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Ringside Tales from Serial Startup Champion Omar Tawakol

November 9, 2023
Written By
November 9, 2023
Season 4 Episode 12
31:08
Written By

Like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, the fiercest competitors can sometimes become friends. Omar Tawakol is a prime example. As the founder and CEO of BlueKai, he went head-to-head with Tom, Vivek, and the 'Krux mafia' for dominance in the Data Management Platform arena. A serial entrepreneur with roots in New York and Egypt, Omar eventually steered BlueKai to a successful acquisition by Oracle before creating Voicea, which Cisco acquired. Today, he's pioneering a new venture called Rembrand (rembrand.com), which innovates in product placement through generative fusion AI.

Have you ever heard of a 5-year-old CEO? Omar Tawakol made his first sale by pitching coasters to neighbors. From playground profits to knockout big exits, Omar shares how he had “no choice but to build companies” from an early age. What makes the human element the most rewarding part of company building? Are better algorithms or richer data the key to winning in tech? Where does AI stand in the current hype cycle? How do you intertwine AI into human workflows?  And, how not to let success get to your head.

Omar joins Tom and Vivek on the latest episode of The {Closed} Session to recount tales from the entrepreneurial ringside, insights from his journey as a serial startup champ, and a sneak peek at his latest venture that's punching above its weight in the AI arena. Plus, a totally unpaid-for-promotion: where to find the best coffee in Menlo Park.

Learn more about Rembrand at rembrand.com

Transcript

Welcome to the closed session, how to get paid in Silicon Valley with your host, Tom Chavez and Vivek Vaidya. 

Tom: Hello everybody and welcome to the closed session. My name is Tom Chavez. 

Vivek: And I'm Vivek Vaidya. 

Tom: Vivek. We've got a big, big guest today. We do, yeah. Double Live Gonzo, Intensity in 10 Cities. 

Vivek: That's right. Someone we've, we've competed with, someone we've worked with. It's gonna be fun. 

Tom: This is gonna be a good one. So, such a pleasure to welcome to the podcast, Omar Tawakol. Omar, say hi. Welcome. 

Omar: Hey folks, it's such an honor to be here, especially with you two . I'll tell you why later. 

Tom: Well, you know, so like Vivek said, and let's just jump in here, Omar, because you were the co-founder and CEO of a company called BlueKai that we competed mightily against. Krux and BlueKai duked it out in that prior go round of, you know, the data management platform battles of the prior decade. And it's so funny cause I was at this, oh, that's when I bumped into you because we're at this event in Miami. And I don't know if I ever told you, but there are people, you know, saying, Oh my God, did you see that Omar's there? You know, are you going to hit him? You guys are like, what are you, are you high? It was like, it was like back to seventh grade where everybody's like, Oh my God, Omar, are you guys going to like, what are you talking? We're best, but it was so funny, right? When companies compete like this. And then employees get all nerved up about, and I don't know, it's just, it's hilarious and a little overwrought.

Omar: Yeah, I'll tell you that I ran into this exact same experience, uh, competing with Takoda when I was at Revenue Science and Dave Morgan. And as soon as I left Revenue, I respected Dave Morgan from the very beginning, but as soon as I left. I got in contact with him and he was an advisor to me in my next couple of companies and I just, you know, learned to admire him like the competitive process doesn't have to be personal about the person.

And it was the same thing with Tom and you Vivek, is you guys did a great job. We had to compete when we were competing. As soon as the gloves were off, it's like, let's hang out. Let's do some good stuff together. 

Tom: I remember we had this delightful coffee meeting in Menlo Park in some context where I think we were trying to figure out something, but I remember coming back and telling all the Krux people. He doesn't have claws, he has no talons, no fangs or horns that I could detect. Lovely human being. So Omar, and then before, let's, let's do this. So there was a BlueKai, you're a, you're a serial tech company building addict. There was a, well, after BlueKai, a company called Voicea that Cisco acquired, Oracle acquired BlueKai, back to Revenue Science. You've been at this a long, long time. 

Vivek: Actually Revenue Science is, I don't know whether we ever told you this, Omar, but when you guys were doing revenue science. And Tom and I were, we were still at Rapt, actually, and I remember that we were, we were trying to learn everything we could about advertising data, etc. And we attended an event that you guys had hosted in New York, actually and, uh, that's where we first learned about this thing called how to use data for advertising, etc. etc. So, for our listeners, you're listening to one of the OGs of, of data and advertising right now on this podcast.

Tom: That's right. 

Vivek: And it's not us. 

Tom: It ain't us. It's Omar. I remember that because we were at Rapt and we were in a totally different space. We'd go to that conference and I remember. Vivek and I were like, so what does CPM stand for again? Just back that up a little bit. We literally knew nothing. 

Omar: ...my experience, Tom, it's just, just shifted a few years. I remember when I first at Revenue Science, when, you know, we were convincing the board that, hey, we can use our, you know, data science and algorithm chops in advertising. 

Tom: Right. 

Omar: I remember I went to my first meeting with a bunch of agencies, and I started proposing what I proposed. And the guy who ran the agency, I won't say his name to protect them at the time, looks at me, he goes, look, Omar, you parachuted in here from Silicon Valley. With your tech thinking and honestly, your, the strings, your parachute got caught in the door on the way in and that was such a humbling experience for me. I'm like, all right, just shut up and listen for a while before you come up with new ideas. 

Tom: That's right. That's a good lesson to learn. Well, so just to finish off this wonderful free ranging bio of Omar, you, you started in Cairo right? Born and raised? We're going to get there. Studied engineering, computer science along the way. I see in our notes uh, MIT graduate, I don't think I knew that. MIT graduate, mechanical engineering, two master's degrees from Stanford and engineering in computer science. So you're the full package here, company building, assassin, techie, engineer by training. We knew a couple of those too, don't we? Um, but can we go back now? So take us back a little bit. You're in Egypt until what age and what brought you to the US? 

