Maria, CEO and strategist at Kreatik, talks to Rudradeb Mitra, founder, and CEO of Omdena, about the importance of community in changing the world for a better place, the problems of the startup environment, and the true meaning of success.
We met through Google for Startups Program where we do a lot of mentoring for startups. But you’re a person who built a lot of startups yourself. Your latest project is Omdena, which is such an amazing concept. How is Omdena growing and what was your motivation?
– I had built a few companies in the past and in 2017 I felt that making companies or making money is not something that interests me much. I didn’t know what exactly I would like to do, so I decided to take a break from doing everything. This time, people started inviting me to speak at different conferences. I also became a mentor. In 2017-2019, I spent my time traveling around the world, speaking at conferences, and mentoring. During these three years, I observed that access to knowledge became very democratized. Whether you are: in Serbia, Kazakhstan or Belarus, or even remote parts of Africa or India, people have access to the Internet, phone, and very often computers. They have access to the same knowledge, as someone sitting at Stanford, MIT, or Cambridge. This is a game changer because now a large pool of people are educated specifically in technologies like AI and machine learning. On the other hand, the problem is that jobs are still restricted to people from top universities, because of the way companies recruit. I began to wonder how to give people who are equally talented but are ‘hidden, a chance in the job market. This was my first motivation to start Omdena. The second reason was related to solving social problems with AI. During different conferences that I was present at, I often heard about ideas (and sometimes proofs of concept) to use AI for a good purpose, but there were hardly any real-world implementations.
This happens because many times large companies focus on CSR rather than actual implementation. Startups and NGOs that are doing great work often don’t have massive funds to hire talent for AI. That goes into how VCs are all driven by profits and are not really interested in the impact at the end of the day. So a lot of these good startups and NGOs often do not have the funds to hire but there is a huge talent pool out there that these organizations can get access to and find talented employees at a reasonable price. That’s what drove me to start Omdena – to give the opportunity to people from around the world to solve meaningful problems and develop their careers and at the same time, give access to the talent pool that organizations, and find solutions that fit within their budget.
Thank you for sharing this process. There are a lot of people that have an access to AI knowledge and they are willing to learn or share their experiences and work in an industry for social good but they are not seen because as you mentioned big corporations usually invite someone from MIT or any other huge university. So many people can bring something to the table. I can imagine that when you started talking to startup organizations that are trying to solve social issues, they were open to working with people around the world willing to help them but at the same time, they didn’t have a lot of resources – I’m not only talking about money but also time. How did you convince the first organization to start working with you?
– It was not easy but luckily my personal contacts helped us to get the first few projects. The challenge was that Omdena was proposing a very unique model. A team of 60- 70 people from all over the world, who have not and will not meet in person, come together, collaborate, and solve this problem together (remember this is pre-covid era). Once we finished some initial projects (the results were amazing) we started writing about it and that attracted other organizations to work with us. Because in the end, everyone loved the idea – they were just not convinced if it will work or not.
We are digging here more into a specific operational model. You are actually gathering people around the world who aren’t professional yet but are willing to learn or people who are professional but they want to practice more in that specific field and solve some issues with technology or machine learning. How many people were on your first project? How did you find them?
– Some of the things, if not most of the things in Omdena were beyond my expectations and surprised me a lot. First is the number of people who decided to get involved in this project and dedicate their time. Now, we have a big community, but in the beginning, there was nothing. To my surprise, in the beginning, when we posted on LinkedIn, we got about 100 applicants. Most of these people were not actually looking to develop their careers. In fact, in the first 3 months, we mainly received applications from data science and machine learning experts who wanted to solve an interesting problem in the world. They had their personal reasons to solve those problems but also they wanted to be part of a community, to help the world in general. This is another great learning for me – there are so many amazing and selfless people in the world.
You have mentioned that people who joined at the very beginning were already data scientists and professionals with some understanding and experience in the field but there were also people who wanted to learn through that community. How does the learning process work? What if I would like to become an AI expert? Is Omdena for me if I don’t have any experience?
– Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned, in the beginning mainly experts applied, but over the last two years, as we grew and we do more and more projects, many juniors see working with us as an opportunity to learn and grow and make a real impact on the world. Just to give some numbers, on average we receive ~1000 applications per month to join Omdena challenges but we only have space for 200. The vast majority are rejected. This motivated us to build Omdena Local Chapters and Omdena School. Omdena Local Chapters are for all where the focus is open education through solving problems. On the other hand, Omdena School is providing theoretical classes but mostly around specific real-world use cases.
As people perform well, they get more and more opportunities to grow and take on different roles such as engineering lead, or mentor and can also start earning money in Omdena projects. Ultimately we want them to get jobs and we have many cases where collaborators moved up from the bottom and got jobs in Google or Microsoft or other tech companies within 6-12 months.
In a short time, you can actually give someone a profession, knowledge, and confidence. How do you feel about this?
– Yes, and the key is the collaboration part. When you are sitting alone or in a small group and reading some theory, trying to solve a problem the level of support is much less compared to when you have 50, 60 people in the community trying to solve together and helping each other. Many collaborators (40% are women!) said to me that this environment helps them to learn faster and get rid of imposter syndrome. This environment where people can cooperate rather than compete is way more powerful, especially when collaborating with people who are more skilled than you. If everyone is the same level of skill, then your development may not be that high, but when you have a community of 60 people, where 20 of them are super experienced and 20 are medium and 20 are beginners, they help each other, solve a problem, and learn very fast.
I would assume solving important problems is a big motivator for action and speeds up the work process itself. But thatrequires commitment and time. Are there any requirements in terms of time commitment?
– Yes, absolutely. We require a minimum of 15 hours every week commitment. We track every week how one is performing, and how many lines of code one has checked in and if someone is not giving the committed time, we remove them. I want the people who join Omdena to take it seriously and have a sense of responsibility.
Very often when we mentor start-ups we say: you need to have a paying customer, not a customer who says I’m willing to pay in the future. That means nothing. Schools are a similar example. In most countries, education is free, so you don’t have to make a big commitment to finish, sometimes it may cuase the low level of motivation. There is a lot of motivation and commitment in Omdena, which I think is very smart.
– Yes, it’s interesting. Many co-workers have asked me why we don’t charge a fee for being a community member – after all, it’s an opportunity to learn something and advance your career. Quite a few companies or universities charge for such a service. But I always believed that education should be free. Omdena School is also very community driven. Experts make courses and share their knowledge with other people for free, even if boot camps could charge €1000 or €5000. So you don’t have to pay for education, but you do have to take it seriously. Like in Omdena School, if someone does not finish a given assignment then we do not give the person access to the next course. We need to remember that there are a huge number of people around the world who cannot afford such expenses but they deserve an equal chance.
At the same time, you run a business and employ about 20 people in Omdena. You need to make sure that the company is up and running. Where are your benefits? Where does your revenue come from?
– There is a term called win-win-win, which means you’re building something that benefits everyone. Being part of the community is a benefit worth thousands of dollars, and none of our collaborators have to pay. Also, the organizations we work with benefit because they get a solution to a problem at a fraction of the cost, but still – they have to pay so that we can sustain the platform. Another thing that generates revenue for us is working with top talent. We have people joining Omdena who are growing brilliantly and becoming top talents over time. At Omdena, we have a pool of such talent. Importantly, their skills are very attractive in the labor market, and companies that are looking for such people. This is our top talent program and through this our top talents can also earn money. To date now, we have given over $350,000 to our top talents.
Coming back to the process of education and bringing knowledge to the community. Do you think it’s possible to apply the same model to other fields, such as biology or languages? Have you thought about extending Omdena in this way?
– Absolutely. There’s a TED talk titled “School in the Cloud” by Sugata Mitra. He tested this way of learning biology and computer science in India and noted that you don’t need a teacher, a teaching system, and a classroom to learn – you need a person to encourage others to learn, and access knowledge such as the Internet. So I think there are already some experiments showing that collaborative learning in other areas is possible and effective. Maybe in the future, I will think about expanding Omdena into other streams.
When I help startups, I always say that the most important thing is to focus on one thing and not to do many things at once. I wonder what your goal is? What are you focusing on? We always talk about being fair in business, about giving some value to the community. How do you see Omdena in all of this? When do you feel that the growth of the organization goes against the values you want to bring?
