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Inside the Life of an AI Startup CEO: How Sanne Fouquet Created Melon

From a tiny 90-person Swedish village to founding an AI Startup

If you've been a reader of All Trends AI, you might recall that I mentioned Melon in one of the first editions. Since then, I've started using this micro-learning AI tool on a daily basis, and it's been transformative in my digital learning journey.

I found myself so captivated by the app that I decided to reach out to Sanne Fouquet, the CEO and founder of Melon, to delve deeper into what inspired her to create such an innovative application, and her unique journey from a small 90-inhabitant town in Sweden to launching an AI startup, with a key role at Palantir in between.

Let's start from the beginning. Where did your story start? Where are you originally from?

I grew up in Stångby Kyrkby, a tiny village with 90 inhabitants in southern Sweden. My parents got me and my sister when they were still students, and I was raised in a busy household instilled with the belief that anything was possible, but it was in our hands to pursue it. I was always drawn to the internet and computer games, but also loved outdoor adventures. My sister and I were quite the notorious duo in our village, always up to some innocent mischief that kept everyone on their toes!

I always loved math and physics, so it was quite natural for me to pursue a degree in Applied Mathematics and Engineering at KTH, Stockholm. Education in Sweden is free (we even get paid a bit to cover expenses) accessible, which I’m grateful for to this very day. During my studies I started to work part-time at a bank to help cover my expenses. This led to internships at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley in London, a city which I absolutely loved.

However, after receiving full-time offers from both firms, I realized during my internships that finance wasn’t quite my calling. What I really enjoyed was building — creating models and strategies for the teams. I craved more creativity, something I felt finance didn't fully offer. So, six months before graduating from KTH and starting a full-time job at Morgan Stanley, I decided to pivot. I applied for a MSc in Machine Learning at UCL in London, where the founders of Deepmind met, and was accepted! This was back in 2017, before AI had become the buzzword it is today. Many were puzzled by my decision to turn down a lucrative finance career. Yet, this pivotal decision shaped my future, leading me to roles at Palantir and eventually to founding Melon.

Growing up in Sweden, were there any particular influences or experiences that sparked your interest in technology and led you to pursue a career in this field?

Witnessing the rise of tech giants like Spotify, Klarna, and iZettle during my university years definitely made me realize that it was possible to have a successful career blending my love for math with creativity. This ultimately inspired me to leave the traditional path in finance I was on and leap into the tech industry!

What inspired you to transition from a role at Palantir Technologies to founding your own startup in the microlearning space? What were the key moments or realizations that guided this transition?

Palantir was an amazing place to work. I spent a lot of time there leading new projects and building new ML products from scratch. This kind of work, starting something from nothing and really making it happen, was really exciting. Doing this repeatedly, I started feeling the urge to create something on my ow. It wasn't one specific moment that made me decide, but over time, I grew more and more interested in building something unique and impactful outside of a big organization.

How did come up with the idea of a microlearining platform? Did it come from a need you had in your everyday life? Was there a specific 'aha' moment?

When I first got accepted to UCL for my Machine Learning master's, I thought I wouldn’t be able to accept due to financial constraints. I applied for over 50 scholarships and stipends and managed to get my year fully covered, but there were a couple of months when I thought I wouldn’t be able to learn and study what I wanted. Growing up in Sweden, I was very sheltered, with the belief that everyone had equal opportunities in life. This experience opened my eyes to the inequality in the world. Everything starts with learning, and I was shocked to see how unequal access to education is in many parts of the world. That was one of those 'aha' moments where I realized I wanted to help change this in the future.

As a female entrepreneur in tech, what were the biggest challenges you faced in establishing Melon, and how did you overcome them?

I've often been among the few women in environments like university, the trading floor, and at Palantir. In these places, I never really felt treated differently. But when I embarked on establishing Melon and started seeking venture capital, I did notice a bias towards female founders in general. It's a known fact that female founders receive less than 2% of VC funding, a statistic that hasn't seen any change despite widespread attention. However, complaining about this doesn't yield positive results for Melon or me as a founder, so I've chosen to focus on growing Melon and let our accomplishments showcase our value. In the VC-backed start-up world, the initial focus is often on potential (e.g., do we like this founder and believe they can create something big), which is very subjective. But as a company progresses, the emphasis shifts more towards tangible achievements. My focus is on proving Melon's worth, hoping to one day inspire other female founders.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in organizing and managing a team at Melon?

At Melon, we're a lean and dynamic team of six, and I'm truly fortunate to work with such amazing individuals. Like any early-stage startup, one challenge is always to maintain motivation and momentum as we navigate through pivots and generally trying to figure things out! We approach this by celebrating even the small victories and setting clear, quantifiable goals, such as specific targets for growth and retention each month. It's crucial that everyone understands the rationale behind our focus areas—for instance, we're developing project X because we believe it will specifically enhance retention.

Can you walk us through a typical day in your life as the CEO of Melon? How do you manage your time and stay productive?

Managing my day as Melon's CEO really varies depending on our current priorities. I'm a firm believer in time-blocking. Here's how a typical day might look:

7:15 AM: Morning routine includes waking up, checking emails and social media updates from bed, walking my dog Pisco (a French Bulldog), and then taking a shower.

8:30 AM: Breakfast at my desk while responding to urgent emails, Discord messages, DMs on socials, and other general communications.

9:00 AM - 12:00 PM: Focused on product thinking and research. This involves exploring metrics, planning next steps, designing wireframes in Figma, and delving into our AI code. AI research is time-consuming due to the constant flow of new developments. A key challenge here is prioritizing and refining our UX/UI for better accessibility.