Omar: Well, I left Egypt when I was 21 days old and came to America. But then what happened is I went back for middle school and high school and I was in the American school there and you know, if you know the American schools in international areas, they're just a fantastic experience because, you know, you have lots of international people in those schools. And when you come to compete, like we did Model UN, Speech in the Bay, Wrestling, we did all these like sports and activities, you would fly to other countries to compete with other American schools.

Vivek: Oh, wow. Okay! 

Omar: So I thought that was maybe a more significant part of my education than the education itself. But so, so, and then I came back, uh, to the States for undergrad. So very, very varied experience. And what that taught me the most was to be skeptical of narratives because on the weekends, I'd hang out with my Egyptian family and friends. And their narrative of the world was so weird to me. It was like, really, you believe that? And the government would say something and they'd repeat it. I'm like, Oh my God, I can't believe you believe that. And then I, you know, read the American press and I'm like, wow, people actually believe this stuff. And so it gave me the skepticism of every culture selling you a narrative and a lot of that narrative is good, but some of it may not be so good and if you could use your brain to detach, you'd be happier. Anyway, that's what I learned from living, you know, in varied places with, with populations with very different worldviews. 

Tom: And how timely and necessary is that lesson right now, given everything going on?

Omar: Oh my god, yes, I, I, I, yes, I agree. Whenever a foreign event says, and I won't say any names or anything, I instantly ask, remove the name of the country, the name of the religion, and ask how would you, you, you view it. And you, you might get different answers. 

Vivek: Yeah. 

Tom: Yeah absolutely 

Vivek: So then as you continue your journey, you came here undergrad, grad school, etc. And then you went on to become an entrepreneur, right? So what motivated you to found your first company? Did you always want to build companies? 

Omar: I don't think I had any other choice so it was in my DNA. My, my father, you know, built his own company and it just instilled in me. I remember I... first company I tried to build, I was probably five, it was a failed enterprise. I tried to sell, uh, coasters and I actually succeeded in selling it. My parents made me return it because they said the neighbors bought it out of pity. 

Tom: But you got the sale.

Omar: And then I think in like eighth grade, I had a paper route. In college I had a, a company that helped me pay, pay the bills. So it's kind of like embedded me and now, you know, I find myself again doing it because it's so much fun, but for different reasons now, I think your, your reasons evolve over time.

Tom: So, so say more about that because again, you've been at it a bit. I guess, we're serial too. And I, I agree with the premise, your, your reasons and your motivations evolve, how have, how have yours shifted? What's propelling you forward now with this new build out at Rembrand. 

Omar: You know, I think two things are pulling me forward right now at the, um, not the stated mission of the company, but as the motivational force internal to me. And one is like just the fun of team building and watching people become great leaders, right? So if you can be part of that and you can, you know, help, I work with a few people that really, they should be CEO, but they don't know it. And so that that's the kind of fun processes to, to, to, to watch pe... and I think your business, by the way, you're doing exactly that both of you, right? You have multiple, you know, bets that you're making and helping people along. I'm happing to do it in one bet, but that's kind of the same motivator is watching a team become high performance team. That's the fun part. Uh, the other one for me is that COVID has taught us and me, I've observed, that opportunity may be concentrated in a few places in the world but genius, creativity, drive is globally distributed. So, you know, if you can leverage that to do great things for places that didn't have the opportunity we have, it creates so much more value. So those are kind of the two, two things that motivate me. 

Vivek: Yeah, I think that's, again, every time somebody asks me, Hey, why are you still doing this, right? It comes, I give the same answer you just gave, which is watching people do things they didn't think they were capable of and giving them a platform to do that is what brings us joy now, immense joy now. And that's what drives us forward to a large degree. 

Tom: But here, the three of us all are, right? Trained as engineers. You come up as an engineer, you do the math, you've solved it, it's wrong or it's right. You wrote some code, it works or it doesn't. And then all these years later, you realize, ah, you know, as you like to say Vivek, the idea is yes, we can solve the product problems, you can solve the customer issues, you can solve the go to market issues, the people ones. Our first, the hardest, but the most nourishing, right? If you can, if you can fix them, if you can solve them. 

Omar: I think the other thing that you said there, but in our background, that's similar is what I really loved about computer science is the feedback loops were fast. You'd have a mental model of a code that you want to write, you'd write it and it wouldn't work and what you realize is there is nothing wrong with the code, the code is doing exactly what it is told to do. The problem was in your mental model and the compiler was forcing you to fix your mental model so that you can fix the code. Building a company is like that too and you create, you know, your solution for a problem space and realize that you had the mental model wrong. And the fun part is being able to iterate fast enough in what you do so that you really get the signal continually and improve. 

Tom: Well, so what remains unassailably hard, right? So you've learned a lot, you understand the people dimension and you find joy in it, apparently. You've obviously solved a lot of the customer product go-to-market issues, but what still is that little bug bear that just doesn't seem to get easier? What's the hardest thing? 

Omar: I think the continually surfing the product/market fit problem, the stress goes down, the ability to get money goes down, the ability to recruit better people, it becomes easier. But the problem of really finding that wave and riding it masterfully never really becomes like trivial. It always requires all your energy, all the focus, just nailing it. The, all the surrounding stuff is easier, but the actual wave riding just doesn't become easier because it's a different type of wave that hits you and it's bigger. And, uh, you know, that, that, that's what I find. 

Tom: Man, that resonates, you know, cause I was talking to a friend recently and look, you, you do this a while and then everybody starts to get shiny ideas about how you walk around your house and robot. A robotic outfit and you, you live this fabulous life and I was just trying to explain to this friend, please understand, you know, in these early formation go-to-market problems where it's just, as you say, Omar, like that product/market issue, you know, please understand I'm still eating three shit sandwiches a day. Just trying to figure that out, it just, it's so, it's so pride swallowingly, so crushingly hard and it just doesn't get easier. 

