Kalyan Gautham of WATT: “You can’t do it alone”

Start building your board of advisors from your idea stage. Do not assume that you can build a great company all by yourself. Identify people who share your passion for the vision of the company and who have the resources to accelerate your growth, and make them your advisors. Your team is your lifeline. Build […]

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Start building your board of advisors from your idea stage. Do not assume that you can build a great company all by yourself. Identify people who share your passion for the vision of the company and who have the resources to accelerate your growth, and make them your advisors. Your team is your lifeline. Build a team that is as passionate about solving the problem as your ideal customer would be. Build a team that becomes a family away from your family. Build a team with great ethical, moral and empathic standards.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kalyan Gautham.

Kalyan is the Cofounder & CEO of WATT and an ex-Management Consultant who helped various Fortune 100 companies make data-driven decisions. In his personal time, he is also an ever-curious stargazer and an ardent chess player. He is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum, a startup mentor and a Climate Reality Leader trained by Vice President Al Gore and is highly driven by his passion for making this world a better and inclusive place for all.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and raised in India. I have always been fascinated by astronomy and grew up, like many other kids, fantasizing to be an astronaut someday. Well! It is still my dream to fly to Mars, and I think it isn’t too far from reality for humans to become interplanetary species. Anyway, I later graduated as an Engineer and went on to become a Consultant before starting my entrepreneurial stint. While I worked in 6 countries, mostly helping Fortune 100 companies make data-driven decisions, I also kept myself active in social and environmental initiatives. Giving back to society has always been an inseparable part of my life. I’m very passionate about protecting our environment and creating a sustainable future for the next generations, hopefully before I head to Mars 😀

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Hard to rank my memories but let me give it a shot 🙂

One of the customer segments that we are targeting is political organizations in the US. As the presidential election is a major political event, we wanted to focus on this customer segment in 2019–20 to find our market fit. However, I did not have any direct connections in this space. It was a very challenging task. I decided to get myself involved at the grassroots level with the campaigns that aligned with my ideologies and in the process gain knowledge as well as connections for the startup. Eventually, I ended up working as an organizer for two presidential candidates. Although very challenging, the experience has given me many memorable moments. While for many it was a political campaign, for me it was working for social, economic and environmental justice. There couldn’t have been a better opportunity for me to feel the true pulse of the country.

There are many pivotal incidents in my career. However, the most memorable of all of them is undoubtedly when we received our first payment from our customer at WATT. While it is definitely an important moment of validation of the product that we have built, it was much more important for me on a personal front. When I was 10 years old, I was once told by my aunt that I wouldn’t be able to run a business because my dad wasn’t rich. I was too young to understand what it takes to run a business, but it was stuck in my mind that there are limitations to what I can become for no fault of my own. It left a very lasting impression on me.

When we received the very first payment at WATT, it meant a lot to me personally. For the first time, I felt that everything was turning real and made me feel empowered. I’m very fortunate to have been raised by very supportive and progressive parents. They have been my core strength. While it is true that entrepreneurship is one of the toughest career paths, I would say that it is also a journey of privilege as I’m sure there would have been far too many 10-year olds internalizing that they cannot even consider this career path, just as I once believed it to be true, sadly because their wings are clipped to the perceived societal limitations.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Definitely my parents. They have given me the freedom to explore and experience the world in my way with no restrictions since my childhood. The amount of patience, confidence and trust they hold in me is unmatchable, and I couldn’t have achieved anything that I have so far without their support. I’m blessed to have them.

My Advisors have played a huge role in guiding me through the tough times. I can’t thank them enough for believing in me and my vision so much. The faith that my Advisor Mikael Krogh (a Singapore based Founder and Managing Partner of Investigate VC) has put in us has brought us so far along our startup journey. He has been a great champion for our cause and is an amazing investor to work with. The excitement with which our advisor Kate Glantz comes into our meetings is so infectious that it instantly boosts my energy. All our advisors have relentlessly supported us above and beyond to see that we succeed.

