About The Guest
Ardalan Benam is an AI scientist and serial entrepreneur. We had originally connected on LinkedIn last year in 2019, not too long after I had launched the podcast regarding the initial idea for Podion. Since then, they had pivoted into a different idea – an audio-based learning platform.
Connect with Ardalan on LinkedIn
Highlights Of The Discussion
How Ardalan Got Into Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
2:37 –Yeah, so I studied electrical engineering, under a Bachelor of Science at the University of Tehran. And the last year of my university, I was mainly doing lots of image processing research projects. And that was the topic that I was like really interested in. So one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do to like a child was dream to be a researcher when I get older. So yeah, so that was a main reason I did my masters, which was really interesting, because I was like looking for more of image processing positions as a researcher.
And through my kind of looking for different research positions, I came across this professor at SFU (Simon Fraser University), that she was exactly doing what he was doing in my bachelor. So it was really a research interest, they were really aligned.
So I came to Canada to pursue that and to kind of like work under her supervision. And so at that time, there was no sign of machine learning or AI in any kind of like my research. My research was mainly building image processing algorithms by hand to kind of like, detect different edges, detect different faces, but there was like all kinds of like, from my own experiments, and kind of like building the algorithm by hand.
And the reason that I guess, throughout my education kind of, like, turned into an AI scientist was that there was like, one day, I was like, oh, like there is this other algorithm that is exactly doing this solving the same problem that I’ve been working on for like seven, eight months, which is basically at that time, I was working on detecting blood vessels and thermoscopy images. And this other research paper they were, they were using deep learning to solve the same problem. And what’s funny, it was like, because I realized that over like, maybe over a month of research, they got better results than I did, working more than seven, eight months. So you’re like, ah, maybe I’m looking in the wrong field. If I like this, maybe I should incorporate machine learning and AI and that will be a smarter way to kind of like get better results quicker. And that was the main reason that I switched to traditional intelligence solve the problems that I was going to solve.
5:20 – The Difference Between AI and Machine Learning
Yeah, for sure. So, AI or artificial intelligence is the overarching concept of just having intelligent machines. And that can be your fridge. That can be an intelligent car that can be like your stove. But machine learning is a segment of artificial intelligence, which, basically, with machine learning, allows computer programs to automatically improve themselves through different experiences. So I would say machine learning is a way to create intelligence, but it’s not the pure intelligence, because you can create, you can basically write different algorithms yourself, and make your fridge to be more smart. But not necessarily that fridge is going to learn from the experiences that is going through to make itself smarter.
7:39- Predictions for the AI Industry in the next 5-10 years
The AI industry is just like moving at a very rapid speed. Like every year, there are like better algorithms, newer algorithms coming out. So it’s like definitely improving and becoming smarter. There is one from kind of like, look at it from like an economy point of view. I was reading this other article that AI is actually estimated to around 8% of companies plan on using AI-based systems to fill roles. So around 8% of jobs, let’s say they’re going to be eliminated by AI. But the interesting thing is that AI is actually more likely to create new jobs as freeing up humans to design and develop new products and businesses. And if you look at it in reality, technological changes have always historically initially diminished and boosted employment by enabling new industries and sectors.
So I would say in the next five to 10 years, there will be more and more positions for AI scientists, AI engineers, people can learn how to develop machine learning systems is going to open up. Of course, as these roles are getting more popular, there are kind of like lower-level jobs are going to get diminished.
9:00 –Discussing How AI Has Played a Role During The Pandemic
For sure, yeah, Whois they have lots of data on, they build this system. And also, I think they’re using other data from other diseases to kind of like try to model how this pandemic can go in general. But also, I think AI like they’re like different parts of the pandemic that I’ve seen AI play a role in, which is like one is just like purely predicting and kind of like detecting outbreaks and of different, like COVID.
The other one, it can be just like, mainly, as you said, So you mentioned that BlueDot that is mainly for warning us doing kind of like alerting us before a major outbreak happens. But also AI has played a major role, I think more on the vaccine creation and kind of like drug discovery. I’m seeing more and more companies, especially in Toronto, that they are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to accelerate the process of different processes of drug discovery. Yeah, so I think getting to the stage that we have a vaccine if we get to that one day. I think having AI has helped us to get there maybe 10 times quicker than we could have 10 years ago.
13:17 -Ardalan’s Experience at Next Canada (Formerly known as Next 36)
So I think Next 36 has been one of the more influential kind of like events in my life, than in terms of my life in general, and also personal growth. So basically, the idea of Next 36 is not only to help you build successful companies, but I think the main idea, and that’s why they call it a Founder Development Program, rather than an incubator and accelerator. The idea is that, can we find people who have the potential of becoming successful leaders or successful people in their career?
What are we going they’re going to do, and plant that seed and give them essential tools so that they can do something extraordinary in the span of the next 10 to 20 years? And can we make this environment in Canada, so we can keep these people in Canada and create this committee again, in Toronto, or in Canada, in order to take entrepreneurship in Canada to the next level? And so that’s the general idea of Next 36.
And, yeah, I don’t know where you want to go, you want to know about like what I built. And yeah, so at Next, I built two different companies, which to this day, one of them still exists. And I think this one is more interesting for this conversation, which is I built voicebot for restaurant. So you know how you call to restaurants in order to get a reservation or order takeout and the person on the other side will pick up the phone and basically take your order. Or like, take your reservation. So basically what I did I used natural language processing to automate this whole process. So instead of a restaurant owner or an employee picking up the phone, my boss will pick up the phone and be like, hey, how can I help you? And then you’ll be like, Oh, I want to order this and this and this, or I want to make a reservation for two at this time. And we’ll get all the necessary information from you put in the system. And basically, that’s it. So it’s like eliminating that person who has to pick up the phone and making it cheaper for restaurants.
16:06– On Always Being An Entrepreneurial Person
I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, always looking at different projects and different things to start up. But definitely Next gave me that kind of like framework, and more than a framework gave me that community. Because like people with this kind of like mindset that they truly want to do entrepreneurship for the sake of being just entrepreneurship. And they’re like very sparse across Canada.
The majority of the people who graduate from universities, they want to find a job, mostly, and an American company or a good Canadian company and just make money and have a happy life. But for me, that wasn’t enough, nnecessarily. And to be honest, I did my masters I that’s a few are kind of like felt lonely, because there were like, there were that many people that they truly felt like this. And then but when I came to Next, I was like, wow, like every single one of these 36 people that they have been chosen from different cities of Canada, they think exactly like me, and to this day do many of my best friends come from that network because I feel that I like I just get connected with them on a very deep level.
So I think it was that network of other entrepreneurs or other not even entrepreneurs, other people that they have, like, kind of like entrepreneurial mindset that kept me going. Because then you have this support group, then now you’re looking up to all of your friends, because they’re one of the things that is really hard when you start entrepreneurship, or when you want to do entrepreneurship is that you always look around the closest people to you. And you know that there is this thing that they say, You are the average of the closest five people around you. So that is exactly true. So if you don’t surround yourself by other entrepreneurs, even if you’re like the most entrepreneurial person on the planet, eventually those people around you are going to bring you down, because those are the people who are looking to on a daily basis. And that makes the journey very, very difficult.
Because not only you have to be resilient on the way on whatever problem that you’re facing, with your idea or with your company, but also you have to be resilient about the way that you see, oh, George, our friend is making 100 k per year, and now you’re just living off of nothing and eating ramen. And then and then you had at one point, you question yourself, you’re like, why am I doing this? Like, he’s having a happy life? Why I cannot have that happy life. And if you’re not resilient enough, at one point, you break you, you break through it. I mean, you have a breakout session. And you were like, okay, I don’t want to do this anymore. That’s the majority of the reason that for people when they go to entrepreneurship, they after like one or two years, they basically quit because of all of these different reasons.
19:41 –How Podion Got Started
It’s interesting that you ask this because I think one of the things that I wanted to get across in this conversation is this is a specific topic that I want to talk about.
So the majority of the people that I talk to, that they want to do entrepreneurship, they’re like, Oh, I have this great idea. And like 99% of the people, they think that they have a million-dollar idea that going to make them millions of dollars.
And they don’t understand the fact that entrepreneurship and starting a company is not about an overnight million-dollar idea. It’s more about the journey of you, starting with something, liking a space and pivoting, pivoting, pivoting until you find something that you really like and is making money and like they’re like customers that are banging down your door.
And this was exactly the same journey. So we started, we were like, oh, podcasts are really cool. I listen to podcasts every day. And so we were like, okay, we want to do something in podcasting. So we went on kind of like learn about the industry a little bit. And you’re like, Okay, advertisement is a big deal in podcasting, and also a small part of smaller podcasts that it’s hard for them to get advertisers because their numbers are not that that much. So if we can automate this whole process of advertising on podcasts, through dynamic advertising, then that will be great. So that was our original idea, which is like totally different than what we described.
And we went on did a bunch of research and worked on it for like one or two months. And that’s how I contacted you for the listeners who are listening. And yeah, so then we realized that we had a hypothesis that this is going to be viable. And we realized that the technology, the infrastructure of like, the podcasting industry, in general, doesn’t give us that ability to build this technology around it.
So we decided that we want to try something new. And we still we’re like really interested in podcasting/audio, but then we’re like, Okay, what can we do that with this? So one of the other things that we like, one of the other markets that we were, like, really interested in as well, was online learning. And we were like, oh, there’s this concept of online learning. People, lots of people are like listening to podcasts. But podcasts are not necessarily good, structured way of learning. But people, they seem to want to listen to audio, but there is no way for them to listen to audio courses.
So this was the time that like, oh, maybe audio courses can be a thing. So we built Podion and Karen came on board as one of early instructors and taught a course on networking. And we had like a bunch of other instructors. Right now, we are building we are finishing building our product management course. And so we are moving forward, but through this whole journey, it’s not about us building a business at this point of time, it’s about proving or disproving our hypotheses of this business. And this is really important, like, whenever you want to start a business, you don’t immediately want to go and say, Oh, I want to go out and start this business go and do all of the things that a person who has a legitimate business does. Because you don’t know if this is even a business or not.
The whole thing is just like experiments and experiments and experiments. And the way that you do experiments is that you form hypotheses, you’re like, oh, for example, for us was, oh, people are interested in learning over audio, and they’re willing to pay for it. And that was our hypothesis. And it still, to this day, we’re trying to prove it or disprove it. And there’s nothing wrong with this being disproved because then we have learned something new from the market.
And again, talking about the journey is all about these learnings that you were like, oh, people didn’t like to learn over audio. But then for you to get to that point, you have to talk to your customers, you have to talk to all of the people who have paid you so far. And if you see most successful companies like Hootsuite, or for example, Shopify, none of them have started with the idea of like, Oh, this is my idea. And then I’ll go a hundred percent on it. All of them, they started with something and then they realize that they have this feature that they just like built randomly, and they never thought I was going to add any value. But that feature becomes the core of the company.
So the whole point is about forming hypotheses, trying to prove them or disprove them. And if proved them, then that’s perfect, then you have a business. If you disprove them, you have learned something new, that you can form a new hypothesis and try to prove that or disprove that and then so on so forth.
26:01 –The Pros and Cons of Online Learning
It has lots of pros. You can learn lots of different things from great content from around the world for a very cheap price. Prior to this, you had to go to university and had to sit down in the classroom. You had to be there for at least two to four years to complete a degree.
Right now, if you want to be a software developer, you can basically learn the whole thing in a matter of four to six months, from zero. So that is one of the big cons. And it’s really good for people who are motivated, and they know what they’re doing.
So the major problem with online learning is the motivation part. So you see lots of people come and register in courses, but, they never come back again. Or they never complete the course. And the reason is that, and this is why traditional universities again, worked so perfectly for these people, because people in general, they want to have someone to create a schedule for them, and kind of like force them initially to that schedule, so that they can form a habit around them.
But the majority of people, they don’t really know how to form habits and forming habits is hard in general. And that is what happened they get distracted by this. And this and just like learning itself is can be a hard thing to do and, and two or three months pass and kind of like realize, like oh, like I registered for this course and never actually followed up on it. So I think that’s the majority, us talking to our customers about like, what are the problems of online learning in general, number one thing that comes up is always a problem of motivation. I’m not motivated enough to complete the course that I have taken. And that’s also one of the problems that we are kind of like thinking at Podion, how can we tackle that problem in general.
