worked at Royal Bank for a few. initially as a data scientist, but moved on to product. So sort of like, you know, I was itching, I was scratching my itch of entrepreneurship in the corporate environment by, you know, having a product team.
And we built this product that sort of analyzed regulation policy documents and was, was used by capital markets and some other teams, et cetera. But, you know, I, I really wanted to do something on my own and, you know, in 2018 I started building a community that later, you know, turned into a much, much larger community and the company and the platform and all of that came out of it.
[00:02:42] Josh: it. Can you talk about starting that community? Like where were you at, where was your head at? Did, did you have a business or entrepreneurship in mind, or was it just kind of, Hey, this seems like an opportunity. Let’s see what happens.
[00:02:54] Amir: This story is very, very organic. So essentially I was. I had, I was promoted at work, so, you know, I was moving on from an individual contributor to a management position.
So, and I was, I had a bit of an identity crisis, so, you know, I was like, wait, you know, I enjoy coding. I’m not sure if I want to, you know, give that up. And I went around and talked to a lot of people, asked for advice, and the best advice that I got was, You know, the fact that you have a crisis means that you’re, you feel like you’re good at both.
So probably if you take the management role, you have more impact. You can do, you know, more with a bigger team and blah, blah, blah but, you know, make sure that outside of nine to five you stay technical because otherwise you become irrelevant very quickly. So pretty much the same week I contacted a bunch of people and I was like, Do you want to get her afterwards and read papers together?
You know, be gather and nerd out, you know, like. Like the journal clubs we used to have at academia. In academia and, and you know, that, you know, people started bringing their friends and friends of friends and, you know, that grew to a few hundred people. Although it was invite only, we were not really talking about it too loudly in a few months.
And, you know, then we started a YouTube channel cause people were complaining that, you know, they didn’t want to come in all the way to downtown, et cetera. So it just started from there. You know, I, I. I had the seed of the idea that I’m working on back when I was in academia and the very first time that I came across AI that could redocument but never really thought about it that seriously until really 2019 where.
You know, I pitched it to a few people who were helping me in the community, and I said, what if you start a company and did something along these lines? And, you know, then everything else is I guess, more documented history now.
[00:04:46] Josh: Right. So how, how did that happen? You pitched that idea to some people, I’m assuming their response was pretty positive, or maybe not.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but what were, what were some of those first steps to actually starting? What became the.
[00:05:02] Amir: Yeah. Well, you know, I, I have this tendency that when I’m exploring an idea that is, you know, a major change in my life or, you know, something that I’m doing, I start just talking to everybody, talking to everybody about like, sort of socialize the idea.
And I think partly I do this because I want that social accountability because if people know I’m thinking about something, they would ask me about it again. So I can’t like just drop it. But part of it is also, you know, , you know, the fact that I, and I’m externalizing my plans helps me think through them more clearly.
So that’s really what I started doing. Like just telling everybody I was seeing in the community that, okay, I’m thinking about this. What do you think? And you know, I, I went through the and, and I wasn’t sure enough to just jump on it. So throughout 2019, actually, I went part-time at my corporate. and sort of it started, you know, I, I had absolutely no idea how to do business, right?
I still don’t know , but, you know, even, you know, three years ago that was even worse. So so I, I, I started learning quite a bit, you know, by, by doing it, you know, I had read a lot of books before this, so, you know, I, I had read books on product, I had read books on startups, et cetera, et cetera, but, . You know, getting my hands dearly was really the first step.
You know, actually incorporating a company, going through those steps of paperwork, you know, trying to figure out, okay, who’s gonna actually build this for me? Because, you know, I’m not a software engineer, so, you know, just convincing people to help me and build together and, you know, just learning the first.
Steps of the, the business journey was, was the biggest part. And you know, I, I sort of theoretically again, knew that, you know, we are building a technical product, but you know, the business side is, is super unclear. So spent a lot of time in the first, second, and even third year thinking about various types of businesses we can build around it.
