In conversation with Becky Anastasi from ‘Malta CEOs: The Island’s Most Influential Business Minds‘ I discuss the imperative of setting strategy, modelling culture and consistently providing clear communication in startups – specifically in technology startups. Indeed, because technology structures our experiences and shapes how we live, it has enormous ethical significance. Artificial Intelligence is the most deep and pervasive technology this century has witnessed. Thus startups working in the AI field have a lot to consider in their journey towards growth.
Is technology the goal behind a technology startup?
What we sell is not mere ‘technology’ in the restrictive sense, but rather transformation opportunities. EBO doesn’t merely sell AI technology, it provides a promise around deep organisational transformation.
Therefore the founding goal behind an AI startup must be to capitalise on the wave brought about by two of the most important cultural forces of our time: Internet in the late 90s and Artificial Intelligence in the last few years. In this regard the paradox of digital activity is that it is not about technology, but about people. If people lack the appropriate mindset to change work practices, digital arrangements will simply magnify the existing flaws. This has never been more evident than in the present pandemic. Therefore the role of an AI startup is to work closely with its customer to help accelerate transformation through the vector of technology.
The challenge of running a start-up.
Running a company isn’t always glamorous. It requires discipline especially in execution. I relish the thrill of a solution which we introduce to the market and which provides tangible social good – whether in the form of innovation or simplicity (and often both). Yes HR remains one of the largest challenges in running a fast-growing AI startup. Communication issues also remain a major stumbling block even in small companies. Ultimately, people don’t work for a company, they work for a leader. This puts more responsibility on the choice of the team around me.
How does AI impact industry sectors?
Because technology structures our experiences and shapes how we live, it has enormous ethical significance. Artificial Intelligence is the most deep and pervasive technology this century has witnessed. The progressive use of technology in general is so vast, widespread and rapid that smart devices have become essentially a neural extension of ourselves. Therefore AI hasn’t just impacted sectors but it has impacted us – as human beings. Editors (and facts) have disappeared, the meaning of ‘social’ has been rewritten, and we have a new playbook for electing Governments. Indeed as technology shapes our socio-behavioural norms it has also disrupted political protest movements. This is a profound change in a short period of time.
What is the secret to success in AI startups?
I’m a recovering perfectionist but perfectionism limits growth. This realisation is a secret to growth as it opens the path to risk-taking which is central to business acceleration. Indeed if we’re not stretching (and often over-stretching) we’re not able to see what we’re collectively capable of as a unit. Further, one of life’s ironies is that we grow the most from our missteps and failures.
Another may be in selection of top roles. There’s a natural tendency to select people similar to ourselves or to people in previous similar roles. This homogeneity is limiting. I’ve learned to embrace and seek-out diversity in the team and to stimulate intellectual tension. Just like in a violin whose strings at are not too tight, not too loose
What technology trajectory are we likely to witness?
The problem of living in the midst of this technology revolution is that it’s hard to take a long-term view of what’s happening. However one area that is clear is that as technology is now integrated with every facet of our life, the trustworthiness of these tools will become increasingly important in a liberal democracy.
We need to build trustworthy technology by ensuring it is (1) lawful (respecting all applicable laws and regulations), (2) ethical (respecting ethical principles and values), (3) robust (both from a technical perspective while taking into account its social environment) and (4) explainable (delivering understandability). Those ICT solutions which are built on these tenets will win as they will gain societal adoption and wider take-up.
Niche specialist or Generic Offering. Which works best?
I like to tell my team to focus on things which are ‘an inch wide yet a mile deep’. This strategy is all about finding your niche; that one focus area that is going to yield the best results. The fastest growing and most profitable businesses tend to position themselves as niche specialists. EBO is extremely disciplined in selecting the business pain points it should solve. Our data science skills are advanced but more importantly than technical prowess, we deeply care about the solutions we sell, and this motivates our customers to partner with us.
Top Tip for Malta based startups?
A high ranking technology executive once told me that if you’re able to successfully do business in Malta then you’re sure to be successful anywhere in the world. The tongue-in-cheek comment referred to the insularity and complexity of a small island market. If you’re willing to go through this steep curve, then it’s good to remember that the passion you bring to the table will be directly dependent upon your level of happiness and resilience when participating in the market.
Three things which Malta can do to improve the community for tech entrepreneurs?
- Redefining ‘work’ and ‘worker’. The reality is that most AI talent is outside of Malta. Also the best minds don’t seek traditional employment. Yet our entire benefits system (even now during COVID state-aid realties) is centred on an old notion of Full Time or Indefinite contract models. The world is not there now and the ‘gig economy‘ model sees wider contracting models which we need to recognise in our public policy.
- Creating an integrated ecosystem for startups. The local process of setting up a tech startup is still more fragmented than that in the UK or Estonia. In more nimble states, all stakeholders engage and share ideas across vibrant communities and networks, as well as identify and convert opportunities into business whilst creating expedient paths to registration, financing, taxation and patent submission.
- The investment in economic development funding must change. €50,000 investment grants here and there will not make any difference on an international level. Government must launch a startup mobilisation fund of at least €250m over a 3 year period perhaps under the National Development and Social Fund (NDSF) where Article 13 of S.L.188.03 establishes that 70% of contributions received with regard to the IIP will be assigned to such a fund to be used “in the public interest inter alia for the advancement of education, research, innovation, social purposes, justice and the rule of law, employment initiatives, the environment and public health”. Without a serious financial commitment the industry will not be kick-started.