January 11, 2017

Inside Clarifai | Unconventional Challenges of Building an AI Company

Table of Contents:

It doesn’t matter what company you work for or what industry you work in: we’re all fighting for top talent.  Even with that baseline assumption, scaling an AI company comes with some unique challenges. Here’s how we think about growing our company in a rapidly changing and highly competitive market.

Most AI companies didn’t start out as AI companies at all.  One of them first built computers (and now builds cars), while another started with search (and, well, now builds cars, too).  Through prior successes, these companies have leveraged their global branding and financial standing to make numerous high-profile hires, fund fellowships and scholarships, and acquire innovative AI start-ups left and right, all of which has allowed them to integrate into the AI industry relatively easily.



But, that’s not our story. At Clarifai, we began as an AI startup and now we’ve emerged as an independent leader in the AI industry, up there among the giants. As a 39-person Series B AI startup, we can’t just turn on our marketing faucet or wave a stack of cash at top talent to reach our goal of doubling our team over the next year or two. As the lead recruiter for Clarifai, I’ve discovered a few unconventional challenges that are very specific to growing an AI company and I’m here to share what I’ve learned from all the great talent that has joined our team so far.




But tons of startups face the same hurdles … right?

If you’re talking about startup hiring challenges in general, you’re right.  Take it one step further to tech start-ups.  You’re still right.  Take the step to AI start-ups.  You’re not right anymore.  The biggest challenge of building and scaling an AI company is the unknown.

Even though there are some great companies that we can model our growth after (shoutout to our fellow USV portfolio company Twilio), as an AI company, Clarifai faces a lot of unconventional challenges because there is no norm, no de facto standard of how to build and scale a successful AI company.

Hiring an AI Research team

First off, let’s talk about hiring for AI research, which as a whole is unconventional.  A few years ago, AI research teams working on computer vision and deep learning didn’t even really exist at commercial companies.  Most people I talk to about research assume that only means Ph.D.’s.  This is a myth that I like to dispel right out of the gate because here at Clarifai, we look for deep learning research experience in a commercial setting and publications – Ph.D. or not.  That’s it.  Now, I know that it is very difficult to get those two things outside of an MS or Ph.D. program, but we hire based on skills, not based on education.



AI Research might seem pretty straightforward to hire for at an AI company.  But, it’s a little more nuanced with a distinction between what type of AI research you like to do: focused, product-driven research or open-ended moonshot research.  At Clarifai, we focus on the former.



 When we recruit for AI research at Clarifai, we look for candidates who are excited at the prospect of doing research that solves problems we don’t have an answer for today; that can be used to power and enable real products that customers can use today and not in ten years. This presents a unique challenge in itself, as this type of researcher has a decidedly different set of skills, passions, and DNA than someone who wants to do open-ended research…and frankly, it’s rarer to find them in the wild.

AI Company ≠ Just Researchers

While hiring for AI Research is important, it is by no means the only challenging role to hire for at an AI company. There are a diverse set of roles that make an AI company tick, from engineers to product to design to marketing to sales to developer evangelism to finance. But, one of the biggest hurdles of hiring for non-Research roles at an AI company is the perception that you need to have experience working in AI to work at an AI company. This is one of the most common concerns we get and actually seems to be an obstacle for people even applying to an AI company in the first place!



Unless you are applying for research roles, you do not have to have any experience with AI, whatsoever.  Sure, it’s great if you have a passion for it or you’ve done some tinkering in your spare time, but it’s not necessary by any means.  When we write job descriptions for roles at Clarifai, we purposefully focus on using language that is inclusive of diverse applicants and makes it clear that you don’t need experience in AI to apply, let alone work at Clarifai.  We want applicants to think about how they can bring their knowledge, skills, expertise, and ideas to Clarifai and what they can learn by joining us, too!

Do you want to join the Clarifai team? Check out our careers page and join in on the fun. Keep up with the “Inside Clarifai” blog series to hear more about our company culture and what it’s like to be part of the #Clarifam!