On Monday, March 19th, Exceed held its Rise of the Technopreneur event at VR World in New York City. A sellout crowd attended the event, which promised to help attendees ‘learn how technology plays a role and provides new opportunities in an entrepreneur’s world.’ The event was moderated by Joe Betesh, a member of the Exceed business incubator, and the panel featured Jack Hidary, technology guru and current Google X co-leader of AI strategy for Alphabet, Google’s parent company, as well as Elie Ballas, Stanford graduate, F Jerry partner, and co-founder of “What Do You Meme”, the number one selling game on Amazon for 2017.
Hidary, a brilliant and engaging speaker, brought excitement and clarity about artificial intelligence to the eager crowd. He jumped in by explaining many terms that are often misused in discussing AI including deep learning, big data and user experience. He also gave global perspective and discussed how AI is changing our lives today. To illuminate AI’s ubiquity, he told the crowd about Babylon, an AI law application that is used in the discovery process of legal cases. “Revenues and profits are going up for law firms while hiring is going down. A lot of routine law duties, accounting projects and medical examinations, for example, will be done by AI, are being done by AI. Artificial Intelligence is already affecting every part of the economy.”
Hidary shared another common use of AI that is often overlooked. “Email spam filtering is a great example of AI learning. Spam learning used to be as simple as matching words- if the email had these words, it was spam. But there are inherent issues with that. How long can we make a list of words? And, there are countless ways around this simple system. Now, email uses machine learning. At Google, we give the neural network 50 million examples of spam and 50 million examples of non spam emails. Then, the machine learns what ‘spamminess’ is and can detect it in any email.”
During the question and answer portion of the panel, one attendee asked about the best way to get started in AI. “For techies and non techies,” said Hidary, “you don’t have to go back to school or get a masters anymore. It’s all available online, much of it for free or close to it. Unfortunately, most universities are behind the curve on AI despite the tremendous employment opportunities and possibilities to change the world through AI. Even in our own community, we need to do better when it comes to science in grade school. It’s important to get our students involved as young as possible. They are the future and the future is AI.”
Elie Ballas then spoke about his path to success and how you can’t rest on your last success. After graduating from Stanford and interning at a user experience testing company, he came back to New York to be near his family. He then joined a company that built mobile applications for companies like Barney’s New York. But after eight months, he was hungry for more. “I didn’t like working under someone. And when my good friend Elliot Tebele had an Instagram account called F Jerry with 400,000 followers including Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians, I knew he was onto something big.” Ballas and Tebele joined forces to make F Jerry into a company. They started selling ads, printing t shirts, doing stand up comedy shows, but none of it stuck. So they became a marketing agency. “We figured, if we could make F Jerry this big, we could build other brands up, too.” They signed a deal with a few entrepreneurs to build their brands and mobile applications. The business was covering its costs but it wasn’t thriving. Then, one of their clients, Ben Kaplan, a silicon valley fundraiser and entrepreneur, signed with them. His application folded but he loved what Ballas and Tebele were trying to do so he joined the team. “He was the best thing to happen to us in a while,” said Ballas. Kaplan knew all of the venture capitalists and understood their language so he could raise the money they needed to continue to grow F Jerry. “We went from zero to a few million dollars in a year. It was huge,” said Ballas.
But it was during a meeting at Kickstarter, the popular crowd-sourced fundraising platform, that everything changed. “Over the summer, we were at Kickstarter and the guys there said that we should do something different with F Jerry. During a relaxed, hours long meeting, they mentioned that card games are extremely successful on Kickstarter. They pointed to Cards Against Humanity and others. So we thought, F Jerry is all about memes, so why not make a meme game. One and a half years later, What Do You Meme is the best selling item in all toys and games for 2017 on Amazon. I got a degree in computer science but I’m succeeding in physical cards. It’s important to be flexible, to adapt the skills you acquired in one area of your life to another. Did a computer science guy like me ever think he would be printing paper in China and selling it at a higher price in America? Of course not. But that’s business. You need to stay focused and jump when the opportunity comes around.”
At the end of the talk, an audience member asked Ballas how he brought his business and marketing vision back to the community, who are masters in wholesale and retail. “I reached out to someone who connected me with Exceed, who connected me with Harry Tawil,” said Ballas.
“Ever since, Harry has been a mentor to me. He may sell outerwear and I sell games, but I have so much to learn about commerce. We might be the best selling game on Amazon, but what about Target, Walmart? There are so many opportunities in retail- don’t believe that retail is dead, it is certainly alive. And, I don’t know how to talk that language but the people at Exceed do. Tech guys don’t think like sharks, sharks don’t think like tech guys. But when you combine the two, amazing things happen.”