– I wrote the article about why VC-backed startups are not good for the world. Currently, the goal of every company is to maximize shareholder returns. I don’t think this is a good model, because it most often leads to the startup’s goal being to enrich the 1% richest people in the world. Free market capitalism is not necessarily a profit maximization for the top 1%. I think that there is an alternative model where you maximize profits for the community, where you maximize the word impact. I know the impact is a buzzword, but maximizing profits or generating money for the community is an impact. If people have more money, if they develop their skills, and live better that’s a great impact too. I think that the growth model that we really need to promote is where startups are focused on maximizing profits and returns for the community, not only for shareholders. Unfortunately, many companies and startups build a community to maximize the shareholders’ profits. They claim themselves to be community-driven, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. That’s my problem with the current system no matter what, even if they say they’re doing good for the world, even if they say they are building a community, in the end, the key metric is to maximize shareholders (top 1%) profits.
I agree profit maximization is the goal of startups, and I think it’s crazy. The other problem I see is the focus on getting more rounds of funding. Very often startups define this as success, and in my opinion, this shouldn’t be the goal of the company.
– Thinking one step ahead – companies are raising funds because they can’t make profits and build a sustainable model. To me it sends a message – my company is not able to make a profit so we are raising money.
I understand that big funding may be necessary for Research and Development companies that want to bring brand new technologies, i.e. innovations in the medical industry that can be useful to the entire community. That’s where the really big capex is needed, and I understand that startups in that area raise money regardless of whether they are profitable or not. Sometimes companies needs founding for a very rapid growth. But if you are already 4 or 5 years in the market and still raising money from investors then more funds should not be perceived as a success.
– I agree with the first part of your statement. I agree that certain kinds of startups, like deep tech startups, require initial funding. In terms of the growth, I would disagree. I think companies are obsessed with growth. In many funded startups, this growth is artificial. Companies often lose money to acquire customers. This is not organic growth, and worse, it doesn’t build loyalty among customers.
Very often when I talk to startups I emphasize that getting loyal customers is not based on performance marketing. With performance marketing we borrow a user for a short while, we create beautiful numbers that we can put in our reports to investors, but we don’t build loyalty.
– Exactly! Startups get new customers, but not loyal ones, and this is the reason why they need to keep raising money to grow. I believe that after a certain point, a company should no longer raise money to grow because it should be organic. Omdena grew five times last year, and twice this year, and all of this growth is organic – we didn’t spend a penny on advertising. When you engage the community, they will help you grow through word of mouth.
Of course, but before your business became profitable was the time of your investments – your time and resources. Product market-fit requires some investment and then it is good to have good business partners who believe in the same values and have the same goal. Especially in the beginning, it’s good to have a backup.
– I don’t deny it. I just wanted to say that from the very beginning we didn’t spend money on advertising or growth. I understand that sometimes you need to invest some money to grow, but if a company after 4 years still requires funding to grow then I think something is wrong. Maybe in the very beginning, you need some money to grow and reach a certain level but beyond that, I think it should be organic growth.
A lot of companies with big revenues are actually quite weak in their fundamentals. They don’t have real profits. Sometimes we can witness the sad end which for regular people means being laid off. The model didn’t prove in the end.
– I agree. Even now we can see big companies laying off and failing despite big funding.
The money from investors may not be entirely good or give a false feeling of success. When you talk to startups, how do you help them assess whether the business they are doing is right? How do you help them evaluate or improve their concepts?
– I am very spiritual and believe that if you do something, do it because you think it’s a good idea. Listen to your inner self. Don’t do this for success or money. Real success in life is not materialistic success but in doing something that you truly feel is worth doing. Rest will follow.
We are coming to the end of our conversation today. I love asking this question to my guests. Imagine that you fell into a deep sleep and woke up 5 years later. What would this world look like? How do you envision technology? What would the dream turn out to be true mean?
– I have never thought about it and do not plan much. In fact, I do not even know what I will do next week. But I believe in community and want to work towards strengthening it. I hope technology will be used to empower people to develop skills and kind of do good for the world.
A beautiful vision. We have so many people who want to do something good, but the media is overwhelmed by bad news and examples that make us afraid to join the community and get involved. All this bad news makes us afraid to open up. We are afraid of a bad world, which may not be so bad at all. Perhaps it is the communities that can help us overcome this fear. Thank you for a great interview!
– Thank you a lot for your questions and time. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation