Amir Husain | Crain's Austin

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Amir Husain


Austin-based SparkCognition is an artificial intelligence company that offers business-critical solutions for enterprise customers in energy, oil and gas, manufacturing, finance, aerospace, telecommunications, defense, and security. Amir Husain is a prolific inventor with 22 U.S. patents awarded and over 40 pending applications. His book, “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence,” was published in 2017.

The Mistake:

Letting fear overpower me.

Since I dropped out of my Ph.D program at the University of Texas at Austin, I’ve always been focused on building companies. I left UT actually to build my first company, and then I formed another company.

After that, a couple of things happened. The dot-com bubble burst in 2000, which was around the time that I was starting my second company. It was very deadly and very demoralizing for anybody in technology. And I was very young – just 22 years old at the time. You had companies that were flying high – companies that everybody thought would be the next GE and IBM – suddenly being decimated.

There was literally millions of dollars invested in all these companies that just suddenly overnight disappeared.

There was that massive carnage and I had that view in my rearview mirror as I embarked on the journey to do my second company. Very early on, that company was acquired by a local business here in town that was doing well. And that was largely because it took me too long to shake off the fear that I had experienced in living through that dot-com crash.

But I was doing something that was not fundamentally in my nature.

I had let fear prevent me from taking future action. It can numb you. And what the human brain does naturally is magnify the fear stimulus. That’s how we’ve survived for so long, and that’s been useful for us in some ways. Here’s a leopard running at me. Here’s a tiger running at me. Even if you misconstrue maybe a bird in the bush with a tiger leaping at you, it was okay to start running, because if you were wrong and it was in fact a tiger, you would be dead. So it’s better to fear more than to fear less. And that’s a natural magnifier that the human brain has for fear.

But knowing that, one has to be rational. You can’t change the makeup of the brain at least so far, but you can try to analyze how you are acting and analyze yourself and try to figure out whether some of your decisions are being informed by this kind of irrational magnification of fear. And in my case, the 2000 internet bubble burst. Yes, I did form another company, but I probably exited it sooner than I should have. Because at that point, my mental makeup was, “Oh my God, will I be able to make a go of it? And this is the first opportunity that I’ve gotten. It’s a reasonable opportunity. Let me just take it.”

I had five or six employees with me that I was responsible for ensuring their well-being. Having received a thrashing from the market, I didn’t have the fortitude to believe that there was going to be more opportunities, and there would have been more.

A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t really learn a lesson from it.

The Lesson:

Looking back, I don’t think I failed, but I do think I shortchanged myself. Now somebody else might look at that and say, “OK, but you were a kid, and you had these other people that you were worried about.” And yes, but again maybe if I had gone back and I was that age with that experience again, I would have made the same decision. But I think every time I would look back at that and say, “Next time, I’m not going to do that. Next time, I’m going to have more faith. Next time, I’m going to stick with it longer.”

In the case of SparkCognition, there were several offers in the early days. In fact, there was one offer that came in I think when we were literally three or four people. And everybody would have done really well, but at a much smaller level obviously. But I believed that this was a company that is going to be a big company, and I have learned from that past experience and decided to stick with it.

You have make sure that you filter out the fear magnification that’s going on in your brain, that you look at a decision and you think about it rationally, that you’re doing the right thing by yourself, your investors, your employees. Ultimately, you are the one that will have to live with this the longest, and I think that’s something to really internalize.

A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t really learn a lesson from it. Otherwise, it’s just a data gathering exercise.


Follow SparkCognition on Twitter at @SparkCognition.

Pictured is Amir Husain. | Photo courtesy of SparkCognition.

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