So yeah, that, that’s sort of where it started. No, that’s,
[00:07:07] Josh: that’s very cool. And I like the idea. , putting it out into the world as opposed to the opposite, right? Where some people will, there’s obviously reasons too, but you know, building in stealth or kind of keeping everything a secret for a while.
Number one, you. Just lose out on really great feedback or ideas that you never would’ve thought of. And, and number two, like you said, that sort of accountability can, can help. And who knows, maybe you talk to the right person whose second uncle’s cousin is your first client. Right? So I, I really like the approach and, and the taking action.
What would you recommend then? Let’s say there’s someone out there right now, they have a business. Like you, they had at the time never formally started a business. Do you have like one or two tips or shortcuts that if, if you had to do it again now that you’ve been through it the first time, you would recommend?
[00:07:54] Amir: Yeah. You, you, you told me that I can plug things at the end, but you know, I, I do, I do this ama kind of, you know, 20 minute conversation with people. Almost every day. There’s a link on my LinkedIn that people can book me to talk. And, and, and that happens a lot. And people ask me that, okay, you know, there’s this seed of the idea, but I don’t know where to go from there.
So I, it really depends on who the person is. You know, for technical people, I usually tell them, I have no doubt that we can build it, but I am very, very suspicious if you can distribute it. Right. So, you know, for example, I, I was working with a friend who is creating this, you know, diet related app and, you know, she’s technical.
The first day we interacted about this idea I was, You know, she was thinking about all these very complex machine learning models and all that, and I said, look, I know you can do it, but how are you gonna distribute? How are you gonna find these? And, you know, I, I sort of helped her brainstorm through some ideas and ended up creating this you know, TikTok channel that has like tens of thousands of followers now, et cetera, et cetera.
And, you know, a super, super helpful. Way of getting a lot of feedback. And you know, by now she has, you know, managed to launch this app, you know, as a mobile app that people are interacting with. And she’s done all of this while having a full-time job, so, oh, wow. There’s a significant amount of work that you can do when you follow.
And set proper objectives. You know, it doesn’t, and of course, at some point, if you’re serious about it, you have to go full time on it. You know, there is no, there’s no just, you know, do it on the evenings and weekends, but you can make significant amount of progress and even launch an mvp. Understand your you know, audience, et cetera, et cetera.
If you do it rigorously, if you write down your assumptions, hypotheses, and you proactively go after validating these, you know, I give the example for a technical founder that’s very true about a business founder. So a business founder, probably they know the distribution better, but you know, how are you gonna figure out the visibility side?
[00:09:59] Josh: Yeah, and, and it’s a great point because there’s probably way more great products out there that just weren’t marketed well enough or there wasn’t a market for than vice versa, right? Often marketing and distribution and sales are overlooked or thought about a little too late. So, Amir, let’s go back to the story.
Now. You need to find some software developers. I’m interested to find out how, especially cuz there, you know, there might be some business founders listening out there right now. They have an i everyone has an idea. Right? But, but they can’t build it. So how, what, what was that next step like for you?
[00:10:32] Amir: Yeah, so I, I was fortunate enough to have had to build the community. I did. And, you know, those are technical people. So you know, I, I met this person who, who was a software. Software engineer by trade and training, and he helped me in the, you know, first couple of years, quite a bit in, in building the first rations of the product.
And later, you know, we, we parted ways, but at least, you know, that was a significant head start in, in what, what we wanted to do. And, and other sort of like, serendipitous thing that happened which was pretty much because I had the social media influence and presence. I read something interesting on Twitter a few days ago that said, you know, your, your brand and social media presence, it increases your surface area for serendipitous events.
And that’s exactly what happened. You know, somebody, mm-hmm. reached out and was like, you know, I’m looking into you know, placing you know, African, you know, data scientist into Canadian companies. And I was talking to people and they said, you know, Mr. Data Science in Toronto is Amir. Go talk to him.
