I sat down (virtually) with Forethought’s co-founder and CEO Deon Nicholas to learn what it takes to start and grow a successful enterprise software startup. Deon provides valuable insights, advice and encouragement to minority founders and entrepreneurs.
What It Takes To Succeed As A Minority Entrepreneur In Enterprise Software Today
Taking on the challenge of creating customer service chatbots that learn and continually improve the quality of responses instead of providing rote, canned remarks is ideal for AI and machine learning. However, chatbots have not scaled well to keep up with the increasing complexity and contextual intelligence that customers need to get their problems solved. It’s a perplexing, multifaceted problem to solve, requiring AI and machine learning algorithms that continually work to improve customer experiences. It’s exactly the complex challenge motivating Black entrepreneur and CEO Deon Nicholas to excel as an enterprise software startup founder.
Before starting Forethought, Deon built products and infrastructure at Facebook, Palantir, Dropbox and Pure Storage. He has machine learning publications and infrastructure patents, was a World Finalist at the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest and was named Forbes 30 under 30 alongside, Head of Engineering Sami Ghoche. Deon’s many accomplishments reflect his strong growth mindset– and why that value is a cornerstone of Forethought. “I’m constantly learning and growing up. I learned math, computers and physics.. Any time I saw a problem, I tried to solve it through what I knew, even if I didn’t know how to solve it,” Deon says.
Forethought’s Agatha is an AI-based customer service platform that solves, triages, assists and presents discovery on customer interactions. Agatha is an AI-powered customer support agent using machine learning and natural language understanding to immediately respond to customers to resolve simpler issues, automate repetitive routing and provide real-time assistance. Notable customers include Instacart, MasterClass, Gusto and Carta.
The following is my interview with Deon Nicholas:
Louis Columbus: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs planning to get into enterprise software?
Deon Nicholas: I think the two biggest threads for me are one, an insatiable intellectual curiosity. Two, the helpers, the people you meet along the way who go out of their way to help you, are a constant theme. Part of the reason why I’m really excited about this conversation, is to be able to give back to younger entrepreneurs who might have to be doing it themselves.
Louis: Can you walk me through how you became an entrepreneur?
Deon: The first thing I did, I actually applied to Y Combinator. But, the idea wasn’t fully formed. I mean, it’s exactly Forethought, all the things we’re doing, but still very much in its infancy. We got rejected for Y Combinator. There was definitely a period of time where we were still learning, still growing, still figuring it out. I was still figuring out what it meant to be an entrepreneur, converging on what exactly the iteration of this product is going to be, the market we’re going to attack. And then after that, a three to six months period emerged from that with clarity on which direction we wanted to go. Obviously we continue to iterate over time and improve, but, in late 2017, when we actually incorporated and started running with it, was when I would say all of the stars fully aligned.
Louis: To your point, what are your lessons learned that you want to pass on to minority entrepreneurs — starting from Y Combinator?
Deon: The very first lesson learned is, you really do have to bet on yourself. Like building things, just having that mindset. It’s so hard to describe, but despite the story you’ve heard of me basically doing entrepreneurship since I was young, it was not in my vocabulary that I could be a CEO, that I could be an entrepreneur.
CEOs were these other people. They looked a certain way, right? They came from certain backgrounds. They went to a certain school, all of these things. And it was just not something that I knew would be me. So, as I started building things and part of the reason why I actually applied to YC, was I had met a partner from Y Combinator. And she was like, “Oh, you have a great background. You should consider applying to YC.” Obviously we didn’t get in, but it was like, even just hearing that was surprising to me. When somebody would look at me and say, “Hey, you worked at Facebook and these companies, maybe you should consider getting funding. Maybe you should consider being a CEO. Maybe you should consider going to Y Combinator.” It’s so weird to say, but that actually clicked something for me, in that prior to that, I didn’t even know it was something that was allowed.
Louis: What kept you going and continuing to bet on yourself?
Deon: I would ask these same people, “Are you sure? What do you mean raise funding, be a CEO? Isn’t that somebody else? You’re talking about the same guy here?” So the first hurdle was getting over that mindset. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, right? In my case, there aren’t that many Black CEOs. When you think of enterprise companies, you might think of Marc Benioff or Bill Gates. When you think of consumer companies, you might think of Mark Zuckerberg. But, it seems so different, such a different realm of reality. Whereas, I’m starting to come to terms with this, but depending on where you are from,there are plenty of people who just assume, “Yeah, of course, I’m going to go be a CEO.” Whether or not they’re going to be good at it. And so you end up having this, starting point bias, so to speak.
Louis: As you’ve been a CEO, what are the lessons that you learned that you never thought you were going to learn, starting with the fundraising process?
Deon: There are a lot of introspective lessons.The overwhelming majority of investors pattern match. Some would say things to me like, “Deon, you’re an engineer, you’re not going to be good at sales or recruiting. Why start an enterprise company?” Or, “Why don’t you bring in someone to be CEO?” You got some of that as well. I got a lot of investors just telling me that, basically the equivalent of like, “Eh, you’re great.” All these things, all these signals, but you don’t get the benefit of the doubt on the things that are risks for any entrepreneur.”
But I did get really great investors that I think I like to say self-select. The ones who think about things from first principles end up investing.
I actually tell this to minority entrepreneurs, anyone that I’m advising:, bias happens in the benefit of the doubt.If you take any company, it’s going to have a bunch of risks and there’s going to be some doubts. Depending on whether you fit a certain pattern in the investor’s subconscious, they’re going to say, “Well, I’ve seen a person who looks like X, Y and Z overcome this kind of risk before. Therefore they’re probably going to do it.” If they haven’t, they’re going to say, “Well, I’ve never seen this kind of person overcome this kind of risk.”
Louis: What’s been the most valuable lesson learned from being the CEO of an enterprise software startup?
Deon: The biggest job of a CEO is storytelling. Whether you’re pitching your story to investors, a new recruit, or a customer. That, in and of itself, is a skill that you can learn, that you can practice, that you can grow and become great at. And at the end of the day, that’s probably the only thing you can’t outsource as a CEO. That’s the only thing you can’t hire for: the vision and the storytelling. In the early days, you have to kind of do everything. But, over time, it becomes the most important thing to tell that story. Like envisioning the video game, the RPG world before it’s been built and then going and creating it.
Louis: It seems like exceptional challenges motivate you and you say to yourself, “This looks really hard, I want to really excel at this”. You remind me of one of my favorite books I re-read every year, Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck.
Deon: I think you really hit the nail on the head. Actually,one of our values at Forethought is The Growth Mindset. And as you talk about that, I realize that maybe that’s part of the way I was wired. I started programming at an early age and I was just super curious. I wanted so badly to go to the University of Waterloo. No one else in my family had gone to college or anything like that. I didn’t really know what that meant or how you would go and apply to college.
And that [challenge] awoke something in me. It’s exactly as you described it.I was like, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m going to go keep doing it.” And that was the thread.
For somebody who learned to code so early on in life, when I started doing algorithmic programming competitions and math competitions, I was pretty bad. The University of Waterloo’s name was all over the competitions, so I was like, “I really want to go there to this school. If they’re challenging me this much as a teenager, I’m certain it’s going to be amazing as when I go to college.” I went there, started on the programming team, did the ICPC kind of Olympics.. And, it was really that. Every time I kept getting beat down, especially in competitive programming, I kept going. I spent four years of my university career reading, re-reading the textbooks, to the point where I had completed my third and fourth year algorithm textbooks in my first year. All because, I just wanted to get better at it.
Long story short, the final year at the International Collegiate Programming Contest, myself and my two teammates, we were 13th in the world out of every single university of 2,000 plus universities. Now that we’re talking about it, it felt like a recipe. I’ve repeated the same pattern as an entrepreneur where you go after really, really, really hard problems. The recipe for quote-unquote success is finding something really hard, teaming up with really great people and then just obsessing over it. Knowing you’re going to fail and then repeating.
Louis: Did you want to build video games and did you have an entrepreneurial dream then? What was that dream that kept you going?
Deon: Yep. Absolutely. I think this is a fun walk down memory lane. The first game I ever made, I was maybe seven years old. I was just learning how to program, at the time it was really drag and drops. I wouldn’t even say it’s coding, but I build video games. I was super interested in Pokemon and Digimon, so the first game I ever made was called Dojimon. So, I would tell these stories that I was interested in and then build video games out of them. And that was really what I really wanted to learn about. So that one was about little creatures.
My big vision for when I actually learned to code when I was actually trying to build a really big video game, was this game called Doji World. I kept the name Doji, it was my symbol for me coding. And it was going to be this massive multiplayer online MMO RPG, that’s equivalent to maybe a Fortnite or something now. That was my big vision when I was a teenager. Surprising. Yeah. And so I had stuff like that. That was the first really big one that I ever built. And then the second thing that I built was actually the textbook reader for myself to study history class. So it was really things like that, that jump started the entrepreneurial vision I had.
In the end, I ended up showing it to some folks at a local software tech company. And my second job after being in customer service,they actually ended up hiring me as a high school student to be a software tester software engineer. So in my junior and senior year of high school, I had already started kind of working as a full-time software engineer…and Doji World still hasn’t been finished. Maybe I’ll finish it one day.
Louis: As you thought about the concept for Forethought and you met your co-founders, were you so focused on the pain of customer support and the scale for that, that you thought, true AI is the way to go about solving this?
Deon: I think it’s the combination of figuring out where the efficiencies are, where problems can be solved and where you should be generating your energy. Then you work as hard as you humanly can to attack the problem. And that’s in some ways how I converge on this. It was a combination of things that led to this. So one, the AI background. And obviously I’d been thinking about true AI for a long time, because I was super fascinated with this idea of an artificial general intelligence coming from the world of the textbook question and answer generation. The second, yes, as a customer service person myself, or at least a former one, realizing that there was a huge market and huge opportunity and huge pain here.
I would say there were multiple different angles and multiple different intuitions that were pointing me to like, “Hey, there is something here that needs to be solved.” The first few months of my journey was actually exploration. This was 2017 now and right around this time I was like, “Okay, I think I’m going to go be an entrepreneur.”