In this month’s ‘Startup Stories,’ Founder and CEO Amir Husain shares how the concept of SparkCognition’s Artificial Intelligence systems was born and the valuable experiences that have shaped where the company is today.
I was four years old, visiting my friend's house in Lahore, Pakistan, when I saw it for the first time. There it was, sitting on the TV console: the Commodore 64—the most cutting-edge personal computer on the market in 1982. It was connected to a television screen and running the game Hangman, an early version of the video games we know so well today. The television was a fixture in my home and I knew that it played images and sounds on the screen. But the Commodore 64 was a world away from mere TV. Television was, in a sense, immutable, pre-determined. This machine, however, was acting as a result of my inputs. This was a device I could impact with my own ideas. Ideas that could flow throw my fingertips and end up on that screen.
As soon as we left my friend's house, I returned home and immediately set to work with the spare pieces of broken and discarded toys and old cardboard boxes and packages. “Look,” I called out to my parents, “I made a computer!” The discovery of this machine felt as tactile as holding a paintbrush or a piece of modeling clay in my hand. A computer could serve as my ultimate tool of creativity. This was the means by which I would impact the world (Click to Tweet). Since that day in 1982, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I never wanted to be a fireman or a doctor or an astronaut. Today, even after 38 years immersing myself in this one pursuit, I am nowhere close to the end. Computing is one of the great drivers in my life.
I’ll never forget my very first venture meeting with Bob Stearns. He was the CTO and CSO for Compaq, which at the time was the world's largest computer company, and is now my very dear friend. He came to see a demo of the software I'd built for my very first startup when I was 21 years old and the student apartment he visited was barely 300 square feet. The few people that were there could hardly fit inside and we had to keep the door open the whole time. He saw the demo and then said, "Sorry it took me so long to ‘get it’. This is brilliant." He walked outside with me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "you'll get your first $1 million in funding tomorrow.” Bob gave me a chance. He believed in me. And you don't forget stuff like that. He set a good example and I try to pay it forward.
Building a company of merit
SparkCognition was founded on the idea that the time has come for machines to think independently, solve problems and augment human potential (Click to Tweet). As a computer scientist, I had been working on algorithms that could learn from data of all types, and techniques that could allow machines to automatically build expertise in multiple fields. After extensive market research and conversations with potential customers, I decided that I would apply this technology to the growing industrial Internet and security markets.
I first met with Michael Dell to discuss the concept. Michael was incredibly supportive and agreed to be the company’s first investor. As I had lived through the dot-com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, I knew that I did not want to build a company that relied solely upon raised capital (OPM), but rather one that showed true sustainability and business merit. I willingly embraced the “hard” road; one with very little capital raised, no compensation for myself, working alongside a couple of team members and writing the code, building the prototypes and speaking to each and every customer. After two years of effort, we now have 40 customers - including some of the largest companies in the world - and almost 70 people working at SparkCognition. The company broke even within a year of product launch and ultimately, the effort has paid off.
Making the right choices
For the companies I’ve been involved in, I have shunned too much excess and fanciness (Click to Tweet). I'm not much into cars or watches, and it’s a personal decision because you can't ask for others on your team to be modest and responsible if you don't set the example. I am happy that through my entire career, many of the folks working in companies I founded drove better cars and lived in better homes. We've got a few years left with my two older boys before they head off to college. My wife, Zaib, who is also CEO and Founder of a robotics company, Makerarm, and I have decided that we'll partially suspend this ethos for a few years and have some fun with the boys. But even so, now that we're used to the discipline, we can make the conscious choice. Fanciness is not a necessity for us, nor is it particularly interesting. I'm glad we did it this way.
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