And, you know, he, he talked to me and, you know, I asked for some resumes. and I ended up hiring a few of those people because, you know, they had software engineering background. So just, you know, being out there telling people what I was looking for and what I was able to offer, sort of provided this opportunity of coming across something that it, that was very rare.
Like, you know, hiring from Ethiopia is not exactly something that a lot of. Chase, but it happened for me just because, you know, I was telling people what I was doing and what, what I was looking for, so mm-hmm. So, and, and that’s how, and still, you know, we, we later built on, on top of that, you know, couple of people that we hired and now we have like a satellite team in Tuia who, who’s building our product.
But pretty much it is about, you know, being out there telling everybody what you’re looking for. And just being extremely proactive about it. You know just looking for where people that can solve your problems, hang out and, you know, get in front of them.
[00:12:40] Josh: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I, I think a great way to start a business, especially if you don’t have an idea.
Is start a community or start a social media account on a topic that you really like. You never know what can come of it. Right? Yeah. So I, I really love those actions you were taking even before the business was, was ready to go. So, Amir, take us through the last couple years. I mean, it’s a very broad question, but how, how has it been?
You know, growing your first tech startup and if that’s not too long of a story, how are things now? Or we can break that up into two parts. Yeah.
[00:13:14] Amir: Let’s see. So we’ve been doing this for three and a half years now. You know, as I said, the first year was part-time and pretty much experimenting on the side, trying to figure out, okay, what is it that, that we wanted to do?
Sort of like, what was, what was
[00:13:27] Josh: that inflection point? Sorry for the interruption of, of when did you decide to go and, and why. Mm-hmm. .
[00:13:34] Amir: Yeah. So. So during the first year, you know, we knew the problem statement. We knew that the problem statement was we wanted to help more people in the industry use advanced AI in their products.
So there were like really two sub-problem statements. One was, how can we make. You know, advanced AI research, more consumable for industry users. And second part was how can we package all of this in a way that provides a product lens to using AI in industry? Because a lot of people focus too much on the model and forget about a system design and system designed from a technical point of view, but also from a business point of view.
So, Really those two were things that we were very focused on and, and, you know, those were the problems that you wanted to solve. So, first year it was all exploration. You know, we, we tried, 10 different ideas in that year. But the main theme of something that got really good traction was education. So we started doing these workshops that people really loved, like essentially create a mini course on this is how you would use this advanced AI technique and these are some of the ideas that we can use to turn it into a product.
And we were making money from that and, you know, there was some interest, et cetera. And then at the beginning of 2020, I, I was not happy with our progress. So at the beginning of 2020, I decided I need to go full time because you know, , although I’m spending probably 40 hours a week on my startup, just that 20, 25 hours that I’m spending on my corporate job, it’s just too distracting.
You know, I can’t really go as deep as I want. So that, that really was the reason, like I didn’t, it wasn’t like I had found this golden nugget. I was gonna go, oh, you know, double click on it and all that, like mm-hmm. , I just decided if I wanna give this up in a few years, I wanna know that I have given it.
Everything I had, you know, rather than just half as in the corporate job and half as in the startup job. So sort of, I, I decided to go full time and, you know, beginning of 2020 something else happened, you know, the, the, the global pandemic lockdown and, and all of that. That was, you know, right after I, I quit my corporate job.
So in, in some ways that was very, very tough because, It. It wasn’t like we had a business, it wasn’t like we had income, et cetera. But at the same time, it also forced us to really focus and think about a scale and, you know, drop a lot of ideas that we were pursuing that were not really scalable, et cetera, et cetera.
So, you know, during the second year, we sort of explored the idea. You know, we didn’t have the vocabulary for it, but later people started talking about it as cohort based learning. Mm-hmm. . So the idea of, you know, packaging information together, bringing a bunch of people, you know, show them the research sites, showed them the engineering side and showed them the product side and say, go build products.
