If you are learning something beneficial for you, stick with it. If you have zero experience in sales and marketing while running a business, take time to learn it. Heather Couture is the owner and machine learning consultant of Pixel Scientia Labs, and she learned how to sell. Learn why and how she got into AI machine learning. Discover how she built her own newsletter with the help of LinkedIn. Join your host Michael Zipursky as he talks to Heather Couture on how she built her business and stuck with it. Also, learn about some of her offers today!
I’m excited to have Heather Couture joining us. Heather, welcome.
Heather, you are a Machine Learning Consultant, Researcher and Founder of Pixel Scientia Labs, where you help companies use AI to fight cancer and climate change. You have a PhD in Computer Science. You’ve written for over ten-plus peer-reviewed publications. You’ve been granted 2 or 3 patents, with another one pending. Your work has been featured in the likes of Scientific American, The Pathologist, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and others. I’ve had the pleasure of working with you in our Clarity Coaching Program. I’m excited to have you here to share your story with everyone on the show. I want to get started with going back to the early days. Talk to me about where did the interest in AI and machine learning come from?
I got interested in images and image processing first. I discovered one of my work terms when I was an undergrad. I worked for a company that did automated inspection systems. They did an analysis of images on a manufacturing line. That got me interested in ways that you can write software to analyze images, to produce insights that would otherwise require a lot of time at the expense of a person analyzing them.
At that point, did you already have a lot of experience in programming and coding?
This was the end of my second year of undergrad. I had already been programming for probably about five years at that point.
You have more programs and discussions around getting girls and so forth involved in coding. This is the future of the world. There’s more coding and development. Back at that time when you got started, were there many other female coders and programmers? What was the environment like for you to begin doing that at that time?
I went to an all-girls high school. I might’ve had an advantage there. There were other girls taking the programming courses but I also did some summer programs. One of them was at the University of Toronto. I was there for three weeks over the summer after grade 11. That would have been a mixture of boys and girls, probably more boys than girls. Since I finished high school, it’s always been the vast majority of men on the programs that I’ve been in. Sometimes 20%, 10% girls. Quite often, especially in grad courses, I was the only female in the class.
How did you deal with that? Was that easy for you? Going into your mindset at that time, do you have any memories of feeling like an outsider or feeling very different? Were you okay with it? I’d love to know how you were dealing and thinking about that at that time.
I think I’ve felt different regardless, but not necessarily because I was female. I don’t always fit in the social crowd anyway. For me being in a program with mostly men and some girls. I was happy where I was and the work I was doing. The social side didn’t matter as much at that point.
For you, with less focus on the social side, did that mean that you were diving and paying a lot more attention to the actual development and programming and studies? I’m asking for others who may be in situations where they also necessarily don’t feel like they fit in with the standard crowd of people around them. They might be in a different situation than you were in but I think we all have.
I know for me, as a young kid living overseas and coming back as well to Canada at that time, I didn’t speak the English language. I didn’t know anyone. I felt like an outsider. The way I dealt with that was by channeling all of my energy into sports. I was trying to stand out and get recognized through athletic ability. Everybody’s different but for you, how did you manage that period?
It’s similar for me but instead of sports, it’s technical ability. I focused on that and did what I’m good at.
It’s a lesson for everyone. It doesn’t matter that much what’s going on around you, as long as you’re channeling your energy into something that you feel is productive and that you enjoy. It worked out for you and worked out for me. Although, I’m not the baseball player that I thought I might be one day. Back in those days, I have all kinds of dreams. Let’s bring us back. You were working through a lot of different education. You worked as a software developer as well. Did you do that before you got into your PhD and started doing the whole dissertation? What was the timeline of the progression of those early years before launching a consulting business?
I did an undergrad and a Master’s. I worked for five years in the States when I moved down here. I’m originally Canadian, by the way. I was working for five years. At that point, I finally decided that I wanted to do more in-depth research. I did apply for PhD programming to go back to school for a PhD. After completing my PhD, that’s when I went into consulting.
How much of what you learned during the Master’s and the PhD do you see is directly applicable to the work that you’re doing in your business and for clients?
For me, it’s very applicable. Probably it isn’t true for all fields but being in a technical field, having that technical experience, being able to read very technical papers, understanding them and being able to apply them. It’s the application that’s most important in the work that I do. Being able to very quickly see what literature is out there, understand it, apply it and all that is coming from my Master’s and PhD programs.
You did the Masters. You worked for five years. You did the PhD and then decided to launch your company in 2012 if I’m not mistaken. It’s roughly around there. Is that correct?
I started my company while I was doing my PhD. I did a bit of contract work on the side during the early part of my degree. I had a couple of clients on the side. When I finished, I transitioned, doing it full-time.
