Advice from a unicorn founder – How to grow, sustain, and scale your startup
No matter what market you’re in, successful startups all have a few things in common—a passion and commitment for what they’re doing, a great story to tell and a laser-like focus on customer needs.
Dataiku has taken the data and AI world by storm—transforming from French startup to global unicorn in just seven years. The team’s journey began with a passion for data and machine learning (ML) and a quest to bring everyday artificial intelligence (AI) to companies of all sizes and sectors.
As a founder, your path will of course be different from Dataiku’s, but they can show you what to look out for and provide advice to aid and speed your progress.
Uncertainty is a fact of life—make it work for you
“When you’re on an entrepreneurial journey, you have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, because you can’t control and predict everything,” Dataiku co-founder and CEO Florian Douetteau points out.
He explains that you might not be able to do anything about the unpredictability and uncertainty of the world, but you can be proactive and take bold steps.
In the early startup phase, the Dataiku team chose to multiply the number of countries and time zones they operated in, which meant they spread the risk of failure.
Although the past couple of years have seen a huge appreciation of the value of data and AI across almost every industry and developed country, when Dataiku launched in 2013, that was not the case.
By deciding to expand outside their original base in France into key economies like the US and UK where digital-first business and e-commerce were more advanced, the company was able to grow faster.
Now that “everyday AI” is more established around the world, Dataiku is in a stronger position, because in so many countries and across time zones.
Their global reach also provides insurance against the uncertainty of the global economy. If one country’s economy is struggling, Dataiku can focus on other countries that are enjoying stronger growth.
Dataiku’s gamble to spread across time zones paid off. They’ve built a business with more than 1,000 employees spread across 15 countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and Singapore.
Driving growth globally means riding the wave
By keeping up to date with trends and going with the market’s flow, you can ensure your company has a long-term purpose and viability. Think of it like this. When you launch a rocket, it takes off towards its destination, but if it encounters obstacles or interference, it must continually correct its trajectory.
The past few years have seen a massive acceleration of the use of data and AI within enterprises of all types and sizes. Embracing this technology has helped Dataiku to stay on course.
Florian points out that 10 years ago, “some people were doubtful about data,” which required the Dataiku team to hold their nerve and keep believing they were on the right track.
Ultimately, he says their “north star” was their customers. They helped guide Dataiku’s journey by giving feedback about what type of data they needed. Having that close relationship helped them stay on course and keep developing products that were useful and practical.
“Keep your focus, trust your customer and make sure customers trust you, so you can follow the trend,” Florian advises.
Create an authentic brand story early in your startup journey
Formulate the story of your company and the transformation you’re making and do it early in your journey.
Instead of just spouting facts and figures, make your message memorable by weaving it into a brand narrative that shares your setbacks, challenges, successes, and value proposition. As humans, we’re programmed to love stories. Neuroscientists have learned that stories trigger the release of the natural feel-good neurochemical oxytocin. Compelling stories can inspire brand loyalty as they help customers to connect with your company.
It’s a lesson Florian has learned along the way: “When we started the business, we were a bit shy and not so sure how to tell this story about business users going into AI” he says. I wish I’d known earlier how important it is to tell and build the story of your business.”
That said, Florian warns it isn’t just about coming up with buzzwords. H “intellectually dubious about a situation where you reduce culture to a few words.”
For example, he explains “as soon as you describe yourself as ‘humble’, you’re not humble at all, so it’s not always smart to claim something like that.”
Instead, he recommends the team sitting around the table to have a series of genuine discussions about the culture, while continuing to build your own narrative by acting in “an original and unconventional way.”
If you want to impress investors, differentiate yourself
One of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship is to focus on your differentiating factors.
In Dataiku’s case, it was building an end-to-end platform that can be leveraged by almost everyone in an organization—not just data scientists.
“It’s important to have this distinctive position, because it’s the way you convince investors to finance your project,” Florian says. “If you’re not clear about what sets you apart, you’ll be lost in the sea of competitors who will all seem to be doing the same thing as you.”
But when you are deciding what to make your speciality, remember you’re at the beginning of a long journey, and your idea must be something you’re passionate about.
As Florian puts it: “Let’s imagine for a second that your startup is successful—you’ll need to be ready to work on that specific topic for 15 years. There’s no point in trying to fake it, because it’ll come back and bite you.”
Scale up faster by harnessing the power of the cloud
Most organizations have to manipulate huge amounts of data. Typically, the most efficient way to do this is to run it in the cloud. With Amazon Web Services (AWS) tools, you can scale up and down when and where you need extra capacity, and run analytics rapidly.
From its earliest beginnings, the Dataiku team built its product on top of AWS services. They built it to focus on the need of business users, concentrating on ease-of-use and user interface. Particularly, they focused on a broader user base in enterprises who don’t typically have developer skills.
“We didn’t focus as much on infrastructure, storage, and data. You could say we built Dataiku as a ‘lazy product’, because we push the computation to the cloud, “ Florian explains. “It’s a UI, where you click around. It’s a very interesting and smart UI but ultimately, as much as possible, we push it to the cloud.”
AWS services like AWS database services storage, compute, the Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS), and Amazon Redshift helped Florian and the team set up Dataiku. “Without the cloud, it would not have been possible to focus on what we wanted to do,” he adds.
Dataiku’s partnership with AWS has many benefits, as Florian points out: “All our customers benefit from the cloud because the cloud is what makes our business possible.
“Our customers have to manipulate terabytes, or even petabytes of data to build analytics or manipulate the data.” Because these analytics need to happen at large scale, Florian believes the best way to make that possible and efficient is to run it in the cloud. This way, Dataiku and its customers benefit from the ability to scale up and scale down and run analytics computation rapidly.
Operating through gives Dataiku agility. “You need the agility of the cloud to innovate, because you can’t predict everything in terms of success, cost, or even the amount of data or analytics to be delivered and used during the first iteration of those projects,” Florian adds.
Don’t measure productivity by the number of meetings
Carving out dedicated time to think or read is crucial, not just for your sanity but because it’s how you’ll find true inspiration.
It’s easy to find yourself in back-to-back meetings, especially when you’re operating in more than ten time zones. Unfortunately, when that happens, there’s often no time to come up with great insights.
Finding time to relax is key. As Florian puts it: “What I’ve learned is that finding time to relax, and sometimes just stare out of the window, is what makes me truly productive.”
Put your customers first in everything
Really focus on the quality of your product and service and the way your customers perceive it. In other words, take time to make sure your customers perceive your product as being of value to them and that they are happy.
Commit to making your customers feel valued, understanding their needs and how they’re using your product or service, being responsive at all times and making sure you solve any problems they have quickly.
This link between product and customer needs to be deeply embedded in your company’s culture and something you hang onto, no matter how big your enterprise grows.