And of course all the naysayers. I’m sure they played a big part in making me stronger and even more determined to achieve my goals. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger — rightly said so!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It always seems impossible until it’s done — when I was 17, in my initial college days, I went through an existential crisis. Well! I often get into such crises, but this was probably the first one and hence the toughest. I was so disturbed by the fact that nothing comes easy to me, and that I have to constantly keep struggling all the time. It took some time for a thorough introspection and retrospection during this phase of my life to come to a meaningful realization — it isn’t that everything always comes the hard way to me, but it is me who always tends to choose the hard things (high aspirations) come my way. This simple realization made me understand who I am at the core and made my ‘impossible’ journeys far more enjoyable by welcoming all my hardships as my conscious choices.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I call them my 3Hs 🙂

Hard work: There’s no substitute for grit in the path to success. One has to work hard, be resilient and courageous to take bold and risky moves for great successes. Entrepreneurship is often a high risk, high returns game. Hard work alone may not guarantee success, but failure is certainly guaranteed without hard work, whether you see it coming or not in the short run.

Humility: When we are set out to do great things, we achieve many admirable goals during our journey. It is important to recognize them and celebrate them. However, we should not let them make us complacent and immodest. Such qualities are often the root causes of dramatic failures. Humility always shows us ways for continuous learning. It gives us not only the room to commit mistakes but also the strength to get up again when we fall.

Humor: Entrepreneurship is very lonesome and tough. We have to constantly keep ourselves motivated and happy. But it is hard to be happy when we have to go through innumerous failures to see even an iota of success. During such times, humor is the saviour. We need to learn to laugh many things out as we go and not be bogged down by short-term hiccups. We can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to decide to be happy. The hard truth is that life is always going to be hard as long as you keep viewing it from such lenses. More importantly, often your team depends on your strength, and you have to be infectious in spreading good vibes. The more positivity and humor you show, the more productive your team becomes.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

Marches and charity walks are highly localized in nature. While it takes a lot of capital and human resources to organize them at multiple locations and occasions, it is also difficult for people to fly to another location to participate in them. Sometimes lack of time and resources can also be constraints. What’s making it even worse? — The COVID-19 pandemic. We, at WATT, are on a mission to make such events of solidarity scalable and therefore accessible to everyone.

How do you think your technology can address this?

Organizers can now simply initiate their events at just a tap of a button on our mobile apps and people from their community can download our apps onto their mobile phones or wearables, select the causes or events that they want to support, and start walking for them literally from anywhere on the planet. Our apps count every footstep that the users take, create stories of people walking across the world, and help the organizers gain greater global outreach and also raise funds for those causes. Be it for an awareness march, voter support-gathering rally or charity walk through Employee Engagement — WATT is the one-stop platform for all virtual community engagement activities to promote social, environmental and political good. In simple terms, our customers describe us as ‘Fitbit for a cause’.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I have always been actively involved with social impact and justice. However, as I started my professional career, constant travel at work restricted me from participating in charity walks or social impact running events back in my home country. I could only hit a like or comment on social media platforms, none of which gave me the satisfaction that I would get from physical participation to promote the awareness of the social causes that I believe.

In the initial days, we wanted to just build a simple tool that can personally enable us to express solidarity in its true sense even from remote locations. This tool was meant for just a couple of us, but as we received overwhelming interest from our networks, we realized the magnitude of the problem. We have carried out initial market research and extensive surveys of over 80 nonprofits/grassroots organizations to understand their needs. The more we learnt, the more obvious the problem seemed in the industry. Hence we established WATT.

During our journey, as we realised the vast demand for this solution in much wider markets, we broadened our mission to build a one-stop platform for all virtual community engagement activities to help people promote their social, political, environmental impact — a tool that serves not only nonprofits but also corporates for employee engagement or CSR activities.

How do you think this might change the world?