Vivek: But I think it comes back to what one of our investors at Krux and a long time mentor of ours told us after the Krux acquisition. It's that the day before, or the day after the acquisition, you're the same person. But people think the day after the acquisition, you're a genius, right? So, so it's like, just because you've been through it once or twice, doesn't mean that the problem of convincing pe... identifying pain, and building solutions to address that pain is easier. 

Omar: Yeah, yeah, no, I, I agree. And continuing to have that humility to remember at the end, at the end of the day, you have to produce 10x value in your solution. And it has to be beautiful. 

Vivek: Yeah. 

Omar: That's where all like the difficulty is. You could sell it a little easier and get funded a little easier, but man, getting to that 10x is, it's always hard. 

Tom: Yeah. But before we move on, cause we want to talk about AI and data and other technical things here in a minute, but we know a lot of people, Omar, who take the journey and as Vivek say, they get to the other side of it. Everybody thinks they're, they're smarter. So many of them also read their press releases and believe it, like it goes to their head. I got to ask you, you seem to be still so grounded. I mean, you've, you've had these wins. I mean, and I, I don't want to cast aspersions to probably here, but my goodness, there's a lot of people that still can't like kick it down a notch, dude. I'm glad you made some money and you had some success, but it seems to not gotten to your head. Why is that? 

Omar: I don't know that that's true. I actually, my mental model of myself was exactly as you're saying is that humility is so important and that it's really important that it doesn't go to my head and that's what I thought. But lately I've even questioned that because the level of entitlement that you get access to, it's insidious in ways that you constantly have to root out just so many things get laid at your feet when you've, you know, had a couple more successes the way people talk at you. I remember I went to a conference and I had a really large team. It wasn't a conference. It was an internal event and at the time I had a really large team and I noticed that everything I said was really funnier than, I'm not actually funny, but everybody's laughing at my jokes and I was like, you know, you have to, you have to filter that and realize like, you know, if I remove my position and I didn't matter and my history was gone, that joke wouldn't have been funny. And so, uh, yeah, entitlement is something that's insidious and really hard to fight, you have to constantly fight it and I don't think I'm particularly great at that, uh, by the way, I'm just more aware now of how insidious that problem is, but here's one thing I, I did start to do, I noticed that whenever I have an exit, people would give me like so much praise, hey, that was great, that was awesome. And it just occurred to me that not enough of my team got, like, it got, I got disproportionate credit. So I wrote, started writing this piece that I haven't published, I may never publish, um, it's called The Wisdom of Other, and it's like 50 chapters, and it's like 50 people in my life. If I could just devote, a chapter could be small, but what's the one beautiful thing I learned from that person? Like, just putting some effort in, like, realizing that, you know, these advantages came from somewhere else. 

Tom: Man, you got to publish that book. 

Omar: I really should. I have to finish it first. It's quite cathartic for me to write it right now. 

Vivek: No, but I think Omar, that is 80-90% of the whole issue, right, which is that you having the awareness to recognize that you have access to all this entitlement and because of, because of your background and you constantly having to work at it, right? Like, no, no, no, I'm not, I'm not going to let that go to my head. My jokes aren't that funny. You may be laughing, but my jokes aren't that funny. By the way, Tom's jokes are very funny all the time.

Tom: Right on time, right? Right on time. Since we're talking about this, there's this funny cartoon that my wife found in the New Yorker with Jesus Christ with a big halo on his head and there are people sitting at the table and they're all laughing and, and he turns to one of them and he says in the cartoon, do you think people are like me so much for my charm and my good looks or because I'm God? That's a good one. 

Vivek: All right. So shifting gears, Omar, let's talk about AI and data and all of this excitement that's in the air right now because of Gen AI and all of that, right? You know, you've been working with data for a, for a long, long time. And, uh, we've developed a thesis at super{set} that yes, AI models, etc. are very important. But data is what is most important, right? So give us your perspective on that. What's more important to you? The model, data, AI? How do you think about that? 

Omar: Yeah. I mean, I wrote a piece about this... so long ago. It was just after Amazon, I'm sorry, Netflix did the contest about, yeah, the million dollar prize to build a better recommendation system and the article I wrote at the time is, you know, what wins better algorithms or better data. And it turned out that, you know, a more naive algorithm with different types of data was able to, you know, produce a better recommendation system. So I do think luckily we do not have to choose. You can write better algorithms and you have data, but you can't have great algorithms with little or no data, and you can have naive algorithms with great data. So, I'd like to have both, but you absolutely can't crush it. And the whole thing with, like, LLMs is unlimited amounts of data with, with very strong, uh, ways of representing, uh, that data, even if we don't understand the representation. So, I, I think you need both, but you certainly can't do without, you know, crazy amounts of of good data. I think the biggest innovation I, I find in the last., You know, 10 years, uh, it's the limiter on data that we used to have, like 10 years ago, which is that everything was more supervised in this learning. So you have to have labeled data, you had infinite amounts of data almost, but your labeling was like a percentage of a percentage of that, because a human had to go to label it was very limiting. And the second we figured out how to feed the algorithms without the human labeling, this just unleashed a huge amount of, you know, latent power in the data that was sitting there. Um, and I think that's kind of one of the more interesting things that you start to get in generative techniques, even in the generative techniques, we're doing the video space. It's not being limited by the human labeling. 

Tom: Well, listen, we've been at this a while, the three of us. Vivek is really old. Probably at least... I don't know, 15, 20 years older than you and I are Omar, you've seen the cycles, where are we in the hype cycle here? How far are we from a trough of despair or is there not one coming? How do we, how do you balance the hype versus the true possibilities at hand?

