STARTUP STORY: Hire your students

Eyal Amir credits his university connections with helping him build his startup dream team. He also used his extensive network to put together an advisory board of industry experts who have helped take Parknav in a new and exciting direction.

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Frustration over the lack of parking in his neighborhood was what gave legs to Eyal Amir’s startup career. An associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, focused on AI and machine learning, Eyal tried to solve his parking woes using predictive science to help him find a free spot at any time day or night. He thought he was on to something big.

“I was talking with my advisor and told him I have a feeling this might work. He said, ‘Go and do it, but don’t start with hiring staff. You have to do the first step by yourself,’” Eyal remembers, recalling how he spent hours wandering the streets, writing down how many empty parking spots there were; which were metered and which were free. After a month, he felt he had enough data to start doing experiments and analyses.

“The result was amazing. But that was still the beginning. You have an idea that works but what to do with it,” Eyal says, who left his teaching post to focus full-time on his project, then called Faspark. A friend hooked him up with BMW in Munich, which funded a prototype of Eyal’s street parking platform before deciding to go in a different direction. Eyal moved to Chicago and developed a mobile app for Faspark, which grew to 10,000 users before funding ran out, and Eyal was forced to get a consulting job to make ends meet.

But he never gave up on his passion project and a few years later was accepted into the VW accelerator and secured $500,000 to restarted his work. He eventually hired a great sales manager, with a background in software development, who helped him turn the business around. Today, Parknav (rebranded from Faspark) has around seven full-time and 19 part-time employees with Eyal leading the effort as CEO and Chief Data Scientist.

Eyal credits his university connections with helping him build his startup dream team. He also used his extensive network to put together an advisory board of industry experts who have helped take Parknav in a new and exciting direction.

We sat down with him for a quick chat about the challenges of building a startup from the ground up, what he would have done differently and what it’s like doing business with big corporations.

READ WHAT HE HAD TO SAY

How was it to switch from data science professor to startup founder?

I didn’t know how to raise money. I had no connections. I was careful about saying I was a professor. I managed to get some grants, while flying back and forth to Munich. Later on, when we ran out of money, I had to take a consulting job to earn a living. I literally had two full-time, extremely exhausting jobs.

What was your hardest startup lesson?

When we got our first $100,000 investment, we started hiring people, but the money was gone extremely quickly, and the programmers left. IT professionals have so many opportunities for where to go. Non-IT people are more loyal in some sense.

How did you find top talent for your team?

My luck is that I was a professor at a university, so I have a network of good technical people. I can more easily hire A+ people. I know where to go. I know what to say. I can explain the technical problem. Thanks to my network I’ve found my co-founder Sergei Kozyrenko and my partners.

Can you think of any hire that totally changed your company? In a bad or good way?

I made two exceptional hires. I needed to find the right sales person and was happy to find a great guy with a Ph.D. in sales. He was much more organized. Much more disciplined and persevering. He was able to bring the business to a completely different level. The other one was a data science Ph.D. who took care of the core data job. I managed to hire both of them through my network and contacts.

How important a role does an advisory board play at your organization?

I believe it is important to have an advisory board. For example, on our board there is a former executive of Ford. I see he has a great ability to open doors and attract good people. But you need to know how to manage your advisory board. You have to spend time thinking about what you need from them.

What’s your advice about building an advisory board?

Did the people look for you, or did you look for them? You know there are always people who are looking for money and won't bring much value to your company.

Your customers are automotive firms. What is specific about doing business with corporations?

When you do business with corporations, a “no” means nothing. There are 50,000 or 100,000 people working there. There are usually different teams and competing projects addressing the same problem. If you hear one “no”, you just knock on different doors.

Dr. Eyal Amir, CEO and Co-Founder of Parknav Dr. Eyal Amir, CEO and Co-Founder of Parknav

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