Felienne Hermans – CEO of Infotron

[quote style=”boxed”]I am so impatient, it is a disaster. If I have to wait for a few minutes, my blood starts cooking 🙂 I cover it up, by always having my cell phone on me to Tweet, and by always having a list of problems that need to be figured out, so I can think about them while waiting.[/quote]

Felienne Hermans is an entrepreneur and PhD student at Delft University of Technology, with a fascination for the way (computer) science affects society. In 2008 she started her PhD project, in which she has chosen the impact of Excel documents as her main topic. She currenly works on software that extracts the information stored in Excel spreadsheets, to ease migration to other platforms, and on software that analyzes the quality of spreadsheets, to help companies decide whether the spreadsheets they workedd with are healthy and consistent. In 2010 a spinoff of this research was created: Infotron, of which Felienne is now the CEO.

In addition to working at TU Delft and Infotron, Felienne Hermans is passionate about interesting kids for technology, and participates in the organization of the First Lego League, a robot and technology competition for kids, as well as being a judge for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup.

What are you working on right now?

We are currently working on an online version of our spreadsheet analysis tool, so spreadsheet users can upload their spreadsheets with us, and we analyze them on he spot. This new version is deployed in the Azure cloud, to which we are new, so that makes it an exciting journey.

Where did the idea for Infotron come from?

When I conducted a user study as PhD student, I was extremely surprised by the amount of non-programmers that does program, for instance in Access, MathLab or Excel. And where we, as programmers have incredible tools to help us program, like version control, code visualization, quality metrics, or static analysis, these users have none of those. So I thought “Let’s bring software engineering to the public” 🙂

What does your typical day look like?

Everyday at a startup is different. Some days I am locked in my office, and just programming new features and solving bugs. Then the next day I am on the road, talking to new clients and business partner. And other days I work on my PhD thesis, that is not completed yet.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Regarding the technical ideas, I love making small prototypes for new features or tools, and look at users interacting with them. For one of the features of our tool, we first recorded a small macro in Excel (no programming involved) just to see how spreadsheet users liked it.

When I have to present new ideas, I try to make an enthusiastic, very concrete story to explain it, so the idea comes to life, not only for me, but also for others.

Two trends that excite you?

– More focus on making programming simple, for instance LightSwitch, or the totally awesome IfThisThenThat.
– ‘Living in the browser’ Almost my files and notes are in ‘the cloud’, in Dropbox, SpringPad and Github. Without difficulty I can switch from my Windows laptop to my Android Tablet.

What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

When I was a kid I worked in a bakery. I hated getting up very early, but I also hated making small talk with customers; so inefficient, in the mean time I could have done other tasks, instead of chatting. I quickly learned that people do not only come to the bakery, just for bread, just as my customers now want more from me than just my software.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

In the beginning of the company I was quite discouraged by people telling me I shouldn’t do a startup, and I let that affect by strategy, and also my fun.

What is the one thing you did/do as an entrepreneur that you would do over and over again and recommend everybody else do?

Talking to customers, especially to those that are not enthusiastic about your idea. Remember: praise does not get your product anywhere!

Tell us a secret…

Sometimes I regret doing a PhD, even though this was my life goal from when I was very young.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Keep your employees happy, and they will bring your great ideas. I like the philosophy of Google where employees can spend a day a week on their own projects. Even if the projects themselves do not make you money, you as an employer will always benefit from the creativity of your people in a certain way.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

The presentation secrets of Steve Jobs, by Carmine Gallo

This book learns you to be very, very thorough in preparing your talks, so you can convince and entertain your audience at the same time. Every time someone compliments me on a talk, I tell them I got it all from this book.

If you weren’t working on Infotron, what would you be doing?

I think I’d be a developer at another software company, since I like creating things, however it would have to be a company whose product I believe in. Or I’d be a Formula One Driver 🙂

Three people we should follow on Twitter, and why?

@LusciousPear fellow startupper and generally funny guy.
@oatmeal This guy makes my day with every comic, his sarcasm is unprecedented!
@jzy The king of bacon is a must-follow if you are info techy stuff and (of course) bacon

When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it.

When a client told me he put the shortcut for our application just above the ‘Start’ button, so he could reach it as quick as possible. That really struck me.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

Dean Kamen, he is one of my heroes, for being a great engineer, and changing millions of lives with his FIRST foundation.

What bad business decision can you tell us about?

When we approached one of our first clients with an offer, I said “seventeen thousand euros”, which for me at the time was like a year’s salary, so I thought I was totally nailing it. He misunderstood me, and said “sevenTY thousand? That’s a bit much…” Ouch! I should have asked more…. 🙂

What is your worst trait, and how do you cover it up?

I am so impatient, it is a disaster. If I have to wait for a few minutes, my blood starts cooking 🙂 I cover it up, by always having my cell phone on me to Tweet, and by always having a list of problems that need to be figured out, so I can think about them while waiting.



Felienne Hermans

Photo Credit: Annelies te Selle