Omar: Yeah, I think, I think you know this better than anybody, which is that the, um, I mean, go back to, uh, who was the Kleiner Perkins leader, uh, back in the first .com? John... 

Tom: John Doerr, Doerr, 

Omar: John Doerr. Doerr, he, he basically had this statement that was outrageous and true at the same time, which is he was telling people, look, the internet's under hyped. And this was, you know, right when everything was crashing. And he was true, it was true, what he was saying is true. The innovations that were still to come are greater than what we have imagined now. But what he was saying was also false because he was part of the hype machine in a huge way. And so I kind of try to look at any point in the cycle and say, erase from your mind all the hype and just focus on the actual value creation. And if you can tie it to a business value that's, you know, ahead of you that you can prove that to other people, even if they don't don't so that see the future. So it is both possible to be in a situation like if you look at the crypto craze that just happened a while ago, I am still a big believer in blockchains and their value. It's just they were overhyped to a degree and the set of applications and a bunch of people making a quick buck that made us for the past year, you know, ignore some of the future innovations that are still going to come from blockchain. My current company is not blockchain, so I have no, you know, no need to say this, but the hype that washed away all this interest from the domain didn't wash away the actual valuation that's still yet to happen.

Tom: Yeah. It's important to not mistake clarity for proximity, right? In the long haul, John Doerr was right, but he's hyping it in this near term fashion, right? That makes it seem as if it's imminent, it's going to happen in the next three to six months. Yeah. [..] yeah. Vivek, I think it's time for the totally unpaid for promotion.

Vivek: Sure. Let's do it. 

Tom: Let's do it. And Omar, we want to cede the ground to you here. We want to give you the mic and the opportunity to boost something you like something that's that the planet needs to know more about what do you got? 

Omar: Yeah, and I'm going to tell you something crazy. I've only been to this place, once, and it was last week. Last week I got invited to have coffee in Menlo Park, uh, at a place called Saint Frank Coffee, it's, uh, on Alma Street in Menlo Park, you know, uh, near the train station. And, uh, man, they, they really have good coffee. I mean, give yourself a little bit of extra time if you're gonna have one of the, you know, variants so, they make great espresso and they use basically super premium coffee, you know, very highly rated good coffee. So, I have no stake in this company. I've only been there once but I highly recommend it. I'm, I'm a coffee lover. 

Tom: That's a big boost. You've only been there once. And, and you're, and you're putting it out there for our 42 million fans to, to, I mean, when they get flooded next week. 

Vivek: Saint Frank's Coffee, better, better be prepared.

Omar: You better be ready. Saint Frank, there you go. 

Tom: Saint Frank. All right. I'm going to, I'm going to check it out next time I'm, I'm down that way. 

Omar: Awesome. 

Vivek: Let's shift gears and now talk about Rembrand. 

Tom: Great name by the way, Rembrand. R E M B R A N D. I love it. 

Vivek: Yeah. What does it do? . 

Omar: Yeah, so essentially our mission at Rembrand is advertising that engages without interruption. I mean, people are running away from interruptive ads. They basically skip the five second mark all the time, uh, when they can skip it on YouTube. They pay money to YouTube and Netflix and Amazon Prime to give them ad free content. And at a recent event in ad week, I asked everyone in the room, you know, if at night they watch Netflix or Amazon prime, almost everybody raised their hand. I'm like, great. So during the day you fund interruptive ads, but at night you pay money to avoid them. And so what we're working on here is essentially allowing people just, you know, creators to create great content that they love. And then what we do is instead of interrupting it, we fuse products as if they were filmed in the original, and then they get paid for it. So think of it as like, uh, like an AdSense for virtual product placement. And in doing this, what we do is we enable a world for people to just create lots of content and brands to be able to fuse inside of it and get very high attention. We also do this in a way where we don't just place the product there, we try to integrate it with a storyline and animate it to really make a connection in the mind of the viewer. So, uh, I'll stop for a second, just to make sure it makes sense. But, uh, that that's the core and we do it with generative, uh, a form of generative AI we call generative fusion 'cause we're not generating something new, we're fusing a 2D object from the brand, a 2D video into a model of a 3D world that allows us to stitch it in and make it realistic. 

Tom: I've seen, I've seen the demo. And the early versions and it is, it's hard to evoke actually here in an audio podcast. You have to kind of see it to get it firmly in your bones. But it's so cool to see, I forget if it's a bag of Cheetos on a dash next to somebody like we could have, if we, when we go to the video version of the podcast, we'll have all of our favorite drinks and then we will get actually, there won't be unpaid for promotions. With Rembrand, you know, finally we'll be monetizing the 42 million followers the way we should, but it's, it's, um, it's, it's really exciting. And what I was also intriguing about it, Omar, as you think about the roadmap, you're a product guy, we're all product people here. You can think about the places and ways in which you can extend and enrich and augment over time, right? I mean, you've got a lot of wood to chop ahead of you, but it's all consistent with this central thesis you shared with us.

Omar: Yeah, there's so much really cool evolution ahead of us in terms of, you know, being able to cover all videos. Right now we cover videos that are easier for the AI, like usually indoor stable camera. This quarter next we add moving camera so we can accept movie quality. Eventually we'll do real time, the other things that we'll start to be able to enable is like targeting. So, you know, you have a video in France and it has Perrier and in LA it has Liquid Death. And deeper integration of the storyline so that maybe even someone can, can touch the product while they're in the video, even though it wasn't filmed that way like the evolution here is like really rich. 

Tom: Yeah.

Vivek: Can we see it in action anywhere right now, Omar? 

Tom: Oh yeah?

