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Bill MacCartney

Venture Advisor

When Bill MacCartney was 12, he read Gödel, Escher, Bach, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work in cognitive science by Douglas Hofstadter. The book’s discussions of the philosophy of language and artificial intelligence changed his life.

“Almost every thread that I’ve pulled on ever since then has in one way or another come from that book,” Bill acknowledges. 

Bill’s “threads” include a degree in philosophy from Princeton, a Fulbright scholarship, a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford, two stints in quantitative trading, and 20 years as a premiere voice in AI and machine learning. Most recently as the VP of Machine Learning at Cohere, he led a team of more than 50 scientists and engineers in building large language models. He previously led a machine learning team at Apple, was a Senior Research Scientist at Google, and has taught at Stanford as a Consulting Professor of Computer Science since 2010. 

Leveraging this machine learning experience, Bill advises startups, particularly on technology strategy.

“I tend to emphasize two things: the importance of rigorous quantitative evaluation; and also the power of starting simple. Add complexity only as you're forced to do so by the problem itself.”

Bill continues, “I think a lot of teams — particularly engineering — have a tendency to envision the ideal implementation at the outset, and then embark on a grand project to build that ideal system. And it often takes a lot longer than they expected, and in the meantime, they don’t have much to show for all the work that they’ve put in.”

Bill also advises on team building and fundraising, and has some hard-won recommendations on what it takes for a startup to succeed:

“First, it’s really important that you have a co-founder, and that you select your co-founder carefully. Building a startup is incredibly hard. If things go well, it will consume most of your energy for many years, and there are going to be moments of despair. That’s not something that you want to face alone. You need a partner, and ideally, a partner who complements you. 

“Second, find a fit between what you’re doing and what the world wants. I think that’s really the key to success for any business: have you identified something that people want, and have you shown that you can make that thing? I think the build period here at AI Fund is for gathering evidence to answer those two questions in the affirmative.  It’s a really powerful way to orient your thinking during that early stage.”


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