The king of “fake it till you make it”?

A B2B salesman buried his face into the hands and whined about the pains of selling the product of big data analytics. Goddamn knows how much efforts he had been putting into sales but not many leads generated into a fruitful deal. Though he has been working as a BD manager selling enterprise solutions for all these years, jumping around several companies, his position has never been promoted and his networking power remained severely constrained.

For B2B salesman like this type, it is actually wise to choose a company in which the upper leadership can open any door, has already accumulated a wide portfolio of clients and built a solid reputation in the sector, so as to mitigate sales frustration to the minimum. He could not help but recall his former employer, one of the hottest AI unicorns in the market. He left the company because he thought it only has immature prototype products, hardly could get things off the ground and even scale up. Maybe he was wrong because the AI unicorn used to make his sales life so much easier, thanks to its best in class marketing&PR grandiosity.

Today this AI unicorn in China, just after scanty years of operation, has raised almost USD100 million with a whopping valuation of at least USD 3 billion. Its core AI technology is said to cover 9 areas of applications, or shall we say pretty much everything we can think of:

  • Retail
  • Education
  • Autonomous driving
  • Robots
  • Chips
  • Security
  • Smart city
  • Intelligent voice
  • Life science

The capitals have been bankrolled by major state-owned VCs, prestigious CVCs, the elite private investment firms, etc. It claims to serve a string of glamorous corporate clients. It set up R&D centers&labs here or there, collaborating with ivy-league universities in the country. If you are still not impressed, its PR news headline is starting to talk about overseas expansion and signing government level business agreement with European nations.

 

But by scratching out its glittering surface, some insiders hinted the meteoric rise of this AI unicorn is somehow still shrouded in mystery. The founder has rather an obscure origin and lived in a foreign country for a while. His past entrepreneur experiences were mostly about running a trading company specialized in dairy products, which eventually entangled with a fraud scandal or an online to the offline grocery retailing business ended up in a complete fiasco.

And perhaps only one thing is certain. He absolutely has neither AI nor technical background. But it does not matter. Now with massive cash in the coffer, he can hire hundreds of AI specialists with Ph.D. qualification to build the dream team. Insiders whisper that he should be dubbed as the king of “fake it till you make it” and extremely savvy in pulling out PR swashbuckling. The former B2B salesman revealed by the time he quit the company, the autonomous car only functioned in the video demo, not in a real physical environment, but the founder leveraged marketing campaign to turn it into a social sensation.

Today public attention has been gripped by its milestone achievement one after another, fed by the mainstream media, such as:

  • Government official visits(The unicorn does build a gigantic and flashy showroom to display its products)
  • Winning awards in world-class AI competitions
  • Hosting big events, handshaking with industry big wig in the photos
  • Endless partnership agreement with big names

The founder’s machination probably works like this:

AI storytelling attracts funding—–funding bolsters PR and branding influence—–PR and branding influence onboarding more clients/partnership—–more clients/partnership, more storytelling keep funding pouring in

It goes round, round, round and snowballing the startup into a unicorn.

Even though doubts and skepticism were written and discussed by both outsiders and insiders, the negative innuendo would be quickly hushed, wiped out or simply dismissed as defamation from the competitors.

So is the swaggering founder faking it? Perhaps. But faking is also the prevalent ethos from Silicon Valley. It is said behemoth companies like Oracle or Cisco also went through the “faking” period during their early stage of development. It is a common practice for most startups, if not all, performed at different levels or styles.

But will he make it? Perhaps. Well, every AI startup burns money like hell; even with the resounding technology, the right team, the appropriate go to the market strategy, it never guarantees the ultimate success. Of course, once a startup is able to enter the unicorn club, it would probably become too big to fail. Some entrepreneurs are simply smart enough to concoct a brilliant story, play the money game so well and look for quick yet big ticket exit like the VCs.

By: Cecilia Wu