Founder Feature: Getting ahead of the AI wave
Viral Shah, co-founder and CPO of Databutton, on artificial intelligence, making your own rules and operating a tech business from Oslo.
“You are the wizard. We are the wand,” is the mantra of Databutton, the Oslo-based company that has devised a way to build Artificial Intelligence (AI) apps without the need for any coding skills.
“You either have to use AI as a huge opportunity – a wave that you can ride both from a visibility point of view and a product building opportunity point of view – or you're going to be left in the dust by somebody else who does,” says Viral, whose startup was already going strong when the big AI wave hit last year.
“Our individual abilities will become significantly greater with AI,” he says.
From Chicago via Seattle to Oslo
His open mind and varied interests led him to Oslo. Originally from Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Viral studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois and graduated in 2009 when he had an opportunity to interview with Microsoft for a product manager role.
“I wasn't really in the software space at all while studying. But I really loved the interview process, and I found that the combination of strategy, user experience and execution was really cool. So I ended up taking the job.”
The job at Microsoft took Viral to Seattle for three and half years, and then to Oslo, where he was supposed to stay for a minimum of two years.
“And now I’ve been here for almost 11 years!”
Seeking problems to solve
What kept Viral in Oslo are two people he met in 2014 – his future wife, and Microsoft colleague Martin Jensen, with whom he started the production design company Brite in 2016.
Brite did digital product work for large companies such as Orkla, Circle K and Dyreparken as well as different startups, like Scrimba.
“At first we called ourselves a digital product team,” he says. “But when you're out in the market, you have to call yourself something that people are looking for, so we rebranded as more of a product design agency.”
The experience with Brite provided an opportunity to learn about different industries, gain insight into the problems clients were trying to solve and focus on a user-centric way of building a product.
“It was a cool experience. We were learning by doing many, many, many times,” Viral reflects.
The dawn of AI
After Brite was acquired by TRY in 2019, Viral joined Cognite as Head of Product. In September 2021, he left Cognite with two of his colleagues to start Databutton, where he could develop his user-centric approach further.
“We’re building an AI native workspace to help people close the knowledge gap for building applications, so people who are technical but don't code can build apps – using language, for instance. As AI gets better, drawings and images will be important tools as well.”
There’s no way around it, though. Artificial Intelligence is a hot and controversial topic right now, and will be so in the foreseeable future. For Viral and his colleagues, challenging people’s perception of AI and its capabilities is one of the most interesting parts of Databutton’s way forward.
“Those of us who are in the very center of it and building stuff with it, may think that everybody's on top of AI, but it's still super early,” Viral emphasizes. “Chat GPT has a lot of users, but on the other hand there are still only 100 million weekly active users. That's about one percent of the world’s population. So the learning curve around using it, and using it in a good way, is where we spend most of our time thinking.”
Making your own rules
During the course of his career, Viral’s professional ambitions have shifted from product focus to enabling people to build ”a big driving force.” And there are other exciting things to building your own company as well.
“ Figuring out how to make things work with a group of people is super exciting. What tools do you use? How do you work? Who do you work with? What does this company do? What does it produce? What is it selling? ”
Starting your own business, on the other hand, everything is a blank canvas, according to Viral – until you decide that there should be something there. Experimenting, trying out new roles within the company and making the rules as you go along, are appealing aspects of starting a business.
“And then, when you witness the impact that you're making on your customers, and you see something that didn't really exist before, that’s also very exciting.”
Flexing muscles differently
Databutton currently has nine full-time employees and an intern from the National University of Singapore. Although the company serves an international market, Viral sees opportunities in running the business from Oslo compared to, say, Silicon Valley.
“It allows you to think differently. A lot of Silicon Valley startups often target other startups, scaleups and tech companies. Being in Oslo, you don’t target the same types of businesses. That’s an opportunity, because not a lot of other markets mimic Silicon Valley and the companies that are there. So you can think about solving the same problems, but in a different market.”
Viral commends the opportunities of soft funding that are present in Oslo, as well as – maybe somewhat paradoxically – a smaller in-person network than you may find in the biggest global tech hotspots.
“You have to flex your muscles a bit differently, which requires you to do better at creating content, selling things online, these sorts of things.”
A productivity revolution
When it comes to his visions for the future, Viral’s method is simple – keep moving forward.
“For us, it’s really about Databutton being part of the productivity revolution that is driven by artificial intelligence. The abilities of each person will be significantly greater with AI, and that’s where we think Databutton will make the biggest impact.”
Founder: Viral Shah
Country of origin: USA
Year founded: 2021
What the company does: An AI-native workspace for building and deploying web applications
Sector: No Code AI
Number of employees: 10 from five countries.
Markets served: International