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Unlearn's Declaration of War
This is a repost of an internal memo shared with employees at Unlearn.AI. By Charles Fisher, CEO and Founder of Unlearn
As CEO, my primary internal-facing responsibility is to provide clarity on three questions: “what is our long term vision?”, “what is the state of our business today?”, and “how do we behave according to our culture?”. I don’t think everyone at Unlearn is on the same page right now, especially with respect to the latter two questions. This memo aims to create clarity.
I recently described our vision in our Top Secret Plan for AI in Medicine, Part 1. Our secret plan describes some lofty goals working towards a radical transformation of medicine into a computational science. But, we can’t go on to achieve those long term goals if we don’t first achieve our short term goals. And, I’m concerned we will come up short if we don’t take a hard look at the current state of the business and act swiftly to get on track.
Employees at every startup have to navigate a contradiction. On the one hand, we believe with incredible conviction that we are building a world changing company. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that we are fighting for the survival of the company every single day.
This is the key difference between a startup and an established business. Established businesses—whether they are fortune 500 companies or small mom-&-pops—are profitable. They are self-sustaining. They live in peacetime.
Startups are still searching for profitability. The balance in the bank account decreases every day, and if the startup cannot figure out a path to profitability or raise capital it will eventually go out of business. They live in wartime.
This makes cultural expectations at startups different from those in academia or at most established businesses. A professor can have a bad semester or two without worrying that the university will go out of business as a result. Startups must constantly fight to survive and, as a consequence, startup employees must be warriors.
Unlearn is a startup. We aren’t profitable yet. We aren’t self-sustaining yet. We are at war.
In truth, we’ve been at war this whole time, I just haven’t been as clear about that as I should have been. Nevertheless, this declaration of war will not come as a surprise to many of you. But some of you may be wondering, “didn’t we just raise a lot of venture capital?” and “don’t we have a long runway?”. Yes we raised $65M last year, and yes we have runway through at least 2025. But we cannot confuse venture fueled runway with success; no amount of venture capital can take a company from wartime to peacetime. Venture capital only provides ammunition. Without profitability, the capital well will eventually run dry.
Capital was easy to come by during the past few years because the government was providing lots of economic stimulus. That era has ended. Startups are struggling to raise capital. Some are shutting down. Even the tech giants—Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft—have conducted large reductions in force, each laying off 10’s of thousands of employees. We can’t just close our eyes to these developments and pray that everything will be okay.
Despite the economic turmoil, we’re currently in a better position than a lot of startups. We’ve lost some battles, but we’ve also won some key ones. We raised a lot of capital. We got the first regulatory qualification for an AI-based approach to accelerate clinical trials. We grew our bookings by over 100% year-over-year. Unlearn has huge potential, but only if we fix some important problems “right fucking now” (to quote myself at our most recent board meeting). To reflect this state-of-the-business, I’ve created an Unlearn DEFCON meter:
The DEFCON meter is a way of visualizing our overall business risk at any given time. It ranges from moderate to catastrophic; there will be no low category until the business is consistently profitable and growing. The DEFCON meter is currently set to extreme. We will downgrade the DEFCON status to high if we can (i) demonstrate the ability to release great products reliably and efficiently and (ii) develop a predictable sales motion with sustained revenue growth. If we can’t do those things, and we fail to raise additional capital in the future when we need it, then the DEFCON status will upgrade to catastrophic.
A catastrophic DEFCON status is bad. It's likely that many startups will end in catastrophe later this year, and we're lucky we don't have to worry about that right now. Let's make sure we never have to.
Unlearn’s current challenges aren’t related to a lack of demand for our products. Rather, they stem primarily from an inability to create new products reliably and efficiently enough to meet the demand and from poor product and brand positioning. We receive tons of interest from potential customers about clinical trials in disease areas in which we don’t have Digital Twin Generators (DTGs), or only have poor performing DTGs. To be successful, we need to develop the capability of creating great DTGs in new indications so that we can actually meet the demand. In addition, our DTGs need to be great—they need to be impressive enough in scope and performance that we clearly outshine any potential competitors—and our positioning needs to reflect this so that it’s obvious to all our potential customers. If we can do these things, Unlearn will be huge.
Putting the company on a wartime footing is ultimately about setting expectations. It’s necessary to achieve clarity about what we will prioritize, and what we won’t prioritize.
We will be releasing some new policies over the next few weeks. All new activities and policies will be evaluated based on “will this help us achieve (i) and (ii) above and avoid upgrading to a catastrophic DEFCON status?”. We will abandon old activities and policies if they aren’t moving us in the right direction. It doesn’t matter if these policies are popular, it only matters if they are effective. As much as we might want to, we simply don't have the luxury of caring about anything that isn’t helping us achieve these short term goals right now.
We will aim to build a small team of exceptional people. The special forces. With this goal in mind, we will create more stringent interview processes to make sure we’re only hiring warriors. Future colleagues who not only care about our mission, but who have the passion and grit to fight through the obstacles we’ll certainly encounter along the way. We will also set up a new performance management system for current employees. We will have less tolerance for under-performers, and zero tolerance for misalignment. Everyone will be required to put the company before themselves—Mission > Company > Team > Individual.
Another difference between startups and established businesses is that most startups provide equity grants to all employees to align everyone towards the long term success of the company. At Unlearn, every employee is also an owner. We all share in the company’s success or failure. Nobody at Unlearn is just a cog in the wheel; what you do is important. Every team must perform at the highest level for the company to succeed.
If something sounds like it’s worth doing, but nobody has done it yet, then it’s probably really difficult. Nobody should make the mistake of thinking that it will be easy to build Unlearn into a world-changing business and achieve our mission. There will be highs and lows, triumphs and failures. It will be hard.
You have a choice in how you respond to this declaration of war. You can be intimidated, or energized. Run away from the battle, or towards the front lines. I believe that if we all choose the courageous path, that if we band together and fight like warriors, then we will win.