AIAP Start-up Track: In Conversation

With the opening of the application window for Batch 8 of the AI Apprenticeship Programme, a notable addition to the ever-improving talent programme is the Start-up Track. This empowers those who have the entrepreneurial zeal to define their own projects within the apprenticeship. I had a chat with John, my colleague spearheading the track, to find out more.

Below is a transcript of the conversation [*].

Basil : Hi, John. How are you doing?

John : Doing great today. Thanks, Basil. Glad to be on this podcast with you.

Basil : Today, we are going to talk about start-ups and the first question I have for you is, why do a start-up?

John : I think there are many reasons why we see people launch start-ups. Usually you would hear as number one, I want to be my own boss, or number two, I want to be able to make a lot of money and number three, which I actually think is the most important reason and one that you must have no matter what start-up you are intending to launch, is that you must have the passion for the particular problem or a particular topic or industry that your start-up is in and the kind of value it is trying to bring to users and customers. So, those are the three main things. I started a start-up previously and when I did it I asked myself those three questions. So, I said, yes, I have a passion for the topic and I did want to be my own boss and I did want to make a lot of money. So, with those three checkboxes I ticked off, I decided at that time for myself to launch a start-up. I think that most founders should have at least two of these three items in order to really enjoy the process.

Basil : So you are actually speaking from your own personal experience. Could you share a little bit more about what your start-up was doing?

John : Yes, sure. I used to work in the finance field. I was there for a couple of years once I graduated school, but after a while I kind of got restless in a big corporate environment. An opportunity came along. One of my friends had done some deep research into a biotechnology that was able to replace chemicals in the industrial and agricultural process and it looked like a great product. It was cheaper, it was easier to use and it was environmentally-friendly. So, we licensed the product and began selling it both in Singapore and eventually branched out to the rest of ASEAN. Eventually, my partner and I looked at where the market was and he thought that China was the place to go and he wanted to go there, while I was a bit more comfortable in Singapore. I was not ready to move yet, so what I did was I sold out to him and he is in China now and doing really well.

Basil : Amazing work. Now, every start-up starts out with an idea. So, how does one go about developing such an idea?

John : The way I see it, there are two main things that make a start-up business successful. The first is that you have to have a good product and the second is that you have to be able to tell enough people in the market and convinced them to buy your product. Once these two things are present – you have a good product and you have people buying your product – then you have a good business. So, definitely one of the most important things is that the technicals behind your product must be good. It’s very difficult to sell a bad product into the market or a bad idea to customers. You might be able to convince a few people to join, but once they realize that your product really isn’t up to scratch, then you’ll probably see big churn or people stop purchasing your product. So, the technical backing and the quality of your product needs to be high.

At the same time, you also need to be able to drill down and validate the market for your product. Usually, most founders, and I myself in the beginning made the same mistake, I looked at how big the market was and thought, oh wow, the market is so big – I’ll go tackle all of it. And usually that ends up being a case where the start-up bites off more than it can chew. So, actually what you would want to look at and what most VCs and investors should look at is, for a start-up that is launching its first product that is fresh to the market, you want to have drilled down on a very specific market segment. For example, if your market was students, that would probably still be too broad. You would probably have to say, I’m looking at students in the secondary school level and maybe even one level deeper and say who has private tuition. So, you zoom in to that very specific market where all your customers have the same profile and check the size and viability, whether this particular customer would actually see value in your product. When you find a big enough pool of users or customers combined with a good product, then those are two very key things that everybody – yourself, investors, your employees – who want to see good growth prospects into the future.

I think that one of the other things that most people look at kind of in the wrong way as well is the subject of competition. Usually, when I hear a lot of pitches, people are afraid to bring up competition. They think that having a big competitor in the market would automatically invalidate their idea, or they think that they have to position their product in a way where they can say that, oh there is nobody that’s doing this in the market right now. Actually, both of these are wrong. Let me illustrate why. When you look at big competitors, say the Googles or the Microsofts of the world, they have to have one product that services a whole range of different people and they get to be big because their product is actually good enough to satisfy most user needs. But, that’s probably just at the average or the bare minimum level. When you drill down to people’s specific needs, specific experiences for each unique target market, more often than not, you will find ways in which the users are dissatisfied with the offerings of these big competitors. These big competitors can’t afford to pay that much attention to them, but as a small start-up, you can. You have that nimbleness, you have the ability to really make something that delights your users, so that means that you shouldn’t be afraid of the big boys being in your competitive space, unless you are planning to challenge them directly. On the other hand, some founders think that I have a blue ocean market and it will be great if I can prove that nobody is currently in the space. That’s also something that actually triggers some red flags for investors, because it is very rare that a real problem that people have is not being addressed by someone or something out there, even if it was a non-technical solution, even if most people are doing it themselves, or there must be some kind of solution to a problem that is present today and being able to list out the ways where people are offering solutions to these problems or solving the problem themselves in a very inefficient manner is also part of the competitive landscape. So, when we look at competition, we want to know that there are people out there solving these problems by themselves or with the help of others, so that we can establish what are the alternatives to our product out there and demonstrate actually that there is a problem in the market.