Our vision is to unite the world through the causes that people truly believe in. WATT not only helps organizations scale their events of solidarity but also empowers individuals to build movements of their own. We are the only platform that quantifies each individual’s intensity of support in its true sense to a cause. The importance of a cause shouldn’t always be defined by how many people support it. In such cases, minority groups are highly affected. The metric ‘how much people support a cause’ is equally important. In the long-term, we believe that we will significantly impact the way all community engagement activities happen in the virtual space.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

As a platform for social impact, WATT has never entertained anonymity in it. All conversations and opinions are publicly viewed by other users on our platform. We want to be as close to real-world events as possible. People who participate in a physical march for a cause that they strongly believe in cannot hide themselves to express their support and so will it be on WATT too. With these events of solidarity becoming digital, people’s views on various topics and their belief systems will become more accessible to many people at ease. Such access can bind organizations/corporates who initiate events on WATT to act more responsibly. However, in the case of individuals, the same access has the potential to change personal and professional relationships much more easily than ever before. While one hopes that they change for the better, one does have to keep in mind that many bridges can burn along the way. In countries where governments are not favourable to freedom of speech, people may face the harsh and unfortunate reality.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

1. You don’t know everything: When you start to work on your idea, it is ok to not know everything. You are not expected to know everything, and you are not judged when you don’t know something. However, what you definitely need to know is that you don’t know everything and you need to constantly evolve to become better at what you are doing. You must constantly get real-life feedback from all stakeholders to understand the core problem that you are solving, and the need for and the utility of the solution that you are building.

2. You can’t do it alone: Start building your board of advisors from your idea stage. Do not assume that you can build a great company all by yourself. Identify people who share your passion for the vision of the company and who have the resources to accelerate your growth, and make them your advisors. Your team is your lifeline. Build a team that is as passionate about solving the problem as your ideal customer would be. Build a team that becomes a family away from your family. Build a team with great ethical, moral and empathic standards.

3. Execution is the make or break deal: I can’t stress enough the importance of execution for the success of your startup. As cliché as it may sound, even the greatest ideas will fail if not executed properly. With great execution, even mediocre ideas can become great companies. Get into the market as early as possible. Do not aim to build a perfect product before entering the market, for there is no such thing called a perfect product. It is imperative for you to stay in the market and constantly listen to the customers. Extreme experimentation with fast iterations and fast failures is the best approach to quickly pave your path to success.

4. Product-market fit decides your relevance: You haven’t built anything viable yet until and unless you don’t know that your product solves a real problem that a large enough market has. Without clarity on this, you might continue investing in building something that is not commercially viable. Your customer is the only one who has the ability to dictate your relevance in the market. You need to find your niche as early as possible and build a product that can solve their problem much better than anyone else that they know of can solve it for them. Your initial customers must be those who would be more than happy to pay, recommend to their network and have a burning need to use your product.

5. Founder-market fit decides the difficulty of your journey: You need to have an unfair advantage to set you apart from your competitors. This could be because of your relevant work experience, your industry connections, your past experiences that made you live the problem first-hand or you are obsessed with solving the problem for people like your loved ones who faced the problem. It is extremely difficult for you to succeed in something that you cannot deeply connect with or have no deep insight into its nuances. The stronger the founder-market fit, the better the execution. The journey is such that you will find a million reasons to drop from pursuing it and maybe just one reason for you to stick around persistently — that one reason must be stronger than the other million pulling you down.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Gratitude — Many of us are blessed with resources that others out there may not have access to, for no fault of their own. Giving back to the community is a social and moral responsibility that every individual should fulfil in their capacities. You don’t necessarily have to think of changing the world in a big way and you don’t necessarily have to utilize your financial resources. It’s great if you are in a position to do so, but there are many other ways one can easily bring a positive impact into the local communities and who knows! one day your small initiative could inspire many others to become a world-changing movement. Try it if you haven’t yet, and I’m sure you will find it addictive.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This list is definitely never-ending. For now, I would go with Elon Musk and Richard Branson who have pushed the innovation quotient in the business world far beyond anyone else. I may also want to reserve my seat for a trip to outer space and even Mars 😀 I wouldn’t really mind even if it is a one-way trip to the red planet. I would also like to meet Jane Fonda to help her with her environmental initiatives through WATT.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow me on my LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/kalyangautham/

If you want to organize a virtual charity walk as a part of your employee engagement activity or as a community event, you can learn more about us through our website https://www.wa-tt.com/.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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