Illia Polosukhin has already raised over half a billion dollars for his startup that pivoted from AI to blockchain technology. His venture, NEAR Protocol, attracted funding from top-tier investors like Blockchange Ventures, ParaFi Capital, MetaWeb Ventures, and Republic Capital Group.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Operating remote teams
- Building blockchain infrastructure
- The future economy
For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks
Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Illia Polosukhin:
Illia Polosukhin is the CTO and co-founder of NEAR.AI, a platform that wants to give the power of programming to everyone. How so? By enabling entrepreneurs, researchers, and every other professional to upload their sketches, which will be rendered into designs, receiving a fully functioning mobile app in return.
Together with his co-founder Alex Skidanov, Illia is leading a change within the applications of AI, by challenging the established role of developers and creating value for the end consumer.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show. So I’m very excited. You know about the founder that we have today. We’re going to be talking a lot about you know good good stuff. You know here. Ah about building scaling financing. You know all the good stuff that we like to hear. And I think that you’re all going to find our guests very very inspi I mean someone that came from the Ukraine to the us you know, went into one of the top companies and then from there you know now you know has launched our rocket ship so without furthertherdo let’s welcome our guests today ilia polosukin welcome to the show. Hey.
Illia Polosukhin: Um, thanks you Ali Handra great to be here.
Alejandro Cremades: So originally born and raiseded there in the Ukraine. How was life growing up, give us a little of a walkthrough memory lane.
Illia Polosukhin: For sure. Yeah I mean obviously it’s very different now than it was thirty years ago but I would say the important pieces have been like 90 s were a pretty tough time in Ukraine I’ve lived through hyperinflation like I remember. Buying a bread for you know a thousand at ten Thousand a hundred thousand and I think there was an at some point at the cost of the million to buy a lot of bread. Um, the you know, definitely. There’s a lot of kind of.
Illia Polosukhin: Corruption and and just general like uncertain data was there in 90 s and kind of it it you know like even after the reset the currency. Ah then there was you know and tried to keep it with a dollar for a while they kind of kept releaing it. So just a lot of ah you know. Things like that I grew up from not you know, very humble means let’s just say and so pretty early on started figuring out how to ah how to get a job so the at the same time I was like really excited about computers I got um. To play with like at some friends first and then we got a very like 89 pretty much really old computer in 2000 kind of at home so was just trying to build games trying to build kind of some cool things around that got really excited that was at page 10 and then yeah since send.
Alejandro Cremades: I mean coding at 10 I mean that’s absolutely incredible now in your case you know 1 thing led to the next and you know your first job. You know literally was a with a company you know where you were still in university but 1 thing led to the next and all of a sudden you find yourself in San Diego right
Illia Polosukhin: Couldn’t stop coding.
Alejandro Cremades: So how was that how did that happen. So.
Illia Polosukhin: Yeah, exactly so so I was in first year of university as I said not not much money so I was looking for a job I knew how to you know, write code and kind of so so actually started looking for it for a software development job right? away. And so friends found this San Diego company that had a small office in harki. Um, that was doing machine learning which I was super excited about I actually went to university to study that I was already doing some like basic neural networks in high school and yeah, so join that. They kind of invited me a couple times for summers to just visit and and kind of seasoned out and then gave me an offer to relocate and move to San Diego which was really exciting kind of to do that obviously beginning in a beginning you know coming in from a. Different culture different language everything so it took took a bit to get my footing around but um, it was a really good experience to learn from that company that company actually was around from seventy s or even like. Early 70 s and so they were doing machine learning before there was a word machine learning so there was a lot of experience doing that at the same time I actually saw kind of deep learning kind of getting getting into fooding and so I was excited about neural networks you know back in like two thousand and six five they were not really working
Illia Polosukhin: And so when in 13 when the cat neuron came out out of Google I was like okay well this is this is happening now and so I wanted to go somewhere where they were doing neural networks at scale and and figure out how to how to contribute to that and all this was excited about kind of human knowledge. Aspect of machine learning. So it was looking for something where I can work with language and knowledge and so that’s how I got and into Google research in 14 pretty much into a research team that was working on natural language question answering and kind of understanding. You know the vast amount of language that’s around us.
