Justin Potts, Cofounder of Kite AI
Who are you?
My name is Justin Potts. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Kite AI. Our mission is to stop harassment, and make the web a place for everyone to communicate with each other, share their thoughts, and engage in discussion online. Before starting Kite AI, I was a software engineering intern at Mozilla, at their headquarters in Mountain View, California, just south of San Francisco.
I’ve been interested in startups and entrepreneurship since high school, building some of my own projects, reading about tech news, watching interviews with founders and investors, and eventually, starting my own.
Can you tell us the story of your business from idea to where you are now?
Kite AI started in late March, when me, Alex Meza (CTO), and Trevor Nguyen (Head of Machine Learning), went to a 36-hour hackathon together in Atlanta, called HackGSU. We had been to a hackathon together before, but we were particularly excited about this one. Since HackGSU provided travel reimbursement, we were able to fly out to Atlanta, which was a blast. We had never been to Atlanta before, and the culture of the city was amazing. We ended up spending an extra day there in an Airbnb, getting to explore the scene.
We had some kind of idea going into it that we wanted to build something to stop harassment online. We didn’t quite know what we wanted to build, but on the flight over we brainstormed ideas like building an alternative to browsing Twitter. Basically, we’d load in your newsfeed, then based off a machine learning model, we’d custom-tailor that towards the user’s preferences. Do they like politics? How comfortable are they with abuse? How much humor is acceptable and what kind?
We successfully built a prototype of both the timeline and the machine learning backend in 36 hours, and presented it to the judges. We won the #HackHarassment award, and we were pretty happy with ourselves. While Thai was focused on finishing his junior year of high school, Alex and I continued to work on it as a small side project. We began to work on it more and more until it grew from a side project into something bigger. We brought Thai back onto the project to help with machine learning efforts, and we began to set up weekly meetings. By now, we had pivoted from building a tool for Twitter users, and building an API for enterprise customers and developers to implement into their own applications.
During the summer, I worked on Kite AI full-time while Alex and Trevor had an internship and research position, respectively. On August 8th we incorporated and officially became Kite AI Inc., and we launched to the public on August 15th. Despite having launched at the end of the summer, we had been active in discussing our product with potential partners, investors, and future customers during the summer. For most startups, I believe if you’re not willing to talk about what your product is, or what you’re working on, it’s too easy to replicate, and not new enough. An important part about building a company is getting people onboard early, and getting them excited about your product.
Alex and I spent a week in San Francisco before we launched, meeting with potential enterprise customers and getting feedback on our product — the most important part of building something. If you don’t get feedback early and often, you may end up building something your customers don’t want.
The team continues to work on Kite AI, and we’re continuing to build new features, develop product roadmaps, and explore additional ways we can help improve the experience of people online.
What has been your biggest failure or struggle?
I think my biggest struggle has just been managing time between college and Kite AI. It’s really hard for people to understand why you’d rather working on an “app” than going out and partying, but part of being an entrepreneur, especially in school, is learning when to say know, learning how to allocate your time, and remembering that every successful company today is the result of persistence and hustle. Learning to juggle classwork, extracurriculars, an internship, and Kite AI has been a huge challenge, but I like to think I’ve grown as an individual and learned a ton about time management and setting priorities.
And what has been your biggest achievement or success?
My biggest achievement so far has been getting Kite AI off the ground, and helping lead the growth we’ve experienced since launch. I look at my role models like Jack Dorsey, Brian Chesky, and Travis Kalanick, and am reminded they all got their start this way. They started with an idea, and they took these ideas and turned them into something amazing and world-changing. For the first time in my life, I’m working on a startup that is solving a huge problem. People are talking about harassment and abuse every day and trying to find solutions. Just they other day, Paul Graham tweeted about one of the next big things being a startup that can find a solution to this problem. It’s exhilarating to be building this product that is first to market, outperforming researchers at top universities, and being in a really good position to take Kite AI from where it is now, to a million-dollar (or billion-dollar!) company down the road.
What’s your must read business book?
It’s hard to choose one. I love “Wild Ride,” about the story of Uber, “The Upstarts,” which is about Airbnb and Uber’s rise, and “Hatching Twitter.” I think I look up to these three companies and their founders the most, so it’s really inspiring to read about the paths they all took to get to where they are today, and how they navigated situations like founder conflicts, scaling the company, and building solutions to change the world.
Who’s your most inspirational CEO or founder?
I really look up to Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square. He’s so product focused in everything he does, he’s mission-driven, and one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet. I had the privilege of meeting him during the summer of 2016, and I could barely form a sentence. I expressed my admiration for him and what he’s accomplished, and from the moment I introduced myself to after we took a photo, he was smiling, genuine, and kind. I always had this fear of having a role model, meeting them in person, and they turn out to be the complete opposite of what you expect, but I was pleased to see Jack is who he appears to be, online and offline.
And can you tell us something weird or interesting about yourself?
I have watched and listened to every interview, talk, and podcast of Jack Dorsey, Brian Chesky, Evan Spiegel, and Travis Kalanick. I treat it like new TV episodes or TV seasons and get super excited when new videos get posted!