Omar: Yeah. I mean, I can put it on the screen right now and show you live videos. We've been live since February and then in the summer, we started opening up to major brands and we have major brands running with us right now. And the creators that come to us, many of them come back week after week in the middle of the night, 2 AM on a Saturday, they finish an episode because maybe their editor is in another country. And they post it to our service and that clicks things off on our end and then some hours later, we hand it back to them. They put it to their YouTube or their TikTok channel. And they put it to their own channel, right? Cause this is for their own audience. And they just get paid for that, a week after week, they come back because it's like found money for them.

Vivek: That's awesome. So for our listeners, you may never realize this, but when you're watching a video on YouTube, you may be seeing product placement that is engineered by Rembrand. 

Omar: Absolutely. And if you're rembrand.com, you can see a link to some video demos that show you videos that we've actually done. And, um, yeah, we'd love to show. If anybody wants to ask more, you know, come to rembrand.com and book time and we'll talk. 

Vivek: Omar, one of the things that we're finding as we play around and incorporate generative AI into our various companies and all of that, right, is integrating it into an end to end solution is still challenging. And so what's been hard for you on that front? 

Omar: This is actually very insightful on your part. This is where all the difficulty is because our vision here is, is AdSense for virtual product placement. That means, uh, over time we don't want any butts in seats at the Rembrand corporation to get up when a video comes in. And so, we're unique in that and that players who came before us would actually use AI to analyze video and tell you, Hey, there's like, you know, three minutes of a wall sitting behind people in this, you know, two hour movie. And then they would actually get VFX experts all over the world to work on the movie. It might take them $30,000, might take them $300,000 and it might take them four weeks. What we can do is now do it in the speed of compute. So the end to end is not just that the AI, uh, analytics. It's the AI insertion and manipulation of the video. So that's what we've done. Where we currently are, is it still takes a business user when the video comes in to look at the recommendation of the AI and say, yes, this is the place I want it. And I want it to last through these scenes and press go. And everything else is done by compute. What we're moving to is taking the interface that this internal business user sees and moving it into the hands of the creator. And as soon as we're done with that, then that's truly like lights out for us end to end. So that's the first thing that we're really innovating beyond others. 

The second one, which is also, I think, structural and important, is that when we started, we would take a finished MP4 video and we would start running our AI in it. And what we found is a lot of these videos with creators has these like, you know, overlays, half the screen is taken with like a game or a chessboard, text all over the place. And if you give that to the AI, it's like, whoa, what happened to the depth of field? It's like, oh, so what we did is we started integrating into the publishing tools, right? Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, stuff like that. So that we can undo all the messiness and look at the original video and be able to insert for 10 or a 100x the amount of time you would be able to, if you only got the finished MP4 asset.

Vivek: Right. 

Omar: So those are kind of the two innovation lines we're going down, end to end AI animation and integration into workflow. And because of that, it may be the first opportunity for somebody who's manipulating an editing tool to have monetization power. 

Vivek: Yeah, that's right. I think the interesting thing is like the first point you made, right? People still, I don't think fully understand how important human in the loop workflows are going to be. Like to your point, you want to give controls all the way back to the creator because you want them to guide. How the AI is supposed to help them in their work, right? That's another interesting observation, at least from our experimentations we've done in, in this space.

Tom: I don't know if we could identify a more consequential issue for the engineering of AI applications, just. Period. Stop. Right? I mean, human in the loop workflow, end to end. How do you intertwine AI and make it seamless and, and, and sensible for the user? That's, that's the heart. It's not lower down the stack seed to anthropic and open AI. And if, if, if you're going to go off and start a, a foundational models business from scratch today, good luck with that. But the, the, the bigger opportunities are, are further up the stack and really center on this issue. Hey! A quick question here. It's fascinating, Omar, because you, you kind of left AdTech, Martech for a spell with your prior build out and now you're back, right? What's, what's that like? What's it like coming back to, uh, these old huts? 

Omar: It's so nice. You know, it's like the, the Voicea was great because the AI company and my, you know, when I was in grad school, I started work on AI. So I had a passion to go back to that and my timing was like so lucky. And so that's what Voicea was. What Rembrand allows me to do is like, unite my boat to passions where I learned, you know, the, the depth of what I know about this domain in the marketing, uh, ecosystem, but still be able to do what I consider, you know, fun, which is AI doing the boat together is great. And going to industry events now, it's like going to cheers. It's like, you know, you know, everybody, you know, some of the people know you. It's like, it's, it's so much fun. Like that human element was, was just great. 

Vivek: That's awesome. 

Tom: They're happy to see you. 

Omar: Thank you. 

Vivek: Omar, it's been a real pleasure having you here. This is, thank you so much for the dialogue and it's, it's all the stories and everything. Thank you for being with us. 

Tom: Superb hang. Wonderful, Omar. 

Omar: Thank you, Tom. It's awesome to, to just, you know, hit, hit the ping pong back and forth with you guys. We should, we should just keep this up, uh, uh, uh, after the show too. So thank you. 

Tom: We'll hook that up for certain. Thank you, Omar. Thank you to our listeners.

We'll see you next time. 

Vivek: See you next time.

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MedCity News: It’s Time for the Tech Revolution to Come to Mental Health Diagnoses

Headlamp Health co-founder Andrew Marshak writes in the MedCity News that "We need to take inspiration from the progress in oncology over the last few decades and challenge ourselves to adapt its successful playbook to mental illness. It’s time for precision psychiatry."

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The Information: The People OpenAI Should Consider for Its New Board

Tom Chavez writes in The Information that "OpenAI’s board needs a data ethicist, a philosopher of mind, a neuroscientist, a computer scientist with interdisciplinary expertise and a political strategist."

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When Inference Meets Engineering

Othmane Rifki, Principal Applied Scientist at super{set} company Spectrum Labs, reports from the session he led at super{summit} 2022: "When Inference Meets Engineering." Using super{set} companies as examples, Othmane reveals the 3 ways that data science can benefit from engineering workflows to deliver business value.

