Kleiner Perkins - Mark McKinney

Hey there, I’m Mark and it’s nice to meet you!

Welcome to my Kleiner Perkins Product Fellow application. You’re currently reading this on my blog called Thought Science where I explore societal issues through a tech lens. If you’d like to learn more or read some of my work, click here.

Anyway, on to my responses…

What impact do you want to have on the world and why?

I’ve worn many hats while building an AI startup through college.

I’ve been a programmer, product manager, fundraiser, sales rep, to name a few. But there’s one thing that links these responsibilities together: a passion for being the bridge between innovative technology and people.

While the power of cutting-edge technology has become more and more available, the practical understanding and ownership of it have not. While much of the world has become accustomed to using AI to make big decisions, few have an accurate understanding of its mechanics. Even fewer can experiment with the underlying technology on their own terms.

We hand over the realms of our lives to so many platforms yet barely understand how and why they do what they do.

That’s a scary reality.

Regardless of the company I work for or the role that I am entrusted with, my core mission will always be to deepen the understanding of the technology — to communicate the platform’s value and deliver it responsibly. That way, platforms will become a true tool for the user, rather than users being tools for the platform’s growth.

Describe your most meaningful experience(s) and why they matter to you.

Societies grow when their curiosity grows.

That is one reason I’ve consistently tried to expand my experiences and knowledge base. And this has taken many different forms, but two instances especially exemplify that.

First, my unending urge to create helpful things. That stemmed mainly from my dad, who started several businesses because of his wide variety of interests. As a kid, I remember many summers going out to his office to work on my own projects alongside him. Growing up in that entrepreneurial and creative environment would develop my excitement for building things that improve people’s lives. Recently, that resulted in a website called 2020helped.me, a positivity project that helps visitors create the silver lining in their 2020 and set themselves up for a better 2021.

Second, my unending urge to meet new people. During my time in college, I traveled internationally to countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Israel. Through conversations with locals, I was able to gain a better appreciation of their cultures and what links people together (cheesy but true). And all this was carried over to my time on campus. I spent the bulk of my time in Slane (our student center), where I met hundreds of amazing people. Some of them I’d be lucky enough to call my best friends today. Some would be team members of my first startup. Some were faculty members who gave me invaluable advice. And some simply told me their stories which expanded my understanding of people from various backgrounds and cultures.

In either case, my desire to learn has always been insatiable.

What is a product that does not yet exist but should?

A chatbot that can help college students navigate their complex yet exciting time at college. That was the mission I had for my past startup, BlueSkyAI. While numerous chatbot variations have popped up since, still none have incorporated the idea of a digital friend that students could talk to any time, anywhere.

Yes, some tools can alert faculty and students of academic bottlenecks. However, students are more than their academics and professional career. They’ve got social anxiety, side projects, health goals, insecurities, homesickness, to name just a few areas. While the chatbot my company was building wouldn’t necessarily solve everything in the chat, it would empathetically guide them to the right questions or resources that covered these realms. That meant establishing a general conversational framework. Here’s what that looked like with an example:

Student: “I hate it here, and no one gets me. I feel alone.”

  1. Bot: [Calculate student’s sentiment/mood]

    a. Are they depressed, hopeful, stressed, excited, calm?

    b. In this case, they’re depressed and stressed. Reword the response to reflect that mental state.

  2. Bot: [What’s the core issue? What’s the student really getting at?]

    a. We trained the chatbot to recognize these types of conversation starters as homesickness through trial testing and research.

    b. Bot: “Moving from home to a new place is a scary thing. You’re brave to do it, and your feelings are completely natural 😊 Could I suggest some ways to help you find your people?”

  3. Student: “Sure”

    a. The bot will lead the student through campus events and communities that match their interests.

    b. The bot will send contact or meeting info if the student specifies any club or event they’re particularly interested in. After that meeting time, the bot will follow up with the student and see how it went. That can help encourage the student, find out why they backed out if they decided against it, and refine bot recommendations.

🙌 Thank you for your consideration!