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4 Things I've Learned From Running a Startup for 10 Years


By Rana el Kaliouby, Inc.

In a lot of ways, founding a company is like raising a child. There's a lot of love and learning, and inevitably, there will be growing pains.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of my company, Affectiva (my youngest child just turned 10 years old too!). Reflecting on Affectiva's--and my personal--journey, I've realized a few key things.


1. Be clear on your core values. They will guide you

Values are key to defining your company. I remember sitting down with my co-founder, Rosalind Picard, and establishing our values when we started out--among them, privacy and respect for consent. These are especially important topics in the artificial intelligence industry: The technology has the potential to do a lot of good, but, in the wrong hands, can be used unethically.

But it's not enough to have values. You also have to practice what you preach. And I'll admit that there were times when we were tested. For example, at one point we were offered funding to use our technology for surveillance. We desperately needed this capital, but the use case jeopardized our values, so we walked away. It was a tough decision, but in sticking to our values, we ultimately worked on other use cases that would allow our technology to have a much more positive impact on society.

As our values have been front-and-center from day one, it's been amazing to see our employees, partners, and clients come together to uphold these shared beliefs. Their passion and commitment to helping us realize our vision has shown me the importance of following your core values time and time again.


2. Become an expert and persevere

We founded Affectiva with the understanding that there was a gap in human-to-machine interaction. We knew that the technology and devices that people use had a lot of IQ, but were severely lacking in EQ, or emotional intelligence. As a result, our interactions with technology were somewhat limited: they were transactional, and oftentimes even ineffective. We saw a huge opportunity to change that.

We set out to define this new category: Emotion AI. Over the last 10 years, we've honed our technology and expertise to pioneer what is now a rich ecosystem of Emotion AI players. I am incredibly proud of not only our team and partners in developing this new technology, but also of our customers, and others in the market, who recognized the potential for this kind of technology, and contributed to bringing our vision to life.

It wasn't an easy path though. Because we were building technology that had never been built before, there were challenges along the way. People doubted us and we came up against skeptics, but you have to ignore the naysayers and persevere.


3. Be patient and acknowledge that the market has to be ready for your vision

At the same time, it's not enough to have a killer product or groundbreaking technology. The market has to be ready.

Years ago, we were building A.I. technology ahead of the market. People conceptually understood our vision for emotion A.I., but they weren't sure how it would manifest in the future. With that in mind, we spent a lot of time articulating why emotion A.I. was important, outlining use cases, and explaining where it would add value in its future forms.

In the meantime, the market began to shift. With camera phones and the "selfie revolution," people became more comfortable with interacting with their camera--which is key for us, as our emotion A.I. works (in part) by analyzing facial expressions. And, as conversational agents like Siri and Alexa rose in popularity, people started to get more comfortable interacting with A.I.

I know this is an experience that other organizations face too, especially with emerging technologies--sometimes, it can be challenging to be the first. But it's exciting and it's ultimately a journey that you take great pride in.


4. Don't be isolated and remember your social responsibility

On that journey, it's important to be inclusive in whom you approach for perspectives--internally and with external advisers and friends of the company.

I'm incredibly proud of the diverse team we've built at Affectiva--they're diverse in age, background, ethnicity, gender, and life experience, which is key to building impactful, responsible technology. The topic of responsibility extends beyond your organization though. Companies have a responsibility to address ethical issues that come with new technology.

Rumman Chowdhury, Accenture's global lead for responsible A.I., once said: "It's not just about improving the technology; it's about improving the society behind the technology." If you work in isolation as a company, dismissing outside voices and overlooking societal impact, you're not only doing your company a disservice, but the communities impacted by your company also suffer.

The past 10 years have shown me that running a company truly takes a village--whether your company is just starting out, 10 years old, or 100. It's your employees, advisers, friends of the company, clients, partners, the press, and your company's ecosystem who will help you along your journey. I can't wait to see what lessons I learn in the next 10 years.



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