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The Four Types of Startup Opportunities

In our last post, we discussed how data is the new general-purpose technology and that is why at super{set} we form data-driven companies from scratch. But new technologies are a promise, not a sudden phase change.

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We don’t critique, we found and build.

The super{set} studio model for early-stage venture It is still early days for the startup studio model. We know this because at super{set} we still get questions from experienced operators and investors. One investor that we’ve known for years recently asked us: “you have a fund — aren’t you just a venture capital firm with a different label?”

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Why CTOs Should Care About Gross Margins, Cost-to-Serve, and Product Management

Why should a tech exec care about profit and loss? Aren’t our jobs to make the product great, and someone else can figure out how to make the numbers add up? That was my attitude for a long time until I finally appreciated the significance of gross margins for SaaS businesses during the early part of my tenure as the CTO of Krux.

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Good Ideas, Good Luck

Coming up with new company ideas is easy: we take the day off, go to the park, and let the thoughts arrive like butterflies. Maybe we grab a coconut from that guy for a little buzz. While this describes a pleasant day in San Francisco, it couldn’t be further from the truth of what we do at super{set}. If only we could pull great ideas out of thin air. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.

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super{set} Celebrates First Exit: LiveRamp to Acquire Data Collaboration Software Startup Habu for $200M

LiveRamp Enters Into Definitive Agreement to Acquire Habu, Reinforcing super{set}'s Unique Company Building Model of Founding, Funding, and Scaling Data+AI Businesses

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Why Head of Product is Our First Co-Founder

At super{set}, we stand side-by-side and pick up the shovel with our co-founders. Our first outside co-founder at a super{set} company is usually a Head of Product. Let’s unpack each portion of that title....

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Forbes: 5 Startup Studio Misconceptions

It's still early for the startup studio asset class - and we hear misconceptions about the studio model every day, ranging from the basic confusion of accelerators versus studios to downright incorrect assumptions on our deep commitment to the build-out of every company. Read Tom Chavez' latest in Forbes.

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Understanding The AI “Alignment Problem”

Vivek Vaidya recaps his conversation with AI researcher and author of "The Alignment Problem" Brian Christian at the 2023 super{summit}.

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Podcast: Tom Chavez on How AI Startups Can Show Us What’s Next in Marketing

Tom Chavez joins the "Decoding AI for Marketing" podcast published by MMA Global and hosted by well-respected international marketing & AI experts Greg Stuart (CEO, Author, Investor, Speaker) and Rex Briggs (Founder/CEO, Inventor, Author, Speaker).

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How Engineers Should Talk to Customers with Empathy

Do you get an uneasy feeling anytime you get added to a customer call? Do you ever struggle to respond to a frustrated customer? Peter Wang, Product lead at Ketch, discusses how customer feedback can help drive product development, and how engineers can use customer insights to create better products. Learn best practices for collecting and interpreting customer feedback.

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The super{set} Entrepreneurial Guild

Has someone looking to make a key hire ever told you that they are after “coachability”? Take a look at the Google ngram for “coachability” — off like a rocket ship since the Dot Com bubble, and it’s not even a real word! Coaching is everywhere in Silicon Valley...

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Why the AI Revolution Will Be Data-Centric

Pankaj Rajan, co-founder of MarkovML, joins super{set} Chief Commercial Officer Jon Suarez-Davis (jsd) to discuss the role of data in gaining a competitive advantage in the AI revolution. Learn the difference between optimizing models and optimizing data in machine learning applications, and why effective collaboration will make or break the next-gen AI applications being created in businesses.

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Horizontal Scaling at super{summit}

Vivek gives us the rundown on what the hive is buzzing about after super{summit} 2023: how to 'horizontally scale' yourself.

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Pivots and Possibilities

Discover how lessons from law enforcement shape a thriving tech career. Ketch Sr. Business Development Representative Brenda Flores shares a bold career pivot in our latest "Pass the Mic" story.

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Why I Left Google To Co-found with super{set}

Gal Vered of Checksum explains his rationale for leaving Google to co-found a super{set} company.

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Why Headlamp Health is Bringing Precision to Mental Health

Co-founder of Headlamp Health, Andrew Marshak, describes the frustratingly ambiguous state of mental health diagnoses - and the path forward for making mental health a precision science.

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Developer tools that are worth their while: KEDA and Boundary in action

Running cloud platforms efficiently while keeping them secure can be challenging. In this blog post, learn how two of super{set}’s portfolio companies, MarkovML and Kapstan, are leveraging tools like KEDA for event-driven scale and Boundary for access management to remove friction for developers. Get insights into real-world use cases about optimizing resource usage and security without compromising productivity.

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The Balancing Act For Women in Tech

This post was written by Ketch Sales Director, Sheridan Rice, as part of our #PassTheMic series.

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From Watsonville To The Moon

This post was written by Habu software engineer, Martín Vargas-Vega, as part of our new #PassTheMic series.

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Four Tips for a Distributed Workforce

This month we pass the mic to Sagar Gaur, Software Engineer at super{set} MLOps company MarkovML, who shares with us his tips for working within a global startup with teams in San Francisco and Bengaluru, India

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Not Just On Veterans Day

This post was written by Ketch Developer Advocate, Ryan Overton, as part of our #PassTheMic series.

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super{set}’s Spectrum Detoxifies The Online Space

We are living in a time of extraordinary concern about the negative consequences of online platforms and social media. We worry about the damage interactive technologies cause to society; about the impact to our mental health; and about the way that these platforms and their practices play to our most destructive impulses. Too often, the experiences we have online serve only to polarize, divide, and amplify the worst of human nature.