So, these three things : a good product, good market size, as well as the presence of competitors.

Basil : Well, certainly a lot of points to consider when developing an idea. Yes, of course, an idea is just half the story. It is certainly essential, but not sufficient. The other half probably I would say it’s the people. Just as in any organization, people are important. So what kinds of people typically do well in the start-up space? For example, at which point in life you are in – is it for young folks or is it for mature folks? What do you think?

John : I think this is a very interesting question. So, I have been going around the multiple incubators in Singapore as part of the collaborative nature of what we do over here at AISG, and I find a pretty even split between young folks and really mature folks – you are talking about guys who have actually collected their CPF – and I think on either side of the spectrum, both kinds of founders bring different kinds of energies and skill sets to the table and there are pros and cons to it. So, if I’m really young, for example, maybe I just graduated or I’m still a student, I have a lot of energy, I have a long runway and I am able to pivot and harness the youth, to let people give me a chance and try and fail, whereas for mature folks, we find that they come to the table with resources, with a deep understanding of the problems, because they’ve probably experienced it in their own corporate experience or their own lives, and they bring networks and the ability to understand how to deal with both people in and outside their company, how to structure things well simply by life experience. So, they will probably be a lot more efficient out of the gate in terms of doing things in a more structured way. But, of course, they probably don’t have the same amount of raw energy that the young folks have. So, both young folks and mature folks, I think, will fare equally well in the start-up space. The trick would be to play to your strength.

Basil : Well, talking about strengths. So, any particular thoughts on the skill sets, like hard skills or soft skills, that are especially relevant for start-ups?

John : I think that when it comes to skill sets, one of the things you can imagine – and it’s true – is that as founders or early employees of start-ups you need to have a very broad range of skills, you need to be adept at moving from technical skills like writing code or creating presentations all the way to soft skills like handling customers and on-boarding early employees, so on and so forth. So, I think that the best founders will be the ones that don’t let the perception that a particular skill is hard or not for them, and then they don’t engage with it at all. I think founders that jump in and try out being technical, try out the soft skills part, they will only get better with it over time, and developing that breadth is an important thing to do as a founder. At the same time, you are probably not gonna be good at everything, so that’s where we also think it’s important to find a good co-founder that complements your skill sets. You would probably let the guy with the better set of soft skills focus on leveraging it for the benefit of your start-up, and the guy with, say, the better set of technical skills be able to spend more time leveraging that to build a good product. So, if you’re a solo founder, you will have no choice, you have to work a bit harder. One of the benefits of finding a cofounder is you’re actually able to divide that work up and focus on the parts that you do best. At the same time, of course, it also doesn’t mean that everybody just does their own thing in a silo. You will still need to be able to know enough of what the other side is doing to be able to fuse everything at the end of the day so that the start-up can move forward.

Basil : Of course, related to skills would be personality. Any thoughts on that?

John : I think personality-wise, no matter whether you are introvert or extrovert, you need a never-say-die kind of attitude. You can’t let failure get you down, and definitely when it comes to start-ups, you will stumble, you will fall, you will get knocked down multiple times, and the most important personality trait is tenacity. To be able to pick yourself up and try and try and try again. So yeah, I think whether you are an introvert and prefer to work independently, or whether you are an extrovert and you sync well with a team, all of these configurations will work equally well in a start-up context. You just need to be able to find the right people to gel with, and once you establish a productive way of working with each other, it doesn’t really matter how you guys do it as long as you do it well.

Basil : Right, so talking about gelling within the team, of course, no start-up is an island. The start-up itself exists not in a vacuum, but within an ecosystem. What you think about the start-up ecosystem here in Singapore?

John : I actually think that compared to five years ago, maybe ten years ago, the start-up ecosystem is much more robust. There is a lot of institutional help, a lot of funding, especially from the government to encourage people to be brave and take that leap if they have good ideas and they really want to launch a start-up. Previously, it was a bit more the case of everything was on the shoulder of the entrepreneur and they were expected to soldier through adversity, but now wherever you look you will find players in the space encouraging people to start-up, whether it’s in the form of giving them funding, whether it’s in the form of incubating them as accelerator, or introducing them to the next stage of venture capital funding… the field is a lot more robust now, so I am actually quite happy with what we have here in terms of the start-up ecosystem in Singapore and if you asked me to start-up here, I would say ya for sure there’s nothing that is lacking in this particular ecosystem.

