Ketan Rahangdale is the 19-year-old wunderkind CEO of EarTop, an audio technology company. Rahangdale was recently honored at the White House in a ceremony for promising CEOs under 30 (Rahangdale was the only one present in his teens). Rahangdale talks to Fast Company about the challenges of juggling his sophomore year and his fledgling company. A central riddle: how to encourage his employees to let loose with a keg full of beer, even though Rahandale’s too young to make the purchase himself.
FAST COMPANY: Tell me about EarTop.
KETAN RAHANGDALE: EarTop is a company that designs and manufactures high quality wireless audio products.
You have one forthcoming product that promises to make headphones wireless without losing quality.
Flow is a product that plugs into the auxiliary input on Beats by Dre, Bose headphones, or any speaker auxiliary input. We use a specific version of Bluetooth called EDR, enhanced data receiving with APTX, a newly developed codec we have the license to. With wireless in general, people have the pre-conceived notion that either you’re losing sound quality, or if you want decent quality, you’ve gotta pay ridiculous amounts of money. That’s no longer true, and Flow proves that. You hardly lose any quality when you go wireless with our tech–the loss is not detectable by the human ear. Currently, wireless headphones of the same quality are going for $400-$500 or more. Flow will retail for $80–we’re targeting March next year for a release.
Do you have any of your own R&D or are you just licensing and combining things?
It’s a mixture of both. We put almost $250,000 into R&D for Flow alone. We do hold some provisional patents, a few technical patents, a few design patents, and one business process patent.
You were inspired by your former days as a DJ.
I started DJ’ing when I was 12 or 13 years old. I hated how long it took me to set up and take down my equipment whenever I DJ’d. I thought, “Why can’t I just make my own headphones, speaker, and mixer wireless? Then I don’t have to worry about tangling all the wires.” So I started this company in August of 2011, and legally formed it this January. I was in my first semester at Babson College, and then I transferred to the University of Miami. I had an agreement with an engineering firm in Orlando, and I was like, I gotta get closer to these guys–it’s not efficient to be working with them from up in Boston. So I moved down to Miami.
You transferred colleges to help launch your business?
Babson is based in Wellesley, Mass., and is the No. 1 entrepreneurship school, they claim, in all America. I left the No. 1 entrepreneurship school in America. But you don’t have to be at a specific college to make your business happen. It’s the team you’ve got around you. Now, I wake up in the morning, and if I need to go to Orlando, it’s a 45-minute flight. It’s just a lot more convenient. And I’m from Florida. I like this place better. I don’t like the cold.
Must be tough juggling college with launching your own business.
It’s crazy. It definitely gets in the way of leading a normal lifestyle. If you look at my schedule, I’m usually flying two to four times per week and trying to go to school at the same time. Just last week I was in D.C. for the Empact100 at the White House, for CEOs under 30. I was the only dude there under 20.
Is it tough to get schoolwork done, to hold down a normal relationship?
I was just talking to a girl for two months, and finally she said “Sorry, I can’t date you, ’cause you’re never here.” It sucks, that aspect. But it’s the lifestyle I chose, so…
Is there family pressure not to drop out of school?
Oh yeah, my mom pretty much said she doesn’t want me to come home if I drop out. [Laughs.] But I do personally value education a lot. It’s more than a degree, it’s an experience. It’s nice to come down and let loose and have some fun with people my age, doing normal stuff. I’d go nuts only doing things with 40-, 50-, 60-year-olds. The audio tech industry isn’t exactly full of 19-year-olds.
You put together a whole business team. How old is the oldest person you give orders to?
I think he’s in his mid-to-late 60s. But I try to keep it fun. I’m a youthful, fun guy. My engineers, they’re used to sitting around in cubicles doing their thing, and when I first saw these guys, I almost went nuts. I was like, “This place is dead, y’all don’t do anything fun, and we gotta change this. For those of you who aren’t 19 like me and can drink, let’s just put a keg in the middle of this office.”
Sounds like your freshman year was just like I remember mine: getting older people to buy beer for you.
Well, since we’re on the record: I don’t drink. I don’t know what you’re talking about!
This is an interesting conundrum: If you’re a 19-year-old CEO and you order someone to buy beer for the office, is that legal?
I just say, “You know… it’d be a lot more fun if you guys were drinking right now.” I’m not telling him. The fact that he bought a keg, kudos to him. I just said, “It would be a lot more fun if you enjoyed yourselves more…” That’s the way you gotta word it.