And we did that for a while. We even launched a subscription model. Our MRR grew to $2,000 a month or something, et cetera, cetera. Like everything was going well. But I wasn’t in love with it. You know, the whole idea of education wasn’t exactly what it was looking for. And something very, very interesting happened, you know, we were creating short videos about these projects people were doing, and we were putting this on YouTube and somebody came along in three cases actually, people came along and said, I wanna purchase this project because I want to build on its iep.
So, and in one case, we ended up selling the project. So at, at, on one hand I was thinking, okay, education is not exactly my passion. You know, it’s very important, but that’s not exactly what I wanna do. But also, all of a sudden there was this data point so in, in 2021, We sort of did, did a hard pivot. We just completely dropped education.
We just open source all of our content, premium content, and essentially I started trying a marketplace model in which we would go to startups and say, what are the r and d problems we care about? You know, can we take this to our community, have our community build something, and then you acquire the ip.
We did this, a bunch of companies, we even, you know, ended up doing this with government of Canada on some, you know, science problems they were trying to solve. We did this for a while, but at the beginning, in the middle of 2021, you know, just about a year ago, just over a year ago, we also dropped that because we, we ran into another problem and the problem.
people don’t need more content, really, like there’s already an exponentially growing amount of content. So what is really blocking people from building more impactful products is the fact that they can’t effectively. Collaborate on the knowledge and since then it essentially just completely switched to a SaaS model.
You’re building, you know, a software product that helps people externalize their knowledge and collaborate on it and build collaboratively together, something that many other platforms try to do through note taking. But note taking is not knowledge management really. So we are, we are creating this integrated and, you know, AI enhanced system that essentially is like, Technical advisor that helps you essentially figure out, answer a lot of technical questions and, you know, build a product that you’re trying to build.
[00:19:04] Josh: Got it. Very, very cool. And can you take us through a couple of those pivots? I mean, I, I’m also a technical founder with no shortage of pivots, and it seems like that’s the norm, right? In tech is like, if you don’t pivot something, something weird happened or you got lucky or. You’re, I don’t know, super smart, but what’s it like going through a, a pivot as a technical co-founder or founder?
[00:19:32] Amir: Yeah, I mean, you know, it, it definitely is scary. So, you know, you, you are doing something that is sort of, kind of working, but at the same time it is just only sort of kind of working. So, you know, it, it hasn’t clicked yet. It is, you know, you’re, you’re still chasing the product market fit. Again, like one thing that we are lucky and or, you know, fortunate to have by design is, is the community.
You know, the fact that we spend upwards of 10 hours a week talking to community members about their problems and, you know, we, we sit down and do projects with them, et cetera. So we always have a signal to amplify on. You know, we always know, okay, what’s the latest thing that people are thinking about and problems that they’re facing?
So, Again, like it, it is theoretical and I’m not sure how, how well we’ve done it in practice, but usually what we try to do was pivot into something new rather than away from something that wasn’t working. So you know, we, we always try to look for, okay, we tried this idea, it didn’t work, but you know, there’s this other thing that we can do that is similar.
But, you know, given the learnings that we have, you know, we can pivot to that idea. Sort of like I, I also teach this product course, or used to teach this product course where I emphasize a lot that you have to be super rigorous in your validation framework where you write down your assumptions, you write down all of your hypotheses and you know, you have this idea of the overall landscape of ideas in your head all the time because you have done the rigor of understanding the problem, understanding the user, understanding the landscape of solutions.
And normally you are, you know, trying an experiment to validate some assumptions and if that doesn’t work out, you know, you always learn something from it. And based on those learning, you know, what your next step is. So sort of like there’s always this decision tree that you’re going down on. You know, one thing that is super important in pivots is that, you know, I’ve seen people making pivots in their vision.