Basil : That’s certainly very good news. Now we come to the really interesting part which is the AI Apprenticeship Start-up Track which you are leading. Could you tell us about, say, the history and the process of this track?

John : Right. So, AI Singapore has a talent development programme called the AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP) and we are now in our seventh iteration – Batch 7 has just come in and we are about to bring in Batch 8 sometime in early 2021. The number of applicants and the quality of applicants for our talent development programme has steadily risen over the last few batches and we found that as we spoke to some of these apprentices, a lot of them had side projects, a lot of them had ideas that they were developing on the side, so we began to toy around with the idea of letting them actually launch those ideas officially and support them officially with AI Singapore resources if they could pitch it to us right and fulfill the three basic criteria of having a complementary team, having a good idea of the technical backing behind their product, and a good business case. So we launched that softly in Batch 6 and now we’re going official in Batch 8, because that has been quite a positive experience for everyone.

Basil : So, what would you say the track offers which other incubators don’t?

John : I think what we do differently here at AI Singapore is that when you come in to AIAP, you go through a nine-month process. Two months are earmarked for deep skilling, so that after you are done, you can hit the ground running for the project proper. And in seven months, you are actually tasked to build something that you can put up in the marketplace and bring in beta users. So, the challenge that we give to our guys is, if you are a B2B product, get three to five beta customers for your product by the end of the nine-month period. For B2C products, we say challenge yourself : go for five to ten thousand users by the end of the nine months and that actually would set them up very well to graduate into another accelerator programme or even raise a venture investment on their own. So, that’s what people go through when they come into the Start-up Track in AIAP. In terms of what we do special, I think because we were set up as a talent development programme specifically for technical AI skills, we have full-time engineers that we assign to each of these start-ups that get through our pitching process. And not just that. These engineers are supported by our commercial team, also on a full-time basis, as well as a whole range of very experienced what we call heads at our AISG programme that are familiar with natural language processing, familiar with computer vision, familiar with software engineering and the backend infrastructure. We make all that available to start-ups inside our programme on a full-time basis. Basically anytime you have a problem, our main job is to come and help. Other places usually have this on a part-time basis, so we make sure that the mentoring is so-to-speak intensive and always switched on. We found that that really helps our start-ups move fast and pivot very quickly when they realise that something might not be working. The other thing which our start-up incubator offers is a significant amount of funding. When you join the Start-up Track, you actually get a stipend of between $3,500 and $5,500 depending on where you are in your career. Not only do you get that cash stipend, you also get various kinds of in-kind funding such as the full-time staff that will be posted to your project to mentor you. You will get compute credits, a lot of compute credits if that is something that your start-up needs. So, that’s a lot of support, up to $180,000 of support available to a start-up that joins this track. I would say that this is one of the more generous programmes out there when you look at it as a whole.

Basil : So, there’s a lot of support and resources at the apprentices’ disposal. How are the current folks on the track coping?

John : I think they’ve been having a great time. Something interesting in our programme is that we actually have more technical people come in than business-oriented people, so they don’t really have a big issue with developing a technically sophisticated product. More of the help that they need is actually figuring out how to approach the market in a smart way. So we have actually been ahead of the curve on most of our tasks. Our demos are actually coming along quite nicely a few weeks ahead of schedule and right now for our inaugural batch of start-ups, they are actually about to launch their demo products into the market in January of next year.

Basil : Really looking forward to that. Just to wrap up, to those listeners out there, people who always wanted to do a start-up but are still looking for a good incubator, or those who have the idea of a start-up cross their minds before and just need to be pushed or encouraged little, or maybe even people who never knew that they wanted to do a start-up but after hearing what you have said have a certain passion lit in them, could you make your final pitch for the AI Apprenticeship Start-up Track?

John : Yeah, I think if you are considering developing yourself in the AI field at all, the AI Start-up Track at AI Singapore is something that will challenge you, whether or not you are looking at how to build the backend of your product all the way to the AI model development, all the way to actually talking to the users and making sure that what you deliver is something that is a pleasant experience for them to use. This will challenge all the skill sets that one wants to develop and it will come in handy whether or not you actually choose to continue with your start-up after the nine months or you decide that you might want to move on to do something else not in the start-up space. I think that the skills that you pick up are going to be very transferable, so if you are thinking of how to develop yourself more in the AI space, there’s actually no better project to do for nine months than to try to launch a start-up, because I guarantee you that you will learn far more than any other kind of project there is out there.

Basil : Now that the Batch 8 application is open, listeners, do consider this and it could be the best decision of your life. Thanks, John, for sharing so much with us today.

John : Thanks, Basil.

[*] This conversation was transcribed using Speech Lab. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.