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Barley + Rye: At the bar with WonderRoot co-founder Alex West
The software guru talks fatherhood and technology
Alex West is many things to a lot of people. Most Atlantans recognize him as the young and vibrant co-founder of WonderRoot, one of the city’s most inspired arts and service nonprofits, where he now chairs the board of directors. Others recall the Georgia Tech alum known for helping feed the homeless and filling potholes throughout intown streets. West is also a savvy businessman, who launched Ontologic Solutions in 2008, a software company with a host of products that automate processes for various industries.
Most recently, West has become a brand new dad. His baby girl was just days from making her arrival when West and I met up at The Lawrence in Midtown. West apologized for leaving his iPhone out and glancing at it regularly—“we’re expecting her any day now”—and ordered an after-workday Manhattan. He immediately second-guessed his classic drink selection, half joking as to how it would make him look: What kind of guy orders a Manhattan?
The Manhattan is a great drink. Well, next round I’ll get a Corpse Reviver 2.
You’re focused on Ontologic these days. Yes. Ontologic owns 100 percent of this company, ArtCloud [a web-based gallery management system]. We’re just in art galleries now but we’re about to expand into boutique retail. We’re going to turn it into a point-of-sale system.
What’s the connection there? A great shopkeeper is like a curator. Someone who can show what’s good, what’s quality—whatever it is, watches, paintings, pots. I think it’s harder for people to stay in business by doing that creation, but that’s what’s great about it. And I hope that this software will help people stay competitive. It’s going to integrate stores online, so their inventory will be indexed by Google. It’s a tool for these boutiques that won’t enslave them to giant online marketplaces like Amazon and Ebay.
That’s pretty cool. Technology is ruining the world. I admit I’m part of that.
You really feel that way? Definitely. Look at that table right there. Both of those dudes could be talking about what they’re most scared of right now, you know? Like, ‘What’s stressing you out buddy?’ But their both on their phones right now. Not talking to each other at all.
What are you up to when you’re not working? Playing a lot of chess. I’ve been trying to teach myself the structure of chess. I went to the library and got a book about openings. It’s absolutely beautiful, the cadence of good chess. The way the pieces support each other and what they’re there for.
Who do you play with? I play online, so with anyone. But I want to go down to Woodruff Park and try my luck with those guys. These guys sit there all day long, I see them on Saturdays.
Is it like pick-up basketball? What do you say, “I got next!”? Yeah you’ve gotta hustle in there.
What else? We’ve been preparing for a baby girl.
A baby! How are you feeling? It’s not something to be scared about. I think a lot of people are afraid of babies, like ‘Oh my god, I don’t know what to do.’ Literally you have to put food in their mouths and keep them dry. And you have to love them.
Sounds like a good plan. I went to the fire department with my car, just to make sure I’d installed the car seat right.
What excites you about being a dad? Surprising her, taking her on wild trips. When you look back, were your parents really involved in your development and success?
They were pretty hands-on, but I had a lot of time by myself. I actually think that’s important for kids. And grown-ups. Also, I like how you’re asking the questions now. Do you think that because of technology, that our kids will be impacted in the future by not having opportunities for solitude?
I think that’s happening right now. So how do you try to protect that Zen space?
I walk around during the day. Yoga. I have “no screen” time. Okay, I’m the interviewer here. What about you? I got myself a burner, for family and close friends only.
Wait, like a for real, ‘The Wire’ burner? Yes. Every Sunday, it’s my strict rule, I try my best to have no screens. A lot of Saturdays, too. When I was a kid I always thought if I made $10 million, I’d be fine, I can do whatever I want in this world. Then I realized that real wealth is flexibility and freedom. If you can live a life where you can take a [leisurely] walk to a meeting, maybe you have two meetings a day—that’s like billionaire status.
So where are you on the spectrum now? What I’m now struggling with is, where is that line between financial wealth and freedom wealth? Where do those currencies align that’s right for my family? I’m making half what I did two years ago, but I’m so much happier.