Grechen is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Kodable. An entirely self-taught designer, she always had an interest in computer science, but was never given the opportunity to learn. She founded Kodable with her co-founder Jon Mattingly in 2012 in his Louisville dorm room. Since then, she has helped Kodable reach tens of millions of kids in every developed country around the world. A Westly Prize winner and member of the Forbes 30 under 30, she has dedicated her life to giving kids from all walks of life, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunities she wished she had as a child. In her free time, Grechen enjoys spending time in nature, climbing, and hanging out with Kodable’s Chief Morale Officer, her dog Mo.
Where did the idea for Kodable come from?
I always felt like I was bad with technology when I was growing up. Once I reached college, I realized that I would need to improve my tech skills to get a job. While studying Communications at the University of Louisville, I immersed myself in the world of tech and design. I ended up getting several internships while in school because I taught myself web design. I could support myself financially because of the skills I learned, and I wished I had the chance to learn earlier. I wanted to give kids the chance I wished I had. While working with Jon Mattingly on another idea, I mentioned this to him. Jon also believed in learning to code at an early age, because he taught himself starting at 6 years old. We decided to give “teaching kids to code” a try and created Kodable.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Every day is different for me, but most days include a lot of collaboration with my team. We’re always talking to kids, parents and teachers about how we can improve their experience with Kodable. I am often talking with the product team about how we can improve one feature or another, and planning our next updates. I also work with our curriculum team to make sure the schools that are using Kodable are happy and that we’re making it easy for them to teach their students about coding.
Maintaining productivity is so important for a founder. There is always at least a dozen “cool” ideas pulling you in one direction or the other. I am most productive in the morning, so I like to reserve that time for creative projects. In the afternoon, I turn my attention to things that “need” to be done but aren’t very mentally taxing. When I’m feeling frustrated or unproductive, I like to change my location. Going on a walk or sitting outside helps me free up mental space for new ideas.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’m a very visual person. When I have a new idea, it often comes to me as a picture in my head. I like to sketch things out on paper, a white board or on my iPad. Writing things down helps me work through all the sticking points and logical issues with an idea. Once my ideas are (mostly) thought out, I like to move to a digital mock up or a more concrete version of the idea. If it is a new product feature, I’ll see what it looks like mocked up in Illustrator or Figma. If I’m working on a new marketing campaign, I’ll often mock things up in Canva first to get my visuals for the campaign worked out, then move to the messaging app for final versions.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I think 3D printing is amazing! I’m a Star Trek fan, and seeing the replicator brought to life is a lot of fun for me. I also appreciate how science fiction and fantasy influence innovation. 3D printing has the potential to change about how we produce goods, provide for people, and improve medical care.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Early on, I got a great piece of advice about founding a company: prioritize work and physical activity. I’m a rock climber and I love spending time outside. “Playing” with my friends at the rock climbing gym and going hiking or camping is essential for me to keep peace of mind and a clear head.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your gut! I think a lot of young women, including myself, get the impression that they shouldn’t be too opinionated. I learned to defer to others rather than voicing my own ideas. This led me to the bad habit of not trusting my own ideas and instincts. I’ve learned through experience that I should trust that voice in my head that urges me to share an idea or move forward with something. It’s still a challenge for me, but I wish I had learned it earlier.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The ending of Game of Thrones was satisfying.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Talk to your users! It’s the first step in starting a business or creating a great product. It is easy to forget this simple step once you’ve reached a little bit of success, but I believe it is something that is an absolute necessity at every stage of growth.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
You’ll hear this over and over in startup circles, but “focus only on the things of the highest value”. It’s easy to try to do too many things at once, especially early on. We’ve also been guilty of focusing on too many things at once, but remembering to do one thing really well has helped us grow over time. You’ll be able to add more features or options to your product later, but to grow quickly and stay productive, you need to prioritize for things that are of the heist value at that moment.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Scaling our team was very difficult for my co-founder and me in the early days. We had never managed anyone before, and had never hired before. We hired a few great people, but miss-managed them and they quit. Then we hired people we thought were good, but realized we were wrong and had to fire them. We’ve had some core employees with us now for nearly three years. We’ve learned a lot about what makes a successful team for us at this stage, and we continue to learn more with every new hire.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A lot of smart watches and wearable tech puts function over form or form over function. I believe you can make a beautiful accessory that also has substance as a smart device to improve the wearer’s life. I really want an Apple Watch, but they’re not a beautiful accessory like my analogue watch is. I don’t really need the time on my wrist, but I wear a watch because it is a lovely addition to my outfit. I would like a smart watch that gives me the same benefit.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
$100 is a lot for a gym membership, but I happily pay it every month. The climbing gym I go to is my happy place. It was tough to make friends when I moved to California, because I was working from home and didn’t get time off that often. I’ve met all my friends at the gym and it is the corner stone of my daily routine. I need that time to clear my head and keep myself healthy, physically and mentally.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Slack is a necessity for our team. We use it to keep our conversations organized and on topic (Slack lets you create channels for every topic). We have some remote employees, and Slack also helps us keep them in the loop as well as helping them feel like they’re participating in the company culture.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Lean Startup by Eric Reis describes the process that helps founders stay focused on the things of most value. It is an iterative process of creating and testing new features until you find product market fit. This methodology helped us get to this point with Kodable and will continue to be part of our creative process forever.
What is your favorite quote?
“Life has to be a little nuts, otherwise it would just be a bunch of Thursdays strung together.” – Rumor Has It
• Always talk to your users.
• Trust yourself, your team and your co-founder.
• Focus on the things of most value.
• Make time for yourself and stay active.
• Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the learning process.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.