Alejandro Cremades: And now people are talking a lot about question and answering now with all these craziness around chat Gpt. So um, you know it’s just incredible like the the progress now that we’ve seen you know around artificial intelligence machine learning and. And obviously you’ve seen you know this same this space developing. So how have you seen you know that development and also the the acceptance and the consciousness around it because now it it sounds like you know people are talking about I mean chat Gpt you know has been right now I think it’s the first you know. To achieve 1000000 users in literally five days which is absolutely insane. So how have you seen the development you know of of of this segment you know as a whole. So.
Illia Polosukhin: For sure. Yeah that’s a really interesting question. So back when when I was at Google right? I mean we kind of imagined all those things because that that was literally what we’re working on at the same time. It was not working really well yet. And so although we had a really cool systems. They were really expensive to run. Um. And so that’s what’s actually motivation for the transformers for the models that are powering right now. Everything that um, we actually couldn’t ship in production any of the question answering models we had because they were just too expensive and too slow to run and so kind of. Our team and some Google brain teams kind of were working on this idea of transformers and which ended up in the pay attention is all you need and kind of pretty much allowing to like drop um cost of running this and and and speed up the inference like 10 or or even more x. And so that led to you know that model is actually getting into production Google translate improved a lot into 20019 because of that and then Shippio Bert kind of came out to Google and then openai was gpone and and further and so I think the definitely kind of. Interesting things here being that like more bigger and bigger models more and more data fed and it actually is able to infer the structure and the knowledge of the language without being kind of particularly taught specific concepts and so like again we’ve seen that like that’s why I got excited to join Google in first place we’ve seen that.
Illia Polosukhin: Images early on and like in language it was still not clear until something that heard came out to to showcase that at the same time I think now like before I was kind of skeptical is you know like gion musk and everybody else who were coming out and saying hey you know we should be careful about ai. Yeah, yeah, yeah, because it was so early back then it was like actually not really um, working yet. But now we have something that’s actually a pretty you know, powerful tool although it’s like huffed you know most of the time it it says you know something incorrectly but it’s actually now a powerful tool to start kind of dedosing the you know so society in a way right? You can create fake content you can create you know frivolous lawsuits that kind of referencing. For example, case law and you can start doing a lot of interesting. Kind of damage that people are generally doing already. It’s it’s not that it’s something new. It’s just it’s not at the same volume and so I think that’s where we’re going to be seeing really interesting problems and and we actually have you know tools to solve them as well now and so um. Um, really excited about kind of how we’re going to be addressing this in in you know this year and coming years.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in your case you know obviously you were here in mountain view working in in one of the top companies. You know, probably like the dream that I mean if you were like there back in Ukraine and watching Tv I mean the stuff that you would typically see on Tv and in your dreams and. And you had realized it. You know you had realized data and you were making it happen. So why making a change why why did you decide you know, hey you know what I’m going to say goodbye to everything and I’m going to give my notice and I’m going to start my own thing and starting something from nothing right.
Illia Polosukhin: Yeah, great question. So I always wanted to build something on my own. Um, and the honest honest opinion was Ukraine was not the place to do it just because you know at least back then back when I was leaving so like. Early, 2010 S um, like it was still pretty kind of corrupted system and obviously like things actually gotten way better up up until the war. Um, so like ah as I was returning. There was definitely an opportunity to do a lot more interesting things there but ah. I wanted to do something on my own and so I went to Google with this with idea to get to get a lot more experience meet a lot of smart people to work so with later and um, kind of figure out and a network in Silicon Valley to to be able to do something on my own and and Google was an amazing place to do that like there was a ton of smart people there which most of them left now to start start startups and companies around Ai blockchain biotech. Ah like. Even they char in other spaces and so yeah, so it was a really great opportunity to kind of connect with the whole kind of Silicon Valley and the next generation of startups. You know, multiple actually all of my directors have left a started the startup when I was ah like at this point so um.
