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Alexander Alten Polywork interview

The value of learning from both success and failure, according to Founder Alexander Alten

Alexander Alten-Lorenz is a multihyphenate founder and thought leader on several topics before many others, including cryptocurrency and AI. Today, he plys his trade as the CEO of Databloom.ai, which tackles data silos and regulation by building a layer on top of data stores for machine learning and AI analytics.

We sat down with Alexander to discuss his sprawling career, the pros and cons of networking gone digital, and his advice to the rising individuals he mentors in his spare time.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated and condensed for clarity.

Tell us about your journey

My first company was in 1996, around the time that network technology switched from BNC to Ethernet, and it was just a company to do some IT stuff. That was the first, let's say jump, into entrepreneurship. And from that I went to different startups. I learned how it works and began to understand the investment world.

Today at Databloom, my co-founders are doctors and professors who have written a lot of papers in big venues. I’m the CEO guy and not the science guy in this case, but it's quite fun to work with them. Science and the real world are two different universes. They say it sometimes clashes into another and then something beautiful or not so beautiful comes out <laughs>.

So, you’ve built both computers and companies. What’s more challenging?

Building a computer is quite not so hard when you understand it. Building a company is always different. So when you say, oh, I did a startup, so I can build a second one — forget it. It's a completely different ballgame, and you are stuck on different problems. [Founding multiple companies] does make you patient and [helps you make sure] you’re not really forcing something [that the market does not need].

You’ve been a founder multiple times — are you still enjoying the process of essentially building something from nothing?

Yes, because founding a company and getting it rolling is challenging, but also fun. In the first one, when we started our company, we bootstrapped. So we gave a shit about money. We didn't care if we made revenue, you know, because it's our money.

And so now when we go into investments, it’s another ballgame. We have partners who spend money and say they want to have the best product with the best team. So we need to shift our focus. We need to shift our engagements more into sales, marketing, and working with different platforms like Polywork, and try to solve more business challenges.

"You learn a lot from failure because you know how not to do it, and it opens up a lot of possibilities. There’s usually only one reason why you can fail, but a lot of ways for you to succeed."

Companies inevitably have good and bad periods — do you think you’ve learned more from failure than success?

You learn a lot from failure because you know how not to do it, and it opens up a lot of possibilities.

There’s usually only one reason why you can fail, but a lot of ways for you to succeed. And so it's always better to learn from the one thing which really went wrong and explore.

When you look at your journey to date, is there anything that’s changed or you would like to change?

In the good old times, it was good to be in the developer circuit. When you built open source projects you had done something (that was noticed) because the scene was small. Today, I think when you start a new career, you have to gain trust. So it means you have to build a portfolio. And then, you start to potentially gain influence among someone, then some circles.

You don't have so much of a choice anymore. You may have LinkedIn, but LinkedIn is now also a lot of sales activity, which annoys a lot of people and good stories don't really get seen as often. So you have to show yourself and that you have a special expertise in a certain domain so that people start to trust you. And you have to build your physical network. I think even the younger generations really suffer from not being socially connected in this way. And social networks are a good bridge, but not for long, right?

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Is it harder to build a network today when there’s fewer opportunities to meet people in person than in years past?

On the one hand, it's ecological because you don't need to travel a lot, which is ultimately good for the planet and our next generations. On the other hand, you need the physical presence to also talk with people, you know? So when we would sit together for a coffee, it would be potentially more fun and you would go to grab a beer later. But right now (on video calls) it's nice to meet you and somehow something gets lost over the line. I think it’s harder for us folks growing up in a pre-digital world.

So in light of all of these barriers, is there still a path to creating a strong personal brand?

It's something you have to learn. When you lead a company, you are a leader and people follow your lead if you like it or maybe not. That means of course you can’t be coding in the basement anymore. And I'm happy to have people and friends who do that and they're happy with that. That’s also fine. And I know they also come out and do some public work and help bring the project forward. It is a learning process.

I think when you start a company, at least the second time, you know this demon will be unleashed and you go out and you say, what the heck? I have to sell it. I have to find someone to invest. I have to talk about it. I have to do marketing. If I don’t know it, the resources are available to learn.I think it is something you have to embrace and you have to really do it.

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Can you tell us more about your side projects, such as mentoring?

For sure. I'm a mentor for students and folks who want to go and start a company. It is really hard work to start a company, there’s nothing fancy to it at all.

The most students I talk with I say…I really want you to think about solving problems. They have good ideas, but they have to deal with different circumstances and just want to have a little bit of advice to see if they’re thinking things through the right way, if it makes sense to pursue their dreams, or for me to tell them that they have a good startup idea. But maybe you can't get any valuation on the market, it's maybe better to stop it. It's hard and hurtful to hear this, especially for your ego. But then when you fail, you have to fail fast and you have to learn and not just to do it because you want to do it.

"The first thing I would say is that you really have to solve a problem. And the best way is determining whether the problem is really there."

Any other advice for entrepreneurs?

The first thing I would say is that you really have to solve a problem. And the best way is determining whether the problem is really there. The second thing is you have to learn to communicate and to express what you do in your solution and you have a valuable response from the market if it's really needed.

When the product isn't needed and it's not a risk to pursue so hard, you should just stop and maybe look for a job or build something else, but have it in your notebook and wait for the right time. Maybe you have a big idea and you want to change the world. Maybe it's not time yet, but don't give up on that. I think that's the most important.