29:05- The Benefits of Learning Technical Skills During The Pandemic
I think if you look at the job market, and the way that things are opening up, I think technical skills like coding, website development, being a designer, anything that is related to the digital world, I think, at this time or moving forward is a great skill to have. Because with this whole pandemic, everything went virtual, and everybody’s working from home. So for people who work on digital things has a great opportunity, because now I can basically before could my job opportunities were only limited to companies in Toronto if I’m living in Toronto, but now I can basically go and work with a company in Vancouver, and they’ll live in Toronto, and that is a normal thing right now. And I think because of that for people who basically have a digital skill like software development or designer or whatsoever, these people will have bigger job opportunities as we move forward.
30:44- Considerations For Having a Co-Founder or Building Your Team
So it’s a really complicated question. But if you ask every different person that they have gone through this journey, probably they will give you a different answer. But for me, personally, the people that I want to work with them, I want them to be people who I can enjoy spending time with, regardless, right? So I have this test for myself that when I want to find a co-founder, I start working for them for like two or three months, like trial period, see if it’s gonna work or not. And the main thing that I’m looking for at that time, is that if I’m like, in the middle of nowhere, I’m an island, there’s nothing else to do, can I spend like, one or two months, just with this person? And will I still enjoy hanging out with this person?
32:27 – Key Skills or Characteristics Needed In Order To Become Successful Entrepreneurs
So here’s the thing, I don’t think it’s a skill. I think it’s a mindset, the majority of the people that I see that they go to be an entrepreneur, they go to start their own businesses, and they fail. The reason that they fail is that the main reason that they want to be an entrepreneur is to make money.
There’s so many easier ways that you can make so much money and your life would be so much easier without all of these stresses and all of these things, that if your pure goal is to make money, so go and do those, not entrepreneurship. And that is I think, in our society right now entrepreneurship this like hot thing, like everybody wants to do it, everybody’s like doing it is super cool.
And everybody who talks about entrepreneurship is like, oh, like, I want to go do entrepreneurship, because I want to make the big bucks, or I want to, they always envisioned that kind of like millionaire lifestyle with the Lamborghini and like beach houses and stuff. But that is not the case. Like for the majority of entrepreneurs, they fail. And the majority of entrepreneurs, even they come up with lifestyle businesses, and they just want to live a normal life.
And so there’s only maybe 0.01% of the entrepreneurs that they get to that point. And if you think about that, if you put that much work hour that they did, into literally anything, even if you’re a janitor, you be the head of janitor, I don’t know, of the White House and you’re making millions of dollars or something like that. You know what I’m saying? It’s like that concept.
So it’s not about just like this magic pill that you become an entrepreneur and like you’d be super-rich. If that is your goal, basically, you shouldn’t do entrepreneurship because you’re gonna fail 99.9% maybe if you get lucky, you won’t fail. But if your goal is to for example, for me, one of the reasons that I wanted to do entrepreneurship is that I wanted to like my fulfillment from life comes from the fact that when I built something and I give it to other people, and they use it. And even if that thing that I’ve felt made their life 1% better, I feel really fulfilled, because I feel that is my sign of existence. And basically, if I wasn’t here in this world, then this product wouldn’t have existed as well. And because of that, this person’s life wouldn’t have had been a better life, even 1%. Um, because of that, then I feel really fulfilled and feel really happy in my life, which I think money doesn’t necessarily bring that happiness to me.
38:08 – Looking Back on His Entrepreneurial Journey So Far
I think in terms of my entrepreneurial journey, I realized that it’s much harder than it seems. You come out of it as a stronger person with a stronger character. But oh, man, it’s so difficult. It’s one of those things that you look from outside and kind of, you see the tip of the iceberg. And you’re like, Oh, I wonder how could it be just like, go there. And like, you hire people, you manage them, and you go, they build the company for you. But it’s a very stressful job that comes with its own reward. But at the same time, it has many different difficulties. So I think that is one of the things that I learned. The other thing that I learned was the thing that we talked about, which was basically to get rich is not it shouldn’t be your goal as an entrepreneur.