I Shadowed Barney Pell & Chris Hadfield As They Advised ML Ventures: Here’s What I Learned

Barney Pell

Barney Pell is an entrepreneur, angel investor, and computer scientist. He is the co-founder, Vice Chairman, and CSO of Moon-Express. Barney has also co-founded LocoMobi; and is the Associate Founder of Singularity University. He has also worked at Microsoft as the search strategist and architect for Microsoft’s Bing search, and was managed an 85-person advanced IT R&D organization at NASA. (He flew the first AI system in deep space!). You can read more about Barney through his LinkedIn profile here.

Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space. He has flown two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station. He has also worked in Russia as NASA’s Director of Operations, and has 25 years of Military experience. After his retirement, Chris has become a professor at the University of Waterloo, released his own autobiography, and has hosted the BBC show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? He is now living in Toronto, is on the Canada 150 tour, and has participated in the 3rd CDL meeting to experience what it is like to help ventures grow.

A few weeks ago I walked into the Creative Destruction Lab bubbling with excitement, knowing I would get to spend the day learning from Barney Pell and Chris Hadfield. As I shadowed them while they advised 10 Machine Learning start-ups, I was furiously noting down the questions they asked, and the advice they gave. Within the first few meetings I could already tell what made Barney and Chris so different from your average Bob and Joe: they were inquisitive and analytical, and instead of asking detailed questions, were able to dissect the company’s problems through a simple understanding of their product/service and growth. While most people would instinctively dive into the finer components of a company’s structure, goals, and setbacks, Barney and Chris were able to do this by asking the right questions. Within a short period of time, not only were they able to understand the conflicts the start-ups were facing, but offer realistic and attainable goals for the next 2 months.

By the end of the 10 meetings, I had come up with 3 main takeaways from the advice that they gave:

(and yes, these are really simple and obvious things every start-up should know, but you wouldn’t believe the number of companies that came in and lacked the following, even after 4 months of being in the program!)

1. Understand the problem.

Know what your costumers want and need, and be able to back it up with data. Surprisingly, there were so many companies that came in and presented solutions to a problem they couldn’t define. It’s nice to have a cool product, but if it’s not refined enough to solve a specific problem, then it’s probably not going to sell well.

2. Move fast.

Create your product, and as quickly and efficiently as you can, run pilots. Have people use your product so their responses can tell you what to fix, keep, and delete.

“Done is better than perfect. Move fast and break things.” — Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO, Facebook.

3. Know your market and vertical.

Is there actually an opportunity for you to thrive in this industry? Who are your competitors? Can, would, and is a large company easily replicating your product? Is there or will their really be demand for this? These are some questions you should figure out the answer to sooner rather than later.

While learning from Barney and Chris, I also learned a lot from the teams and companies that presented themselves to us. Like the patterns in the advice given by my mentors, there were also patterns in what differentiated a strong start-up from the others:

  1. Companies that seemed like they would do really well were those who were extremely passionate about their product/service. Now of course this isn’t a defining factor of whether or not a start-up will succeed, and I know founders are usually overly attached to their idea, but if you aren’t excited about what you’re doing, chances are, we aren’t either.
  2. Startups that were doing well had specific objectives and goals, and were meeting the ones they had previously set before. The ones that weren’t doing so well had an unclear idea of what the next two months would look like, and had made little progress from the last two months. Overall: goal setting is important, and meeting your objectives is key to growth.
  3. Having a strong team is essential to the growth of your company. One of my favorite teams had people who knew exactly what their roles were, and the value they were adding to the company. Because of this, they were moving at a more efficient and faster pace than everyone else.

By the end of the day I had learned so much from Barney, Chris, and the rest of the fellows and associates that I was confident I’d be able to start a successful company of my own. The key is to have all the simple stuff down, because no matter how complex or detailed everything else is, it won’t matter if your foundation is unstable.

Special thanks to Barney and Chris for being such great mentors, and to Ani Chemilian for this incredible opportunity!

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