What was your mindset at that time? Why did you decide to even start doing projects on the side, start your own business as opposed to take that PhD, and go work at Google or some other organization that would value your experience and education background in machine learning and AI?
There are a few different reasons. The primary one is flexibility. To be able to raise my family, deal with household stuff, have a career, to be able to balance those in the way that I choose to. Also, the autonomy to choose what I work on. Instead of working for a large company that dictates which projects are ongoing and what they want me to work on, I get to choose which clients I work with and what type of work I do.
How did you get your first client?
When I was contracting during my PhD, my first client was my former employer. When I finished my PhD and had no clients because I paused contracting for a few years while dealing with young children, it took a while. I was searching. The first client I picked up I found because they posted a job for a contractor. Technically, it was a contract position that I started with but that gave me a solid twenty hours a week. I’ve been working with this client for the last few years. On the side, being able to build up more consulting clients.
When you first had those initial group of clients that you worked with even as a contracting type of arrangement, but you’re actively thinking about, “I’m running my show. I’m a business owner. I want to build this out.” What were some of the things that surprised you most in the early days? Was there anything that caused a lot of challenge or anything that you felt uncomfortable doing or was surprised by?
Probably not surprised, but the challenge for me is finding clients and having the conversations to get clients. I have no business background whatsoever. I’ve built up some of the skills over the last couple of years but I’m a very technical person. I had no idea how to do sales or marketing or any of that going into this. I could write software and technical papers. Those were my skills going into this. I had a lot to learn.
For those who might also be feeling like they’re in a similar place, that they are more on the technical side, maybe they would consider themselves to be more introverted, less extroverted. They’re not natural marketers or salespeople, but they’re very good at what they do as you are. What lessons have you learned? What have you found has been most effective for you to grow the business?
Here you are now getting to different types of services and programs that you offer to organizations. At times you’re at a capacity that you can’t take on more clients. You’ve built up a great business and you’re continuing to build it out. For someone who might be in a similar stage and feels they’re not that comfortable with marketing and sales, what would you offer them? What would you maybe recommend for them to think about or put into action?
It’s a skill that you can learn. I have been able to learn it. I believe others can too. LinkedIn is a very powerful tool. With your network on LinkedIn, if you can write and communicate on LinkedIn, you can share the work that you do and from that, generate conversations. You can also learn what to say in connecting with new people and then generate conversations from that.
There are two things that you’ve done that I know have been quite valuable for you. The first is the activity on LinkedIn. The second is a little more recent but you’ve been successful in building it up numbers-wise quite quickly, which is building a list and having to be able to send a newsletter. Let’s start with LinkedIn. From a high level, to begin with, what are the things that you do on LinkedIn or that you find work best for you? For somebody who might not be doing much with LinkedIn or maybe they’re doing something with LinkedIn, but they’re not getting many results. What have you specifically found most helpful and impactful on LinkedIn?
The biggest one for me was posting consistently. I decided a few years ago that I would post. Initially, it was two days a week. I’m doing it three days a week, but I needed to pick a number that I could commit to and do it every single week. If it was five days a week, that would not have been maintainable for me. I started slow. I found articles to share, things to write about, scheduling these posts consistently. In the beginning, most people probably didn’t even notice. I got very little engagement. It’s been a few years and most of the posts that I put out do get a lot of engagement.
They get some comments. I hear from potential clients that I talk to. They’ve been noticing what I write about. They’d comment on it and things like that. That has made a huge difference. The other one is reaching out to individuals who work for the companies that I would like to have as potential clients and starting conversations with them. Initially connecting with them and figuring out how to start that conversation.
Was that a challenge for you early on? Was there anything holding back or any hesitation that you had inside or mindset-wise to reach out to people that you didn’t know? Were you comfortable doing that originally? How did you get over that? There are many others who feel the same way. “I’m good at what I do. I don’t want to bother people or interrupt them. I don’t want to promote myself.” What happened to you? What changed for you that allowed you to feel more comfortable or at least to take that action now, whereas before, you hesitate to do that?
Learning what to say and practicing it. It took quite a while to get comfortable with that. Learning what to put in a connection request, trying to share the knowledge that I have, not to be salesy and having some common interests with the people I’m trying to connect with. Once I learned what to put in those initial connection request messages that seemed to work, then I got some confidence in it.
You initially talked about that idea of commitment. When you’re posting on LinkedIn before, maybe it was off and on. You weren’t consistent with it, but you made that commitment to 2, 3 days a week, and then you made sure to do that. Also, test out different messages and see what works for you. When you find something that gives you a positive result, you become more confident because you see that it’s working and you can do more of it.
With your journey on LinkedIn, a lot of people do experience this, when you started off, you didn’t get a lot of engagement with your posts. In seeing what you’ve been doing, it’s almost like there’s a bit of a plateau. Not much change could be a little bit frustrating for anybody, but then all of a sudden, you reached that tipping point and you started to see a lot more engagement.