Illia Polosukhin: So it’s just a really kind of amazing place to start from. But then as I was working there the kind of like there was this feeling that you know you can move faster way faster and because. Ah, various reasons right? The structure. The big organization. The kind of complexity of of coordinating all of this you moving really slowly like I was actually doing 3 jobs in a way in the same time I was managing a team I was individual contributor to Tensorflow. Um. Like 1 of the major contributive tensorflow and I was doing another project kind of with it as a team. Um, so like just to to be able to do like to fill my day in a way right to do things and so that that kind of felt like hey there’s an opportunity here to focus and build something um with a small team. Being way fast and and this is my thesis that as we move into kind of blockchain conversation I do have a tsis that small teams working together tighter and then coordinating more on economic level between each other is a more robust way of. Kind of building large large things than a big one big company that kind of has too much bureaucracy internally and is not able to move as quickly and so so yeah, so with that you know and then my cofounder Alex and we’re really
Illia Polosukhin: Excited about the idea of leveraging sounds’ attentions only need sound as models transformers to ah actually build what github auto ofpilot end up being so we were trying to build that early on in 17 and so we ended up you know I left Google kind of through some. another another adventure we end up starting near i.
Alejandro Cremades: So obviously near Ai you know, went through um, different cycles. You know in your guys’s case you know you did a ah pivot. You know, 2 and and pivots you are are frightening. You know they’re they’re scary. Because they’d say you know you’re dealing with what you knew? Maybe what you knew was not adjusting so well and then it was time to kind of like reshape it a little bit so your guys is you know case, what was that the a I would say journey or or or transition like how do you um. Go to where you were and then at what point do you decide? hey you know this is not working or this needs to be done differently and then how did you guys go about the execution of of that transition.
Illia Polosukhin: For sure. Yeah, so when we started in the Ai we we kind of agreed on a year so we gave ourselves a year to figure something out because and like we we took a very ambitious problem right? especially for a startup of like generating code from language. We said like hey. Need to do a bunch of research. We know that and we’re going to do that. But at the same time when like we give us us a year to get to some product that you know people will be able to use and so we ended up I mean there’s a kind of interesting research came out of that which is cited now by deepmind and openai. Um. In in their work. But um and we’ve tested lots of products we’ve ended up like especially for Ai that this the simplest thing you can do is literally just put an interface in front of the user and just be yourself behind the scene trying to answer or like respond to the questions people ask. Like if you can do that then like at least that shows that you have enough information to answer that then maybe you can train a model to that and so we’ve tried. We’ve tried a bunch of products and we had actually something that was like close enough to a product but it would require a ton of investment and and a big kind of. Team behind the scene to be able to fix things when they don’t work and it was actually a building you could you could draw an interface of with mobile app on ah on a piece of paper or on a whiteboard take take a picture of it and we would generate that and then you can try to describe how it should work and would try to make it all work right? So we’re.
Illia Polosukhin: Trying to build like a completely no code platform for building mobile applications. It was just like drawing and natural language and I had something like reasonable and people wanted that like there is actually an interest in something like this but it would require a ton of like a big team of people who would. 6 pretty much post-factor and stuff when ai was broken but the thing we did end up building kind of as a side of this was a crowdsourcing system so we had because we needed a lot of data for like language to test to code codes. Description for code like comments and like all kinds of stuff and so we ended up building a very like specialized platform where we had a ton of people working and this people were around the world. This is like generally you know paying them like. You know ten cents for a problem that was students mostly from China from Russia from Ukraine from kind of few other countries for whom this was like reasonable money to make doing this work and we had problems paying them so that was like our pain point is that just. Processing transfers to them like they don’t have bank account. There’s no like good. You know it’s not like a deal thing like a guil didn’t exist back then it’s not the like you don’t do payroll for that. So like it was really complicated to just pay and so we started looking at blockchain just to solve our problem like can we process payments on Blockchain so we don’t need to.
