Their first day at one of Silicon Valley’s famous startup accelerators wasn’t too fun for Montreal’s Fuzzy.io, a team dedicated to helping web or mobile developers add machine learning to their projects.
Basically, said cofounder Evan Prodromou, 500 Startups mega-investor Dave McClure ripped their idea to shreds in front of about 200 people that included the rest of the cohort as well as the previous cohort. It’s a safe bet to say he probably acted the same with the other teams.
“It’s the first hazing that you get when you start,” said Prodromou, 46, a former CTO at Breather. “It’s a fun tradition that 500 startups does but it also means that everybody talks to Dave, and I think that for us we’re pretty respectful of what he does. He’s been helpful so far and he’s had good things to say about us.”
Now midway through the well-known accelerator program, Prodromou and his team feel that everything is going much better than that first day.
McClure, as well known for his outspoken-nature and rowdyness as for the fact that he founded 500 Startups, has helped Fuzzy.io mature. The team said the program has lended them a sense of legitimacy with others that wasn’t there before, and they’ve been able to take advantage of 500’s huge rolodex of connections and helpful friends.
“Ultimately this is the place where it’s all happening,” said cofounder Matt Fogel, 35. “You walk down the street and you’re passing people who work at all of the top tech startups in the world essentially. Those are the people that you talk to at bars and cafes and meetups.”
Fuzzy.io is a complicated sort of web startup. It helps developers add artificial intelligence to web pages, thus far a feat usually limited to big companies with big budgets and highly-paid data scientists. For the average developer this kind of thing is often out-of-reach. But once added, it can help add components to a website like fraud or spam detection, pricing decisions, content recommendation and text or social network analysis.
Ultimately, said Prodromou, their service helps developers make really complex decisions with their code.
“Most developers are able to write code that we call ‘procedural code’ that takes maybe one or two inputs and makes a decision about it,” he said. “The kinds of decisions we help developers make have 20, 30, 40, maybe 100 inputs, and they’re trying to make decisions about where to send a taxi, when to send a cleaner to a room or how to identify a particular webpage as this kind of page or that kind of page.”
As one may already infer, Fuzzy.io wasn’t a wide-eyed startup cofounded by a few first-timers upon entering 500 Startups. Far from it. Both cofounders Prodromou and Fogel held prominent positions at established companies in Montreal (Fogel was VP product at Agendize, a Customer Relationship Management software business). Most significantly, the company added Kevin Fox as its founding CXO in early August, the man who designed Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Reader.
Fox most recently cofounded and led design at early stage startups including Friendfeed (acquired by Facebook) and Electric Imp, an internet of things startup. Before that he also spent time at Yahoo and Facebook.
With a resume as strong as his, Fox likely had several paths he could have chose after his last startup. He gave a number of reasons why he chose to join Fuzzy.io, including how he’s always had an interest in artificial intelligence since his days at Berkeley studying cognitive science with an emphasis on application modelling. Fox and Prodromou also worked in the “web dark ages” when they helped develop Heat.net, one the first multiplayer gaming sites on the internet, in 1996.
“That was one of my first web jobs ever and I really enjoyed working with Evan,” Fox said.
Moreover, he said he simply likes working in startups as opposed to the dot-com mega companies. It’s more than just designing a user interface, he said. It’s about product direction, strategy and everyone wearing multiple hats.
But it could simply be the challenge that’s ahead for Fox and his new bosses at Fuzzy.io that really got him hooked though. “Trying to explain AI and how it can be useful to the masses is a difficult thing to do. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s difficult for the average designer,” said Fox. “And that’s compelling.”
For now the company is focusing on a big Demo Day appearance at 500 Startups, and they’re toying with the idea of opening up a new San Francisco office on top of their headquarters in Montreal.
And, of course, avoiding the wrath of McClure.