Why do you stick with it? Many people would be in a situation where they try something, it doesn’t get them the result that they want and then they stop, they give up. You went through that period where, at times, it didn’t produce the results, but you kept doing it. Not only have you kept doing it, but you’ve also increased the amount that you’ve been doing it and now you do get great results from it. What lessons do you learn or what kept your conviction through that period?
I knew that others have been successful in being consistent. I knew that that was one of the keys. I figured it might take a while, but if I’m going to crack this marketing thing, that’s what I have to do.
Where does that come from? That commitment that you have to stick with it, we’re you always like this from a young age or is it something you developed?
If it’s something that I care about, then yes. If it’s something that’s not as important, so be it. If it’s something that I consider important, then I stick with it.
I’m glad this is coming out because this is such a powerful and important point for everyone. Often, especially when it comes to things like marketing, doing outreach or follow-up, things that aren’t necessarily the most comfortable for people, this is the first thing that you stop doing and you find reasons not to do it. When you know your why or your reason for doing this and in your case, it’s having more autonomy, spending more time with your kids, and raising your family. Being able to create a successful business that allows you to live on your terms is what helps keep the conviction. If you weren’t clear on that, you might waiver but knowing what you want to know and you’ve seen others in the community that has been able to achieve these results, you stuck with it. Is that accurate?
That’s accurate. In order to work for myself and be able to make a career that works with my family and the type of work I want to do, I had to learn the business side of this, the sales and marketing. I’m still very much learning. Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have before.
Let’s talk about the newsletter and building this list. I remember a conversation we had. At that point, you didn’t have any lists. You were reaching out to some people. You’re posting on LinkedIn. Having a list, so people will understand, is the ability to send one email out to multiple people. This is different from sending one-to-one emails individually, manually or whether you automate or whatever. This is a real typical classic newsletter. We put it out on Consulting Success. We send one main one every week, and then some other emails throughout the week. Having that list is such an asset because it allows you to communicate with people to offer and talk about things. You went from a place of having no list to having, how many people?
It’s nearly 400.
That’s fantastic. The number itself is not the most important thing because you can find people who have very big lists and not much happens with them. You can find others who have much smaller lists, but they know they’re building a real asset in their business because they have the right people. That might lead to all different types of benefits in their business, whether it’s hiring, filling up online workshops, webinars or people becoming clients. Talk through a little bit about what are the things that you did to start building that list of the right kind of people that you wanted to be able to communicate with?
In the beginning, I had a bunch of emails from potential clients that reached out on LinkedIn, people in my network who might be interested, but I didn’t want to automatically put them on my list. I wanted them to opt-in. My first step was a LinkedIn post saying, “This is what I’m doing. I’m starting a newsletter. It’s going to be about this. It’s going to be biweekly. Go here to sign up.” Within a few days, I had almost 100 subscribers. For me, that was the starting point and continuing on from there. When I do my regular posts on LinkedIn about once a week, I’ll put in the end, “If you enjoy this content and want to hear more, go here to subscribe.” I continually build up some more subscribers along the way there.
The first distinction I want to make here is that you could have done what a lot of people do, which is to take all your LinkedIn connections or people in your database, throw them into your newsletter broadcast platform and start sending emails. I don’t know about you but I’m guessing you feel the same way because of what you did. I’m not a fan of that. When I connect with somebody on LinkedIn or accept a connection request and the next day I got an email from their newsletter, which I’d never signed up to, I don’t appreciate that. We all get more emails than we’d like to get these days.
You took the step that from a volume perspective, you could have built up the volume much faster by throwing people on your list. You didn’t do that. You thought first about the relationship. That should be commended because these days, people are always looking for a quick fix but a quick fix is not always going to provide the best result. The steps that you took to announce it, to go through with it, to be consistent and keep encouraging or inviting people to join that newsletter and building up to almost 400 people is powerful. In terms of the communications or what you’ve been sending out in that newsletter, people have an idea of what that is. Can you talk about what does that content looks like and how often are you sending it?
I’m sending it every two weeks. It’s built up in a way that’s related to the things that I post on LinkedIn. I have a process where I read articles, some of it’s related to client work or to maintain skills in my field. I write LinkedIn posts about a lot of those articles. I take a group of LinkedIn posts that are on a related topic and write a newsletter about it. I take whatever cohesive topic. I string three different articles together and I explain what the problem is, why it’s important, and how these three articles solved it either in the same way or in different ways, what’s missing or something like that.
I want to talk about your offerings for a moment. You have a couple of very distinct ways that you engage with clients. Can you explain what those offerings look like, what are they, and who are they best suited for?
