Georgia Influencer: What’s the best reason and the worst reason to become an entrepreneur?
K.P. Reddy: The worst reason is — “I want to make a lot of money. The entrepreneurs I know all drive nice cars.” The best reason is — “I want to carve my own path and not be dependent on other people.”
GI: Can you learn to be an entrepreneur or is it in the genes?
K.P.: I think it’s in everyone’s DNA, but so many of us get stuck with the idea of “my dad did this, so I should, too.” I mean generally, everyone wants to wake up and do what they want to do, but we’re told we have to get married, have 2.5 kids, get a house in Alpharetta. There are options!
GI: What lessons did you learn early on that were the most important?
K.P.: A lot of my early failures involved trusting people. That 30 year-old partner I had at the time may have known what he was doing, but he was a parent and had soccer games to go to. You have to align yourself with different people at different stages of your career. Be clear about what your motives are and how those motives are aligned with others. It’s an iterative process. You keep learning from each experience.
GI: How did you become more effective?
K.P.: I learned more from being a parent than being an entrepreneur. I used to be very aggressive with my staff, but I learned you have to coach and mentor, not yell.
GI: You had a company that failed. What’d you learn from that experience?
K.P.: Egos are interesting things. This was post-2008. The economy was a mess and my company was running out of money and headed into the ground. I just hunkered down and kept working 120 hours a week. I should have put it out of its misery six months or a year earlier, but I kept working and pushing, moving it along and counting every dollar. And I did that instead of asking myself — is this the best use of my time? I should have moved on to the next thing. I kept saying, “I can’t let it fail. Work harder!” The stress affected my marital status and my health. Founders say to themselves, “it’s my baby.” But that doesn’t do it justice because babies have their own personality and grow up. I have a much more balanced life now.
GI: You employ millennials at your company. What’s your take on their work ethic?
K.P.: Yes, I have the good fortune to work around many of them. Millennials are all about hacking the system and finding a better way. I tell my teams not to do things the way they’ve always been done. Technology is about solving problems in a different way. Success used to require working 40-60 hours a week, paying your dues. Millennials don’t buy that.
GI: Talk about your company, Softwear Automation.
K.P.: My partner, Raj Palaniswamy and I spun out it of Georgia Tech. It’s a robotics company that’s automating the apparel industry. We got government grants from Georgia Tech, the Wal-Mart Foundation and our firm CTW Venture Partners invested in it. This industry hasn’t innovated very much because the technical problems that are hard to solve. I’m passionate about sweatshops and child labor. The way we work now, we make fabric in this country, ship it across the world where someone makes clothing and gets paid 20 cents an hour, and then the finished product gets shipped back to the US. Softwear Automation uses technology to do it better. After all, what we wear is our single greatest form of expression. Because of the limitations in manufacturing, brands have to target specific shapes and sizes, but I want to wear clothes that are my body type. One size doesn’t fit all. So this is actually more than manufacturing; it’s a social agenda because people’s self-worth is tied to their body image, and that’s a big issue.