An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Pay yourself well. Your time is the most valuable commodity. Of course the bottom-line matters, but your time is even more important. You need to be all-in to be a successful founder, so make sure your compensation is sustainable for you, and then roll up your sleeves with one less worry on your mind. At the beginning, I tried to cut corners here too much with myself. This should never be an issue so try and get it right from the get-go.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neal Desai.
Neal Desai is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kafene, a one-stop-shop point-of-sale payment partner and underwriting technology platform that helps merchants offer flexible lease-to-own (LTO) purchase options for prime and nonprime consumers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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”?
Both of my parents immigrated to the United States from India shortly before I was born, and we lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey for the first few years of my life before settling in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, an idyllic, quaint suburb of Philadelphia. I was a pretty carefree kid who spent most of my time outside of school riding bicycles and swimming, but I took academics seriously. Over time, I developed a real love for science and math to a point where I competed at the state and national level.
When I attended Princeton as an undergrad, it was somewhat of a culture shock at first because I was from a community that was small and insular, while Princeton (both the college and the city) felt much larger, more diverse, and far more open. There was an initial adjustment, but I grew to love what the wider world could offer. I’ve been a city dweller ever since and I’m happy to be raising a family in New York City with both of my children in school here.
My time at Princeton also helped progress my interest in math toward game theory and statistics, which helped me land a job as a derivatives trader on Wall Street after I graduated. I did that for a decade, got the entrepreneurial bug, received my MBA and joined a small specialty lending startup as an early employee. The company grew and I rose to CFO. A few years ago I struck out on my own.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I tend to live by a couple of quotes, one for work, and one for my personal life — neither of which I can actually attribute to a specific person, but each of which resonates with me.
Professionally, I believe you must always “put yourself in a position where lightning can strike”. Or, in other words, you need to work to put yourself in a position where you can get lucky. You have a better chance of being in the right place at the right time if you make a habit of being in the right place. Whether your goal is meeting the right co-founder, generating outsized economic return — or something entirely different — you should always be asking yourself what the best possible outcome could be in your current job or position. With some planning and a few breaks, it just might happen.
Personally, my favorite saying is “You can’t eat risk-adjusted return”. The meaning of this is that if you only take the risks you are sure to win, you won’t have enough reward at the end of the day to put dinner on the table because the opportunity set is too small and too limiting. As an avid student of game theory, I don’t believe in taking every risk, but I know that success doesn’t happen without risks being taken so in all walks of life, I make sure I don’t get in my own way.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The most impactful book I’ve read is “Predictably Irrational” by psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely. It’s about how people think, and it really changed my perspective on how I understood myself as well as other people. The book challenged the idea that people think and behave rationally. Instead, it said that people are actually irrational but predictable. Everyone carries a great deal of inherent biases around with them each and every day — some of them are relatively intuitive but others are literally baffling and even comical at times. We act against our own self-interests all the time without realizing it. What it taught me is that even when I’m positive I’m right about something, I might not be — and it’s important to be very open-minded because of how imperfect our thoughts can be.
A film I also found impactful was “Meet Joe Black”. I appreciated the concept that Anthony Hopkins’ character was chosen to be a shining example of a life well-lived. Despite clear flaws, it was evident in watching the movie that William Parrish (Hopkins’ character) was ultimately motivated by caring for his children, building his company, and being uncompromising in his values. Money wasn’t really part of his compass, which was refreshing.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
My advice to any aspiring entrepreneur is that it’s not always necessary to “think big”. Sometimes, the demand that thinking big forces us to place on ourselves actually results in perfectly viable ideas being overlooked and opportunities missed. It can be stifling.
There are plenty of age-old industries that remain highly fragmented and inefficient. Maybe your “idea” isn’t really a new product, but more of a fresh approach to and old problem that hasn’t ever been solved in an efficient way. That’s perfectly okay, so long as you understand the competition and how you’ll be acquiring customers.