Illia Polosukhin: You know deal with all the operations of this and the answer was back then 2018 Densor was known because Blockchain was way too expensive to use like eeum and bitcoin and it was really complicated to use as well. Um, and there was no good like ways to to onboard people. And that’s where we kind of realized like hey that is a problem like we have like a real use case and we need to pay people and like it is a solution. It just doesn’t work. Infrastructure is not there. It doesn’t scale. It’s not easy to use and so we ended up. Actually kind of focusing on that like hey can we solve this problem if we could solve it for ourselves like we know there’s other people who need this as well. So how do we do that and that’s when we brought in a bunch more people who like some of them who were in blockchain space before which we weren’t. And so kind of started brainstorming. How would we address these problems and how would we design something exist.
Alejandro Cremades: And how would you say that it has evolved to what you have to them I mean what is the business model today. How do you guys make money.
Illia Polosukhin: Yeah, so there’s an interesting kind of thing about Blockchain that blockchain itself is not making money. It’s more of an economy right? Like how does dollar make money like dollar itself doesn’t it’s the kind of services around that and things around that and so similar here near itself. The near token is more of a kind of you know, think of it as oil in the machine right? That’s how the whole system works and it’s more of an economy near token itself is used for economic and then there’s companies around near that are providing different services or building companies and and business on top right? So for example, pagoda. Company around is the company that provides infrastructure as a service right? that provides old rpcs. It provides old endpoints and like can be charging for some of the services on top of it there companies that are you know building businesses. For example again, if somebody builds that crowdsourcing business. They will be charging their clients for data labeling. They’ll be paying people and they’ll be making money on on the difference and so the idea here is like you build the protocol the kind of the the core concept. There is a near token which does have economic value that captured from the economy. So. It’s more like gdp style economy than. Then you know pure like revenue and then on top of it. You have businesses that are built that you know, kind of actually produce that gdp on on top.
Alejandro Cremades: So got it and also you know as the um as the process tool for for for capitalizing this you know I mean obviously you guys have gone through different rounds of financing too. So How has been that experience. And I guess you know before going into that you know why don’t you start by sharing you know with the audience. How much capital you guys have raised to date and then also going back to the previous question. How has it been the experience of going through those financing rounds right.
Illia Polosukhin: Yeah, so total we raised over 550,000,000 over this past for something years and but it’s actually started with near Ai so we raised a little bit about 700 ah for Ai company. And that was an interesting conversation where we were pivoting to blockchain to our previous investors to tell them like hey we’re actually going to go in this different direction and they were like well what do you actually know about blockchain that was a very valid question and our point was like well we you know we’re smart. We’ll figure it out and we did. But yeah, so then we kind of went the pivot we and we we pretty much really quickly grew from like 3 people doing ai to like 9 people doing near protocol blockchain and so we ended up going and and fundraising for blockchain and you know, kind of. Quickly finding the network in Silicon Valley of Blockchain investors who you know understand actually the ah the principles of this and and you know first version of our pitch was completely destroyed because we you know we just came into the space and the the people who are like who actually know how these things work. Were you know, kind of very able to pretty much destroy the the things we were. We were thinking through and but that gave us kind of you know a feedback and motivation and so we we talked with zen few more times we talked to those a lot of people and kind of honed in on like a specific.
Illia Polosukhin: Like you know, still the same principle that we started with but hone in on like the design of what we wanted to do as well as the structure of houses should be done and so that that was a really interesting experience because I don’t think you get as much feedback usually from that 2 investors. Um. Um, the technology and all that you building because right now for web 2 you mostly get feedback on like business fundamentals and here it was also like the people involved were very technical and so we got in the first round so meta stable and naval or re vi kant were. Kind of first round for the blockchain already but that and then and but a bunch of folks join like a lecture capital. For example, as 1 of the big funders in that and yeah, that that was kind of the gave us you know time to actually build out the concepts build build the. Ah, like what do we call testnet in blockchain something that you know people can already start building on using and while we still, we’re figuring out a lot of the technical details of infrastructure and then with that. Ah we were doing more fundraised to kind of actually launch this side because there’s a lot more. Um, capital needed to get like I mean this this needs to be global day 1 right? I think that’s one of the bigger differences from many other companies is like a global infrastructure we need cloud editors around the world. We need. We need you know access points we need wallets we need like all the whole ecosystem needs to come in at same time.
