What’s Next Update

After taking nearly 15 months sabbatical since my last full-time venture — I’m ready to get back at it full-time again.

Just as I shared my thought process when I embarked on this sabbatical, I’ll aim to summarize my thoughts on this transition and next phase too.

This post is about a month or two late, but I’m taking advantage of the holidays to finally share.

If you are not interested in reading the whole blog, here’s the tl;dr version:

I really enjoyed the time, I kept busy with a number of projects, I’ve joined ConverseNow full-time as CTO and started Unigram Labs as an initiative to pursue and develop research in my long-term interests.

Ok, here’s the longer version.

Sabbatical Recap

Although I did not have a full-time job or serious start-up — I somehow found plenty of ways to keep busy. Here’s a brief run-down:

  • Read 50 books
  • Wrote 35 Blogs
  • Advised, Consulted, Explored ~10 projects
  • Listened/watched MANY Podcasts, Ted Talks, and YouTube Videos
  • Connected with many friends, colleagues, and interesting people
  • Developed some better health habits including daily exercise & meditation
  • Spent quality time with family and kids

So, What’s Next?

During the sabbatical I explored a number of projects and ideas in a variety of areas — you can read about some of them on this blog. I wanted to make sure that my time was spent on things that I was interested in long-term. And although I found many interesting topics it wasn’t easy to find something that was actionable in a way that met all the other practical constraints — some areas of interest were not well-defined or too ambitious and I wasn’t ready to take them on, others were just not easy to make meaningful either as business opportunities or otherwise.

I wanted the best of both worlds: on the one hand, I wanted the ability to make meaningful contributions today, to have and grow a team, build a business, leverage my existing strengths and background, and, where possible, have near-term economic opportunities; on the other hand, I wanted the ability to dream and build for the long future, to pursue research, science, technology, and all my other interests (many of which I don’t have existing strength and background in) with the goal of contributing to the advancement of the world in substantial and meaningful ways.

In the end, I found myself with two activities that appear to provide me the opportunity to stay engaged in both these worlds for the near future:

  1. ConverseNow — where I had the opportunity to join as CTO and am excited to work on cutting-edge research in machine learning and hope to contribute to the future of Conversational AI.
  2. Unigram Labs — an ideation and incubation lab that become the long-term vehicle to enable me to research and develop other ideas and topics of interest. You can read more about Unigram here.

What Went Well

For at least the first few months, I was really able to clear my mind and let my imagination run free. I enjoyed reading, writing, and connecting with different people, and exploring different ideas.

I also really enjoyed my deep-dives, for example, the Brain and AI blog Series. I realized that learning new topics, and about new technologies and how they might be utilized in the world is something that I really enjoy doing and ultimately led me to conceptualizing Unigram Labs.

An early version of that type of work was a blog series I did with a friend (and Unigram Advisor) on Conversational AI.

What Didn’t Go Well

It was much harder than I thought to both a) pick a direction and b) get traction with any of my own ideas.

I felt like if I could not find the next big entrepreneurial venture or start-up of my own this phase was going to be a waste.

And having been busy my whole career and life, it was tough to let all of that go. Aside from a few weeks at the beginning there really wasn’t a time where I didn’t have some advising/consulting work (even in the first 3 months). And after the first 3 months, my days got busier and busier till I was pretty much full-time advising, consulting, and exploring a number of projects.

What I Would do Different

When I took the sabbatical I didn't know if it would be 3 months, 6 months, or more. If I had a sense that I would have taken 15 months and then would have gotten into something full-time, I would have tried to take more down-time — completely dedicated, unplugged-type downtime.

And if it were not pandemic time, I would have enjoyed traveling and having that type of downtime elsewhere.

And while I did do more reading, writing, meditation, and exercise — I think I would have allowed myself to indulge in some more play and hobby-time type fun.

My Take

First, I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to take this time. It's a luxury and an extraordinary blessing and I am very appreciative to have had this time. I’m also grateful for my family’s support — having me around with idle hands was not an easy task — and they endured many dinner time conversations around the brain, AI, Africa, and Central Asia, or whatever the project of the day was.

Second, I expected the path to be easier — to be more linear and more clear. I always told myself if I had the time and focus I would be able to do XYZ. Well, coming up with XYZ was harder than I thought — even with more time and fewer distractions.

Instead of a clear path, it was definitely a more meandering, confused search — than a straightforward one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type path.

I had the expectation that I am an entrepreneur and was not interested in having a job — and therefore spent quite a bit of time researching and thinking of ideas, talking with people, exploring problems I was interested in solving including exploring small companies I thought would be interesting to acquire. But when nothing clicked or felt right I did not force it and went with the natural flow.

In the end, I did what seemed to come naturally to me — digging into an interesting domain area, working with and building a great team, and trying to solve interesting and ambitious problems. Instead of doing that fully on my own, I was fortunate to do it alongside an existing startup and great people that I had already been advising and involved with for almost the past year.

And although I did take a full-time role, it did take me many months to get there. I was very keen to keep the independence that I had enjoyed during the sabbatical and to continue working on several of the other projects that I had gotten involved in. The team and the investors that I’m working with have been very supportive of my other entrepreneurial interests and pursuits — which was a critical factor for me — and as a result, I’ve enjoyed being able to keep my other ideas moving.

Last — I was expecting this time to be magical: to help me achieve ultra-clarity and alignment of purpose and to fill every other checkbox requirement of mine for how I was going to spend the rest of my life. In hindsight that seems a little fanciful — and I’m not surprised that it was not exactly like that — but I’m actually quite happy with the experience.

The lesson re-learned — was one of humility, knowing oneself, and being open to what the world brings.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” — Paulo Coelho.



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Zubair Talib

Zubair Talib

Loves Technology, Startups, and Tacos.