You know that that feels more like jumping from branch to branch, but you know what? What we try to do is to always. Keep that, you know, fundamental vision that is, you know, how can we help people deal with the technical information to build better products? You know, that that’s always been the case. So now how we get there, can we, you know, from many, many different path.
And through this, you know, very rigorous validation framework, we always think about, you know, what is the user telling us? What can we read between the. And based on our own understanding of the space, you know, what’s the right next step to take? Sometimes it’s huge next step, like as I said, you know, dropping a whole marketplace model.
Sometimes it is a small, you know, detail, okay, maybe we should talk about it in this particular way rather than that other cetera. Right.
[00:22:31] Josh: Yeah, no, it’s, it’s interesting and it, it’s a, it’s an experience that I didn’t really expect and, and have certainly, I guess grown to not appreciate but accept as, as a technical founder, as compared to when you run a quote unquote, you know, regular business, right?
Where, where, you know, you offer a service and it sells or it doesn’t type thing. So it’s certainly an interesting phenomena. So, so Amir, tell us where you’re at right now and, and I think you guys are doing some, some fundraising as well, so I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. Just obviously for.
To get it out there, but also what’s that experience been like? Right. Because fundraising is, is an experience in and of itself,
[00:23:12] Amir: right? Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, I’m gonna do another plug, sorry. I have this YouTube show where we talk about a lot of different topics, but there is an episode coming out this week actually, that I talk about the, the evolution of how I thought about fund.
throughout the years. You know, it’s a long 40, 45 minutes episode where, you know, I talked to a VC about, okay, at first I was thinking that I was gonna bootstrap this business, but very quickly I learned you cannot, unless there’s a very, very specific business idea, you cannot really bootstrap a tech startup.
So, you know, I started raising money so we did. Sort of friends and family round, but really again, a lot of introductions through the community to people who could write, you know, annual checks for us is what we did last year. And this year we also started doing the same again. But you know, we took it to, to a next level this year because we, we came across this very interesting crown funding platform that enables essentially any Canadian resident to write us $500 or more, or, or larger checks for exchange of equity in, in the company, ownership in the comp company, essentially.
So that, that’s currently what we are doing. Like we are talking to a lot of angels and, you know, venture capitalists for like a bigger ground that we are gonna do. In the next half a year or so. But yeah, I mean, essentially right now our primary fundraising focus is getting as many Canadians as we can in front of our product.
You know, explaining what we are trying to do and what our plans are, and hopefully, you know, get them excited to write us, you know, small checks in, in exchange of ownership in, in what we are. Right, which is very aligned with our longer term goal of you know, I know everybody’s talking about Dows and whatever, but you know, I, I’m a believer.
You know, what people describe as progressive decentralization. You know, building a platform that is, you know, part owned by a con you know, central core team, but also significantly owned by a community that is around that product. And, you know, that that’s the vision that I have. You know, that that’s sort of a decentralized knowledge economy is what we are moving towards.
And I think the ownership and governance should be also shared with. You know, people in our community that are, you know, really building this product with us. For sure.
[00:25:29] Josh: And any tips or advice for someone who hasn’t fundraised before? What was your, what has your experience been like so far? And maybe one or two key tips for, for someone who might be undertaking it?
[00:25:41] Amir: Yeah, for sure. Last year when I was fundraising, , you know, I did not have the confidence to know the following. And, and it, it really took a toll on me, like emotionally, you know, mental health event. And also the way I was approaching it, I think, so last year I talked to a lot of investors and a lot of nos were, were told, right?
So a lot of people, you know, you know, the default answer of any investor is no unless otherwise, you know, proved so and I always took it personally, like I always thought, oh, okay, so my idea is bad and I have to change it. But what I learned since then is that there is. , there’s a thing called the right investor.
Like very much the same way that there is the right user for your product, there is the right, you know, customer for your product, et cetera. That’s the same thing. There is, there is, there is the right investor for, for your product as well. So you know, very much like the early adopters of your product, there will be early adopters who will fund you.