At the idea phase, whenever possible, I’d recommend soliciting feedback from investors — maybe those who do seed investing, or even VCs who might chat with you informally. Investors have worked with so many people and companies who have faced the same questions on how to go from idea to business. More often than not, they can help you draw up an informal plan of action over lunch and they might be able to connect you with experts in your field that they’ve run into along the way. This can be extremely helpful because it often takes a village.
Lastly, a big reason startup founders tend to be younger is because becoming a founder is inherently high-risk. Once you have a mortgage and a family, it’s harder to take big risks. Timing life with your career and your ideas can be elusive. If you think you have a good idea and life seems like it’s at a good point, act. The world moves quickly and you never know how long your window will last.
I acted later than most, and it was harder to do. But it’s been deeply satisfying and I never knew how happy it would make me. That’s had positive spillover effects in all facets of my life.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Don’t worry so much about whether someone has already created your idea. Google created a business based on a search engine and it wasn’t the first to do so. It simply executed better than the rest and it figured out how to create a search experience that was easy and convenient for people. Facebook also was by no means the first popular social network — nor did it have a meaningful monetization model for its first few years.
Most often, you’ll find something that pretty closely resembles to your idea that’s already out there. Chances are that said company hasn’t executed well enough to corner the market. It could be a function of the business model, the founders, or something entirely different.
Stick to it and keep looking into whether what you’re offering would be the best option for customers. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. The best businesses are often not the ones that reach an idea first, but the ones who follow and figure out how to do things a little bit better.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
We aren’t a company that happens to hold patents but I think the most important thing broadly for companies that manufacture, offer services, etc. is to find a champion (or two) who is likely a potential early customer who is willing to suffer with you while you iterate. This can take a while sometimes, so It’s totally okay to pay this customer, because you need real feedback and you need to know when it’s time to go to market versus when it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Let this customer see and interact with early prototypes. They will be your early MVP. For us, as a company in the financing space, there are elements of the journey that were significantly different from those of a manufacturing company, but at a high level, I’d strongly support the idea of having potential customers be part of the process early on.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
The first thing I would recommend to anyone considering becoming a founder is to make sure there’s full buy-in from your family because if you think it’ll be an emotional roller-coaster for you, it’s probably even more so for them. I did do this, but I didn’t realize how important it was until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The company was just a few months old at the time, and we’d just rolled out a beta of our product. We quickly went into hibernation of sorts for a few months, and it was unclear to me whether we would survive. As a CEO and founder, I knew there were eyes on me, and my family got me through that time.
Next, pay yourself well. Your time is the most valuable commodity. Of course the bottom-line matters, but your time is even more important. You need to be all-in to be a successful founder, so make sure your compensation is sustainable for you, and then roll up your sleeves with one less worry on your mind. At the beginning, I tried to cut corners here too much with myself. This should never be an issue so try and get it right from the get-go.
Third, don’t layer in any infrastructure ahead of scale. I had been CFO at a 125-person company so I spent too much time early on thinking about what infrastructure I’d be building and when because that’s what was familiar to me. What I found was that it put too much pressure on me to drive volume and that is another area I course-corrected quickly because we needed to be patient with the product to make sure it was ready.
Fourth, when scale does start to come along, make sure to begin to delegate hiring as much as possible. Founders will always be involved in hiring somewhat, but it shouldn’t be taking half your time. I’m someone who is always thinking through productivity hacks and I realized that I was spending too much time on hiring. I’d recommend turning to someone who can focus full-time on hiring once your organization reaches five people.
Lastly, spend your time doing and thinking about only the things that the CEO can do. There have always been times in my career when I’ve tried to do it all, but as founder there is so much that it’s necessary to delegate in order to see real success. Spend real time thinking about how to deal with important — and sometimes existential — tasks that must be done but aren’t urgent. All too often, we tend to let these things slip just because there’s not a deadline associated with them, and the only things we get done are whatever is urgent. These are two separate buckets and they’re both equally important.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first thing you need to do is to assess what demand might look like for your product. Do you have at least a small group of people who would likely use your product initially and then tell their friends? Having a core audience — however small — to work off of initially and solicit feedback from is important. If you don’t have this, you may want to keep tinkering.