Illia Polosukhin: And so that’s when partners was envis um beginning of 2020 and and with a lot of other folks in the kind of Blockchain and and also traditional ecosystem to kind of help ourselves. So as we were growing to to structurals as so yeah I mean ah it was obviously like. You know you never stop pitching. That’s really the the lesson from this and like you know, even if you’re not fundraising. You’re still pitching to everyone and and getting feedback and understanding like how far you are from next funding round and like what do you need to achieve that. But also what would you use as capital to kind of. Um, to propel your growth and to pay to kind of get you closer to the next stage of you know of the growth of the company of or the project in this case. Um, yeah.
Alejandro Cremades: So in your case, you are a digital nomad and you have a remote you know employee structure walk us through this.
Illia Polosukhin: So we were actually all in San Office um up until I guess like um, mid nineteen. So like for a bit over a year and then we started slowly hiring people kind of globally and. Actually by 2020 begin of 2020 we had maybe like twenty thirty percent global and then still people in San Francisco and it started actually like to be a little bit uncomfortable where people who are like not in the office right? would feel. Um.
Illia Polosukhin: Excluded from the you know from the conversations and from the kind of some the in like the decision that were made and so we we started trying this is before covid we started trying to do like like two days in the office three days remote type thing. And so when Khali was just starting and I actually came from China in January Twenty Twenty um ah kind of ah I had some contact that this is happening and so mid-febary we closed our office and we said okay, we’re going to fully and fully remote don’t take public transport. You know. Um, and so and we kind of force ourselves to to switch to this async you know, fully remote mode back then and that also opened up our hiring. We also launched a switchs foundation. So the reality is also because blockchain projects are also not kind of a monolythic company. But actually a lot of different organizations and companies working together in one ecosystem. So this this actually also kind of helped to start structuring this like um, somewhat decentralized organizational structure as well and this to the point about like big companies like Google versus a. A coalition of companies and and teams working together under under 1 roof and yeah, so generally speaking right now I think there’s like 4 or 500 like across very close kind of ecosystem participants.
Illia Polosukhin: Ah, you know near foundation itself is like 90 people and the tagoda the company I run is about 10010 and there’s also like a lot of other um teams that are involved in different aspects of the new ecosystem and it’s like it’s fully remote. You know there is like the. Sometimes time zone spans across you know us Europe and Asia which is really hard and there’s very limited time zone where like people can actually have meetings so a lot more I think a lot more documents shared and kind of focusing on how can we empower people to ah to be more. Ah, independent right? versus versus having like a lot of synchronization and meetings so not not everyone even have like standups. For example, just because there’s like so little time to to like where people intersect and that’s. Time is so valuable for something more like more decision like decision making or discussions or reviews versus just kind of updates and so a lot a lot more. For example, async standups and sync updates um are needed.
Alejandro Cremades: So now tell us about you know the company that you run and and then also how you know it’s a it’s working in parallel with near Ai.
Illia Polosukhin: Yeah, so well. The the company is pagoda which is kind of a successor of the original company that started near protocol so it has the kind of core development team that does the protocol and a lot of infrastructure and. Like because again, it’s all open source. So There’s other people contributing to the protocol. There’s you know, kind of cross company workgroups that are deciding on on pass forward for the protocol as Well. So for people familiar with open source think of like linux. You know there’s. Red Hat obviously is probably the biggest contributor to Linux Kernel and and a lot of fearfrey. But there’s other companies participating as well. So You know what we’re trying to build in pagoda is to be red hat off near and was that you know contribute the protocol contribute to infrastructure but also build end user Consumer products. That are, um, you know in different ways can bring users and and engage them. Um.
Alejandro Cremades: So now imagine in a world where you work to go to sleep tonight and you know the vision. You know both? you know is fully realized of the company that you’re running plus. Also you know the the token you know itself in near Ai you know. If if if in that world that you’re you know, waking up, you know into the vision for both is fully realized what does that world look like.