Right? So I think that’s a very, very important. You know, change of mindset that happened in me. Like at first I thought I have to change what I was doing because people were, investors were saying no to me. But now I have learned that, okay, first of all, there are the right people. So I have to play the numbers game.
I have to go after as many people as I can. I can f I have to follow as many leads as I can. And you know, I have to be smart at dropping them as soon as they, they feel. , like, you know, they’re dragging their feet or whatever. But also be rigorous about it, you know, very much the same way that you, you know, verify and qualify the the leads for as your customers.
You can do the same with investors. You can look at their portfolio, you can look at their activities. You can look at how they carry themselves on social media, et cetera, to see, okay, is this the right person? because it is also a bit of a marriage, right? Like if an investor gives you money, they’re probably gonna have demands on how you work and what you’re building.
So, you know, making sure you qualify the people you talk to is gonna save you a lot of time and mental health, mm-hmm. , but also you have to play the numbers. You have to go after as many leads as you can, get as many introductions as you can. So,
[00:27:56] Josh: yeah, and, and also realize, You know, it, it is, as you said, it’s a numbers game, but getting nos is that’s gonna happen, right?
Like no one’s ever gone and raised around and never been told no. Right? So I, I certainly have some fond and not so fond memories of fundraising and like days and days are sometime week, weeks, and weeks of nos, nos, nos. But then, You get on a roll or you, you know, you find the right people and the yeses definitely feel that much better.
Mi this is, this has been awesome having you on hearing a little bit more of, of your story, your tips, your advice. I’d love to hear if, if there’s someone out there right now, maybe a mirror from five years ago working a corporate job, but they have an idea for something that, you know, they, they, they have that entrepreneurial itch.
What are one or two pieces of advice that you tell.
[00:28:42] Amir: Reach out to people who have done things that you’re trying to learn how to do and talk to them. I think that that can save you a lot of time. I, I did a lot of that. I think I should have done probably way more. But you know, I don’t think there is enough talking to people who have done things that you’re trying to do because there’s always this one more piece of information, one more piece of puzzle that you can gain and, and learn from it.
And reading books and, you know, listening to podcasts, all of these things are great. You know, it helps you build the foundation, but really, Hearing the personal experiences and how people dealt with problems is is a very, very valuable very valuable data point to have. And second is, you know, every quarter my understanding of how much rigor is needed to do this probably is multiplied by a factor of 10, right?
So, you know, it. I, I left academia and I started doing data science because I was looking for science. There’s so much science in, in building a business, there’s so much science in building a product and however rigor you, you think you should have, you probably need more and you can start early. Like if you started.
Print in a principled way. You can start early, go through the rigorous process of validating your ideas and in fact invalidating bad ideas that you have because confirmation wise is all over the place. So definitely start early, be rigorous, and. You know, really figure out the fundamental why of why are you interested in this?
Why do you want to do this? And, you know, write that down somewhere and remind yourself that that’s what you’re trying to do, so that your vision doesn’t change.
[00:30:24] Josh: Awesome. That’s great advice. Amir. Thank you again for coming on the show. If anybody wants to learn more about you, more about the company, get in touch, where do you recommend they go?
[00:30:35] Amir: Website is easy to remember. ai.science. So, you know, go check that out. You can read more about what we are building there and watch some videos hopefully soon about it. Add me on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter. You know, I’m very, very open to have conversations as I said.
And as I said, we have a YouTube channel subscribe to that as well. Our show is called The Random Talks. So pretty much I’m everywhere on social media where wherever you check you probably can find me and I’m always very welcoming to talk to you.
[00:31:07] Josh: Sounds good. And we’ll include links to those in the description wherever you’re watching this on.
Amir, thanks again for coming on the show. Really appreciate it.
[00:31:15] Amir: Of course. Thanks for having me, Josh.