Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Vodafone Xone. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week he talks to machine learning expert Dr Alyona Medelyan.
Y Combinator is one of the great names in tech and start-ups. The incubator slash business bootcamp is famously hard to get into and famously hard full stop! Airbnb, Dropbox and Stripe are some of the alumni and they only accept companies that have billion dollar potential. It’s also, like much of Silicon Valley, disproportionately made up of young, male, Stanford Grad founders, with not a lot of people accepted from outside the US, let alone from little old NZ.
But Dr Alyona Medelyan, CEO of Thematic, managed to break a lot of those preconceptions. She has a PhD pioneering new work in machine learning, doing it after 30, with her husband as a partner in the company and their two kids in tow. Their company uses machine learning to get insights from customer feedback for big companies like Stripe, Air NZ and Vodafone, and was a part of the Vodafone Xone startup accelerator. They’ve just picked up a new funding round, have traction and momentum in an exciting space and we are very lucky to have Alyona join us now.
Tell me about how you ended up in Y Combinator, which is such a cool achievement in the world of start-ups. If someone is listening who isn’t a deep fan of the world of start-ups, the companies that have come out of it, the process to get in there, it’s amazing.
Yeah, Y Combinator was amazing, truly amazing. We got into Y Combinator by chance. Nathan Holmberg, who is my husband and my co-founder, signed up for their start-up school programme because they would release videos on how to build and grow a start-up, and he was needing a reminder to watch the videos. It turned out that the start-up school was a way of scouting for new start-ups to join and we also got to experience what it’s like to work with some of the alumni who were our mentors during that programme. Towards the end we were encouraged to apply and to be honest we didn’t even consider it. We saw all these emails – “late applications still open” – but we just never thought it would be a place for us. Only through encouragement from one of the Y Combinator alumni we ended up applying. From then on everything happened very quickly.
How come you didn’t think it was for you? You have the experience and the education. How was it still not something that felt like it was applying to you?
Good question. I think Y Combinator, in my mind, wasn’t associated with a husband and wife with two kids running a company, and when I got there I was surprised to see quite a lot of women. There were two pregnant women in the programme. We were still around 12% which is not nearly enough, but at least I could see that there is a place for entrepreneurs like myself out there.
What were the demands of the programme?
The demands are that you focus on one goal. For companies who are already selling it needs to be a revenue growth. The target is to basically increase it as much as you can by demo day, which is when you present to investors on stage. Every week you meet with your mentors, otherwise you’re just doing it in your own time in your office. We didn’t have an office, we had a shed in the back of our house and we worked from libraries when it was too hot. The demands were to attend the office hours with group partners, update them on your progress, attend one-on-one meetings with experts. Really they’re not demands but opportunities to basically learn from the best people, who have done it many many times, on how to grow the business.
Business is Boring is brought to you by Vodafone Xone, a NZ-based Innovation Lab and Startup Accelerator helping to bring the best startup and corporate ideas global.