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The Information: "TikTok Is Not the Enemy"

Tom writes a nuanced take on the TikTok controversy and outlines ethical data principles that will restore people’s sense of trust and offer them true control over how and when they grant permission for use of their data.

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Redefining Customer Experience in Data-Driven Tech Startups

Ted Flanagan, Chief Customer Officer at super{set}-founded Habu, sat down with Jon Suarez-Davis (jsd) to provide insights into how Habu's strategies in customer experience set it apart in the data collaboration market. Learn how customer experience strategies helped Habu land a $200 million after being acquired by LiveRamp in January 2024.

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Jeremy Klein on Leading super{set}'s Data-Driven $90 Million Fund II

Jeremy Klein is a general partner at super{set}. Jeremy helped build super{set} from day one alongside Tom Chavez and Vivek Vaidya, designing super{set}’s structure, recruiting co-founders, and laying the plans for a scalable buildout. super{set} recently announced the closing of its $90 million Fund II. He sat down with Jon Suarez-Davis (jsd) to provide insights into the strategic timing and vision behind launching Fund II, his professional journey from a legal expert to an integral part of super{set}'s fabric, and how his unique background and approach have been instrumental in building super{set} and recruiting top-tier co-founders.

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The Era of Easy $ Is Over

The era of easy money - or at least, easy returns for VCs - is over. Tom Chavez is calling for VCs to show up in-person at August board meetings, get off the sidelines, and start adding real value and hands-on support for founders.

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High-Velocity Personal Growth

What's the price you put on personal growth? In his most recent note to founders, super{set} Founding General Partner Vivek Vaidya outlines 7 points of advice for startup interviews and negotiations. Vivek explains his compensation philosophy and the balance between cash and the investment in personal and career growth a startup can bring. Here’s the mindset you need to reach your zenith at a startup.

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Forbes: Why The Biden-Xi Talks Should Put A Microscope On San Francisco

The prettifying and securing of downtown San Francisco, where super{set} is headquartered, should be the norm - not just for special state visits from the world's dictators. Here are 3 things the city of San Francisco should be doing all year round to make the city better to live, work, and invest in. Read Tom Chavez' latest in Forbes.

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Tech Crunch: Boutique startup studio super{set} gets another $90 million to co-found data and AI companies

Startup studio super{set} has a fresh exit under its belt with the sale of marketing company Habu to LiveRamp for $200 million in January. Now, super{set} is adding another $90 million to its coffers as it doubles down on its strategy of building enterprise startups.

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Building Fast, Scaling Globally

Harshil Vyas joined the super{set} Hive (i.e., portfolio companies community) in March 2023 as Co-Founder of Kapstan and employee number one in India. We jumped on a Zoom recently to talk about accelerated timelines, globally distributed workforces, and what is unique about the super{set} model.

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Tom Chavez in Huffpost Personal for Hispanic Heritage Month

Writing in the Huffington Post: "My Mom Sent Me And My 4 Siblings To Harvard. Here's The 1 Thing I Tell People About Success."

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Jamming with Habu’s Matt Kilmartin on Partnership Strategy

Discover how Habu, a trailblazer in data clean room technology, utilizes strategic partnerships with giants like Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and AWS to expand its market reach and foster the potential of an emerging category. Learn from CEO Matt Kilmartin's insights on how collaboration is the secret sauce that brings innovation to life.

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Diamonds in the Rough

Obsessive intensity. Pack animal nature. Homegrown hero vibes. Unyielding grit. A chip on the shoulder. That's who we look for to join exceptional teams.

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Detecting Software Bugs with AI

Gal Vered is co-founder and Head of Product at Checksum (checksum.ai), an innovative company that provides end-to-end test automation that leverages AI to test every corner of an app. He sat down with Jon Suarez-Davis (jsd) to discuss the exciting problem that Checksum is solving with AI and what Gal likes best about working in super{set}'s startup studio model.

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Spectrum Co-founders Launch Nurdle AI

Justin Davis and Josh Newman, Co-founders of Spectrum Labs (acquired) launch Nurdle to get AI into production faster, cheaper & easier.

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CalMatters: Why visa reforms benefit not just California’s tech sector but the economy overall

Vivek Vaidya writes that America needs more H-1B workers. Common sense reforms to the program will even the playing field for startups, not Big Tech, to bring innovative talent to American's shores.

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Watch: Sandeep Bhandari Fireside Chat

Sandeep Bhandari, Former Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Risk Officer at buy now, pay later (BNPL) company Affirm, joins Vivek Vaidya, Founding General Partner of super{set}, in conversation.

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Why I'm Co-founding @ super{set}

Pankaj Rajan, co-founder at MarkovML, describes his Big Tech and startup experience and his journey to starting a company at super{set}.

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Hold Fast: Game-Changing Wisdom from Seamus Blackley

Creator of the XBox and serial entrepreneur Seamus Blackley joined Tom Chavez on stage at the 2023 super{summit} in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a free-ranging conversation covering the intersection of creativity and technology, recovering back from setbacks to reach new heights, and a pragmatic reflection on the role of fear and regret in entrepreneurship.

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Overheard @ super{summit}

Vivek Vaidya's takeaways from the inaugural super{summit}

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Lessons from the Startup Circus

super{set} Technical Lead and resident front-end engineering expert Sagar Jhobalia recaps lessons from participating in multiple product and team build-outs in our startup studio. Based on a decade of experience, Sagar emphasizes the importance of assembling the right engineering team, setting expectations, and strategically planning MVPs for early wins in the fast-paced startup environment.

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An Intro to Product-Led Growth from MarkovML

Want to grow your product organically? This blog post breaks down understanding costs, setting up starter plans, and pricing premium features using MarkovML as an example. Learn how to engage new users and encourage upgrades, enhancing user experience and fueling growth through actionable insights.