If you’re trying to determine whether you have this, consider paying to conduct surveys for market research. If you already have a prototype and you’re trying to figure out pricing and business model, A/B tests using Facebook and Google, routing potential customers to websites you’ve created can be extremely helpful and informative. You could also run a Kickstarter campaign, although the risk is that you alert your potential competition of your presence and give them a head-start.
If demand looks good, then it’s time to build and determine how much seed funding that might require — either from you or from friends and family. Stay patient. Things will remain lean throughout those first few hires and there will be plenty of existential seeming moments.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Personally, I think running a company is extremely rewarding but it’s not easy. I would say that if you have an idea, you should just go for it. If you need a consultant on day 1, I’m not sure you’re going to be able to run a company.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Bootstrapping may potentially inhibit your growth as well as your diversity of thought, but at the same time, it leaves founders with full equity and control of a company and some founders certainly prefer that.
I chose to go with venture capital. The expertise that a good VC can bring to the table, not just operationally but in terms of Rolodex, I think is well worth it. I’m trying to build a very large company that becomes the go-to option for point-of-sale financing for all merchants. We have well-funded competition. I saw VC as a force multiplier in everything I was looking to do and I view them as thought partners that I’m happy to have on my side.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I consider myself to be early in my journey still as a founder, but I think creating and nurturing a thriving business that puts workplace and people at the center of everything is where I want to leave my mark. I want there to be more instances of this and if I can add one proof of concept to the conversation, I’ll be thrilled.
I tend to agree with those who say that America has an unhealthy relationship with work within the greater context of life. I want my teams to be collaborating, listening to one another, and executing seamlessly. I think doing that requires creativity and clarity of thought that comes with a full night’s sleep as well as satisfaction and intellectual stimulation from the job itself.
I hear these discussed as buzzwords all the time, but the Great Resignation was evidence that there’s more to be desired and workplace is an area I’ve been hyper-focused on investing in and focusing on in the early stages, knowing that the culture established in the early going can often be enduring. I’m very proud of what we have today and as our company grows, our sustainable workplace will create a positive legacy.
Additionally, looking outward from our own workplace and to the people we serve, what we’ve built serves a wider purpose. We help an underbanked and overlooked segment of people that’s far bigger than many people realize, and we get them access to what they need in an affordable and debt-free way. I’m proud of that and I think we have a lot of room to run.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want people to see their full potential and realize that they can shoot their shot and try and build more things. I want those close to me to see that they, too can be entrepreneurs. I am unique in that I made a mid-career switch from trading to becoming a founder, but it’s because I saw that I could make a greater impact. I think there are many people like me who instead settle for careers that don’t allow them to fulfill their potential and that don’t do much more than supply a steady paycheck.
I want to show that it’s never too late — go take capital, add your sweat equity, and make sure that 1+1=3. It’s hard work, but it’s not as scary as it seems. You sometimes have to try things out, trust that you’ll rise to the occasion, and see where things lead.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
As someone who takes academics very seriously, I have been so impressed with Success Academy Charter Schools and its founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz. She is truly uncompromising in her ideals and in the process has scaled a phenomenal model as a business. She’s proven that anyone can learn anything at the highest level if properly resourced. Both of my children are enrolled at Success Academy and they are years ahead of where I was in math, and I competed at a very high level in that area. Not a day goes by that I’m not blown away by how they’re learning.
I’m someone who wants to see more people learn to build, and Eva Moskowitz is the best I’ve seen at educating people so that they’re able to build. She’s someone I’d love to meet.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: Neal Desai Of Kafene On How To Go From Idea To Launch was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.