12:30 PM: A sync-up meeting with my co-founder and CTO, Feliks, discussing our tech stack, upcoming releases, and high-level product strategies.

1:00 PM - 1:30 PM: Lunch break.

1:30 PM - 3:30 PM: Dedicated to content creation. This ranges from crafting thought-leadership style posts for LinkedIn to creating content for Instagram and TikTok. Since we rely on organic marketing, this process is quite time-intensive.

3:30 PM - 4:00 PM: An afternoon walk with Pisco, usually grabbing myself a matcha latte.

4:00 PM - 5:30 PM: Admind; payroll, accounting etc. Not exactly my favorite.

5:30 PM - 7:00 PM: Time allocated for networking and investor relations. I try to regularly meet with other startup founders, which is beneficial both for Melon and my personal growth. Investor relations involve keeping current investors updated and building connections with potential future investors.

7:00 PM - 8:30 PM: Dinner time with my husband.

8:30 PM - 11:00 PM: I spend this time either working on urgent projects or winding down and enjoying my evening/working out. I always end the day with 15 minutes of reading a great book!

Do you use any AI tool to organize your work or to make your life easier in general?

Yes, I heavily rely on AI tools to streamline my work and enhance productivity. ChatGPT is indispensable for all my copywriting needs. Having a bit of dyslexia, it boosts my confidence in communication significantly. Naturally, Melon plays a big role too. I use it for research, creating thought-leadership content, and applying the insights I gain from others on social media. Additionally, I use Langfuse for LLM analytics, which, though more of an LLM ops tool, still falls under the AI umbrella. I use GitHub Copilot a lot. For content creation, I've experimented with Midjourney, but I've found that our TikTok audience prefers more raw and authentic content.

Melon is going B2C, while many AI start-ups in the upskilling space are focusing on B2B. How’s that?

We're focusing on B2C at Melon because we want to help people who really need it in a world that's always changing. It's important for everyone to keep learning and adapting on their own, especially with job security not being what it used to be. For example, look at the recent layoffs at Spotify. Gen-Z knows this well; they often switch jobs and understand the value of building their own brand and skills. Melon isn't just for short-term use. We're building it to be a lifelong learning companion that fits easily into people's digital lives, helping them learn new things, get better at their jobs, and build their dream lives.

Who have been your role models or sources of inspiration throughout your personal and professional journey?

Throughout my life, I've been inspired by various role models. Right now, I'm particularly fascinated by Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo. He's revolutionized learning by making it more accessible and enjoyable. Duolingo has turned education into an engaging, fun experience, almost like having a friend guide you through learning. That's something we're striving to emulate at Melon as well — making learning not just informative but also enjoyable and companionable.

As Melon grows, how do you approach decision-making, and what kind of leader do you aspire to be?

My approach to decision-making is pretty hands-on, emphasizing a clear and focused strategy to ensure we move towards our goals effectively and thoughtfully. I aim to make decisions in an iterative, detail-oriented manner, breaking down complex issues to their essentials and striving for excellence. My aspiration as a leader is to inspire our team to surpass their perceived limits and foster a culture that values rapid learning and adaptability.

What are your interests outside of technology? How do these interests reflect in your work?

Outside of my work at Melon, my top priority is spending quality time with my husband, our dog, and friends. I'm keen on staying active, so I often go running and attend a few reformer pilates classes each week. I also make it a point to nurture my creative side, which I believe is essential for enhancing my skills in design and problem-solving. This includes daily reading, visiting art museums, painting, and even trying my hand at ceramics. I have a particular fondness for philosophical books. The latest one I read, 'I, Robot' by Isaac Asimov, is actually about AI/robotics I’m cheating a little bit on the question here.. Written back in 1967 by the author of the Foundation Saga (big fan!), it's still incredibly relevant and thought-provoking today!

Where do you see yourself and Melon in the two to five years? What are your aspirations?

Our grand vision is to create AI 'brain twins' for our users, effectively merging human potential with artificial intelligence to foster a smarter world. I believe the future holds a significant place for 'utility AI companions' that assist in various life aspects. Melon aims to be the go-to AI companion in this landscape, specifically addressing information overload and elevating our users' thinking to new heights.

What is your future vision for generative AI, and how do you think it will impact people's lives, especially in terms of their work?

I believe generative AI will ultimately be a great for humanity, enhancing our capabilities, transforming how we work, and boosting creativity. However, the transition to this new AI-driven world will be challenging in the short to medium term. Generative AI is set to be a catalyst for change in the job market, necessitating widespread retraining and upskilling. This shift will place a premium on uniquely human skills like empathy and creativity. While I am concerned that some may find it difficult to stay relevant, AI also brings unprecedented opportunities for support. Tools like Melon and other AI learning/coaching tools will hopefully help millions of people in this transition.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to innovate in the AI sector?

Although Melon is still evolving and I'm learning along the way, I'd like to share a couple of insights for those venturing into the AI sector. First, it's important to remember that AI is a tool meant to create value and improve lives. Think creatively about how you can use AI to address real-world problems. In Melon's case, we identified an opportunity to tackle information overload more effectively than ever before, gradually enhancing the AIs capabilities to work as our users true though partners. Interestingly, even if the majority of our weekly active users are using the AI, over half of our daily active users engage only with the knowledge management aspect of our platform, which underscores that our solution addresses a fundamental need beyond just AI.

The journey of building a startup is challenging, often more than one might anticipate. Success often comes from maintaining team motivation, being willing to pivot, and iterating until you find the right product-market fit. It's been a tougher journey than I expected when I left Palantir, but the personal and professional growth has been immensely rewarding. Persistence and adaptability are key!

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