Illia Polosukhin: Um, well so for near itself I mean the kind of global vision is ah how do we enable people to have control over their assets data and power governance and that’s a very like powerful statement because it kind of changes how the world is structured today. Right? right? Now. Most people don’t have control over their assets right? They you know they’re sent in bank and they don’t have custody them. The banks can go poof most of the world. You know a lot most of the people in the world are like either unbanked or like barely banked right? ah. Outside of western world and at the same time you know all the data right now belongs to the Facebooks to the instagrams to the whatever companies that like provide social platforms for people. Don’t control them people don’t don’t get benefit of that and finally governance is actually even more. Ah. You know, painful because government is not just over the you know digital but else to the physical world and you know there’s a lot of problems with that and so the realization of this vision is really people you know even like a billion people being in control of this means you know the banks kind of. Change their functions. A lot of the like social and kind of media companies will change how they work because they’re now like the users are the owners of this and they ah particip in the economy versus you know this company’s extracted value from them.
Illia Polosukhin: And I mean when we talk about governance like the you know reality is it probably will change how the governments work and this ah again going back to the ai topic. The reality is like we need to do this because Ai will start making the current government and governance systems like legal bureaucratic. Political systems will start showing the problems with them and making you know the current systems somewhat obsolete and so we need to change that and so kind of near and blockchain is a technology to help and aid that and so. I think yeah that that is a vision right? is like people you know in Africa are able to participate in economy and you know they you know can open up their phone and do a small gig or or find a job or you know participate in in some kind of. Opportunity that is only right now available to limited few at and same time like there’s no banks that can just like you know disappear and and take everybody’s money and at the same time. There’s no like dictator who can just like dictate their. Ah. Their decisions to the whole population.
Alejandro Cremades: Now we’ve been talking here about division and looking ahead. You know if you were able to look back. You know, incredible journey that you’ve had and and be able to reflect from that journey and and really look ahead. You know into the future I mean. Think about it this way imagine if I had the opportunity of giving you the opportunity of getting into a time machine and going back in time and obviously you always wanted to start a company back in Ukraine right? and you needed to follow this journey. But imagine you had the opportunity of going back in time and having a chat with that younger self.
Illia Polosukhin: 50
Alejandro Cremades: That younger ilia that is looking at starting a company one day you know if you could go and have a sit down with that younger self and give that younger self one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Illia Polosukhin: So I think I mean the the core of all of this is always network right? and so building network early being very um, kind of resourceful about doing this connecting with people. But not not just like because you want something from them but actually like you know, building friendships and and kind of relationships with people I think that’s you know, especially for introverts and engineers. That’s not something that’s like completely natural. And so I think that’s that’s a main advice I would give because I I definitely wasn’t doing that back in college and I only started kind of figuring this out when I kind of at Google really and I think that that is probably the main advice because that’s that’s how you. Like it’s not just about business right? It’s also how you have like a fulfilling life right? It’s having friends is having the kind of connections with people is is supporting each other and finding ways to kind of uplift the whole group and obviously finding people who are interesting who are ambitious who are excited about you know. Innovation or you know, maybe it doesn’t always need to be tech right? It can be kind of broader spectrum. But like people who with whom you feel you will be able to do more and and and be better person and so I think that’s that’s always important at at any age but starting early and kind of really thinking about that.
Illia Polosukhin: In that way versus kind of floating floating like oh I just met somebody in University and that’s my friends like would actually like oh who who are the interesting people I should be hanging out with who are interesting people who are doing something or should be learning from I think is really important. And that’s what be the advice I’ll give.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing, Very profound out for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Illia Polosukhin: Ah, so Twitter probably is really good. So I l black dragon on Twitter or alienaire to search and yeah.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing. Well ilia. Thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Illia Polosukhin: Um, thank you.
Illia Polosukhin: In here.
Illia Polosukhin: Um, yeah, sounds like a good plan.
Illia Polosukhin: I Think you need to the recording is still going.
Illia Polosukhin: Ah, but set on my side is still. It’s still so it’s recording interesting.
Illia Polosukhin: So.
Illia Polosukhin: Um, sounds good. Thank you.
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