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How I Learned to Stop Optimizing and Love the Startup Ride

Reflections after a summer as an engineering intern at super{set}

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How To Avoid Observability MELTdown

o11y - What is it? Why is it important? What are the tools you need? More importantly - how can you adopt an observability mindset? Habu Software Architect Siddharth Sharma reports from his session at super{summit} 2022.

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From Chords, to Code, to Chords Again: The Story Behind Boombox.io

super{set} founding general partner Tom Chavez wasn’t always set on a life of engineering and entrepreneurship – music was his first love. For a time, he was determined to make a career out of it. With boombox.io, Tom has combined the best of both worlds into a product that inspires and delights both the engineer and the musician.

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Navigating the Startup Journey from Launch to Finish Line

Are you a launcher, or a finisher? The balance of conviction, a guiding vision, and the right team to execute it all make the difference between entrepreneurial success and failure. Tom Chavez delves into his journey as a first-time CEO and the invaluable guidance he received from a key mentor.

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Too Dumb to Quit

The decision to start a company – or to join an early stage one – is an act of the gut. On good days, I see it as a quasi-spiritual commitment. On bad days, I see it as sheer irrationality. Whichever it is, you’ll be happier if you acknowledge and calmly accept the lunacy of it all...

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Silicon Valley’s Greatest Untapped Resource: Moms

This post was written by MarkovML Co-Founder, Lindsey Meyl, as part of our #PassTheMic series.

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How Boombox Nurtures Customer Collaboration for Success

In a conversation with boombox's co-founder India Lossman, the discussion pivots to the art of fostering customer collaboration in music creation. Lossman unveils how artist-driven feedback shapes boombox's innovative platform, with a glimpse into AI's empowering potential. Understand the synergy between technology and user insights as they redefine the independent music landscape.

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Building Tech on a Moving Regulatory Target

In an interview with Ketch co-founder Max Anderson, the focus is on data privacy laws and AI's role. Anderson discusses the global privacy landscape, highlighting Ketch's approach to helping businesses navigate regulations. The conversation also emphasizes data dignity and Ketch's unique role in the AI revolution.

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Data Eats the World

The wheel. Electricity. The automobile. These are technologies that had a disproportionate impact on the merits of their first practical use-case; but beyond that, because they enabled so much in terms of subsequent innovation, economic historians call them “general-purpose technologies” or GPTs...

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Founder and Father: A Balancing Act

Making It Work With Young Kids & Young Companies

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Tech Crunch: Answering AI’s biggest questions requires an interdisciplinary approach

Tom Chavez, writing in TechCrunch, calls for new approaches to the problems of Ethical AI: "We have to build a more responsible future where companies are trusted stewards of people’s data and where AI-driven innovation is synonymous with good. In the past, legal teams carried the water on issues like privacy, but the brightest among them recognize they can’t solve problems of ethical data use in the age of AI by themselves."

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Forbes: Why A Collaborative Approach Trumps "Lone Genius" In Company-Building

Off the heels of super{set}'s first exit - the acquisition of data collaboration company Habu by LiveRamp for $200 Million - Tom Chavez writes how the super{set} approach to collaboration in company building leads to successful outcomes.

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7 Ways to Turn an Internship Into a Job at a Startup

Chris Fellowes, super{set} interned turned full time employee at super{set} portfolio company Kapstan, gives his 7 recommendations for how to turn an internship into a job at a startup.

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boombox.io Raises $7M to Build Out Creator Platform for Music Makers

super{set} startup studio portfolio company’s seed funding round was led by Forerunner Ventures with participation from Ulu Ventures Raise will enable boombox.io to accelerate product development on the way to becoming the winning creator platform for musicians globally

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Why Proprietary Data Is the Linchpin of AI Disruption

Read Vivek Vaidya's latest in CDO Magazine and learn why in this new AI landscape, those who harness the potential of proprietary data and foster a culture of collaboration will lead the way—those who don't risk obsolescence.

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ActiveFence Acquires super{set} Company Spectrum Labs

ActiveFence, the leading technology solution for Trust and Safety intelligence, management and content moderation, today announced its successful acquisition of Spectrum Labs, a pioneer in text-based Contextual AI Content Moderation.

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The RevOps Bowtie Data Problem

Go-to-market has entered a new operating environment. Enter: RevOps. We dig into the next solution space for super{set}, analyzing the paradigm shift in GTM and the data challenges a new class of company must solve.

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The Product Mindset for Engineers

Ever find yourself scratching your head about product management decisions? Join India Lossman, co-founder of boombox.io, as she unpacks the product mindset for engineers. Unravel the art of synergy between PMs and engineers and delve into strategies to enhance collaboration and craft products that users will adore.

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Infrastructure Headaches - Where’s the Tylenol?

Head of Infrastructure at Ketch, and Kapstan Advisor, Anton Winter explains a few of the infrastructure and DevOps headaches he encounters every day.

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From Suitcases to Startups: Why Immigrants Innovate

How are immigrants like entrepreneurs? Peter Wang of Ketch arrived in the U.S. at age 7 with two suitcases and a box. Read his story in the latest "Pass The Mic."

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Why I'm Joining super{set} as Chief Commercial Officer

Announcing Jon Suarez-Davis (jsd) as super{set}’s Chief Commercial Officer: jsd tells us in his own words why he's joining super{set}

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VCs Write Investment Memos, We Write Solution Memos

When a VC decides to invest in a company, they write up a document called the “Investment Memo” to convince their partners that the decision is sound. This document is a thorough analysis of the startup...

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Former Salesforce SVP of Marketing Strategy and Innovation Jon Suarez-Davis “JSD” Appointed Chief Commercial Officer at super{set}

The Move Accelerates the Rapidly Growing Startup Studio’s Mission to Lead the Next Generation of AI and Data-Driven Market Innovation and Success

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