With most clients, I try to start with the discovery offer, which gives me a chance to get to know them, what their challenges are, and provide some results in 1 month to 2 months time span, to do that very quickly. From there, I support my clients on a monthly ongoing basis either as an advisor. In that case, we have regular calls. I provide resources and dig into the research as needed to follow up for meetings.
Provide what they need that way without touching code and data. I can also work with them as a collaborator. In which case, I am involved in coding, data analysis, results analysis, and anything like that. Both of them, I structured as a monthly retainer that goes on month to month as long as it’s working out well for me and my clients.
You have your initial discovery offer and depending on your availability, it’s either the collaborator option where you’re working with them, or more of the advisor programming option where you oversee, coach and supports them and their team as they implement and take action, or develop code and work on the project. For the discovery offer, I’m sure people are wondering. Tell us more about what are you doing in that discovery offer? Could you explain a little bit more about what that looks like? Is it an assessment or an audit? Break down what a typical discovery offer might look like.
I call it a machine learning roadmap. Before starting that, I try to get very clear with potential clients what their most important challenges are related to machine learning and their data. We try to keep the scope of the roadmap as narrow as possible so that we can focus and get results. Maybe they’re having problems with generalizing their model to new data set, for example.
The roadmap would involve understanding what their data is or what their current algorithms are. In some cases, it might be a new project that they’re planning and they don’t know where to start. I’m working with their team to understand where their challenges. I then dig into the research as needed. I provide an outline of any data processing they might need to do, any annotations on their data in order to train a model, what type of model they should use, and how they should train it. Any other considerations that might be important that might affect how their model performs, and things like that. I outline that in a written document for them.
You work in two fascinating areas, climate change and cancer. Why those two? Why do you have to narrow in or focus on those?
To me, there is a common ground. They’re both image-based. The study of cancer is studying the microscopic images of cancer. For climate change, it’s from a remote sensing perspective, so satellite images of the Earth and analyzing them in different ways as needed. My PhD research was related to breast cancer. I’ve been working in that area for many years, so I have the experience.
Cancer more broadly is a challenge and how to diagnose it early enough and how to treat it appropriately. In particular, there was something called precision medicine where the goal is to treat each individual tumor. Not all breast cancers are the same. Each one depending on its molecular properties can be targeted with different treatments. They have different prognoses and things like that. From microscopic images, we can start to understand that a little better coming at that from a decade of research in that area.
You’ve been seeing significant growth in your business to the point where you’re looking to build more of a team. It’s a challenging area because there is so much demand for machine learning and AI. Oftentimes, people are looking to the big organizations. For anyone who might have some expertise in this area or might know somebody who has some expertise in this area, why don’t you take a moment and share what you’re looking for in terms of building your team? What are the roles or qualifications, just in case somebody might know the right person so they could reach out to you?
I’m looking for a Machine Learning Researcher with a PhD and a Machine Learning Engineer with a Master’s. The engineer is a higher priority at this point. Somebody who knows computer vision very well. That’s machine learning applied to images. They know ways to use deep learning and traditional machine learning and all the algorithms related to that. I’m hoping I can find somebody with medical imaging experience because this is related to pathology. It’s a very challenging area to hire in because there’s a short supply of people with these skills.
If you or someone you know has that expertise, reach out to Heather. She’s the real deal. She built up a great company and did very exciting work. If you know anyone or if you are interested, I would highly recommend getting in touch. Before we wrap up, there are three questions I want to ask you. The first is, when you think about the success that you’ve had and you look at the habits that you’ve developed, what are 1 or 2 habits that stand out for you that you feel, “This is critical? I always have to keep doing it?” Something that happens every single day that you feel contributes to the success and the impact that you’ve been able to create in your business. It might be more on the business side or the personal side.
One on the personal side is I’ve started running in the morning five days a week. That’s what I have to do. It gets my exercise in and gets it done before I even start to work. Other habits are not necessarily daily, but they might be more weekly like scheduling my LinkedIn posts, doing outreach on LinkedIn, writing my newsletter every other week, reading papers consistently, so I have things to post about. All that type of stuff is scheduled more on a weekly basis.
I’m happy to hear about the running because some people know I’m a daily runner. I need to get that in the morning before the day takes over to get the sweat going a little bit. I listen to podcasts when I’m running. For me, that’s a way to multitask, get inspired, get new information, and learn as I’m exercising. I accomplish multiple things at once. The next question for you is over the last couple of months, the best book you’ve read or listened to. It could be fiction or nonfiction. Is there anything that stands out?
I’ve been reading a lot of papers and fewer books. One would be Traction.
Gino Wickman, EOS. That’s a great book. Before we wrap up, first of all, I want to thank you, Heather, for coming on here. This is one of the most important questions which is, for people who want to learn more about you and your company, see examples of your newsletter, the content that you put out, where’s the best place for them to go?
Heather, thanks so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me, Michael.
This content was originally published here.