SoGal Waterloo: Founder’s Chat with Stephanie Mills | CodeGem
Late January at SoGal Waterloo, we had the privilege to speak to Stephanie Mills, founder of CodeGem, about her entrepreneurship journey. Stephanie is a Thiel Fellow and a Management Engineering student at the University of Waterloo. Part of the deal with earning the prestigious Thiel Fellowship is that the recipient must take two years off of school to pursue other work, which could involve scientific research, creating a startup, or working on a social movement. For Stephanie, that meant turning her passion project into a start up.
❓ Thiel Fellowship — The fellowship is intended for students under the age of 23 and offers them a total of $100,000 over two years. Only around 20 fellows are selected each year through a competitive selection process.
What is CodeGem?
CodeGem is a team management platform built to optimise software teams. It improves collaboration, activity and satisfaction through integrating with common tools such as Git and Jira. CodeGem was inspired by Stephanie’s combined experience studying Management Engineering and working as a software engineer at top companies including Apple, Uber, Dapper and Deloitte.
The Eureka Moment
Stephanie has always been interested in how organisations work and how to make groups of people work more effectively. Her other main interest is software — she loves going to hackathons and has previously worked as a software engineer. Her internship experiences along with her management engineering background allowed her to learn how different engineering teams were managed (or mismanaged). In 2019 Stephanie decided to enter her idea into Concept 5k, a student pitch competition at University of Waterloo. Soon after, CodeGem was accepted into the Velocity Incubator Program, (as one of the first undergraduate groups to be accepted into the full-time program!). In late 2020, Stephanie was selected to be a Thiel Fellow. With merely 4 months left, she dropped out of university to pursue CodeGem.
One of the coordinators at the Thiel Fellowship actually reached out to Stephanie. After hopping on a call, Stephanie decided to apply which kicked off a couple of months of interviews! Stephanie has always been inspired by previous Thiel Fellows such as Vitalik, founder of Ethereum, and she feels so honoured to be accepted into the Thiel Fellowship. The best part of the Thiel Fellowship has been the amazing network of support she has been introduced to. Being surrounded by many other young entrepreneurs helps to normalise the experience and she’s found it helpful to talk to entrepreneurs in later stages.
It was a surprisingly easy decision. At the time, I had already decided I wanted to do CodeGem full-time and the Thiel Fellowship, aside from the money, is an extremely powerful network.
As CodeGem gained more traction as a start-up, Stephanie began to consider pursuing it full time. Getting into Velocity and being awarded the Thiel Fellowship sealed Stephanie’s decision.
A Day in the Life
Like most start-ups, every day provides new and exciting challenges. In the beginning, Stephanie spent much of her time on software but is now focused more on the business side.
Everything changes so quickly at a start-up. They had initially planned to start their fundraising later in the year but the Thiel Fellows were announced end of December. Due to the increased investor interest following the 2020 Thiel Fellows announcement, her team decided to kickstart their fundraising plans. To keep ideas going and continuously develop, the team tries to follow an agile process with regular sprint sessions.
There have been so many exciting milestones along the way. Recruiting has been exciting, hiring her first full-time employee was exciting. It’s been surreal having a whole team come together to work on what was initially on passion project.
When you’re doing a start-up, it can be isolating. Building it alongside others within an incubator program can be valuable. She did add a warning that incubator programs can take up a lot of time and often have a lot of structured programming. This can be good or bad depending on what stage your startup idea is in.
Stephanie had the opportunity to pitch in front of the Velocity Early Stage program manager after winning the Concept 5K pitch competition. Through the early-stage program, Stephanie gained the expertise and experience necessary to be accepted into the Velocity Incubator. The most valuable aspect of Velocity was the amazing community she found herself in and the amazing advisors she was able to learn from.
Pivots and Challenges
CodeGem has evolved so much in the past 2 years. In the initial pitch, CodeGem was framed around lots of industry buzzwords — machine learning and data analysis. However, after diving deeper into the problem, she realised users’ problems could be solved in different and more impactful ways. It is so important to understand your target market. To research, Stephanie approached many companies for user interviews.
The start-up world really shows you what you don’t know. When it comes to recruitment, it is so important to understand what the role entails. Stephanie learned this the hard way when she tried to hire someone for CodeGem to take over business operations without truly understanding the role. She now takes the stance of not hiring for a role until she has experience in working the role to fully understand what she is looking for in a candidate.
Prioritising tasks is something Stephanie has seen many other start-ups struggle with. There are often so many tasks and ideas floating around and it is important to figure out which tasks get you closer to your goals. Stephanie recommends everyone read “Maker Management Schedule”. She has taken some key ideas from this article such as boxing off time to work and tries to follow the Pomodoro schedule.
Looking forward: Goals
CodeGem is closing their pre-seed soon (half a million CAD!) She’s excited to onboard some target customers with some paid pilots in the coming months.
1 Year Roadmap: Stephanie hopes to land super strong product market fit. The focus of CodeGem’s MVP is currently on the analytics side. She hopes to expand to more tooling solutions in the coming year. Hopefully this year, CodeGem can start shifting to a B2B model and transition the paid pilots into full customers.
Long term goals: Stephanie hopes CodeGem will be the tool to facilitate better teamwork. Instead of having annual or biannual reviews, she wants to tie in performance reviews into CodeGem. She envisions teams using CodeGem to have better access to feedback and access to data-backed performance reviews.
Words of Advice
Stephanie has experienced bias against her, particularly when she was a software engineer. Through hackathons and her internship experiences, she learned to build up her confidence. During her startup journey, Stephanie found that some people in her life didn’t support her. Some people don’t give women founders the respect they would otherwise give someone else. It’s been a journey learning how to deal with it. A key takeaway is to always stand up for yourself and speak up when someone is not giving you the respect you deserve. She advised new entrepreneurs to:
- Build up confidence and believe in yourself
- Surround yourself with people who do support you — its not worth it to waste energy on those who don’t
She’s found that it has been surprisingly been easy to find people that support her. Many of her mentors, she has found through reaching out. Stephanie is intentional about how she reaches out for help — it’s important to recognise the optimal outcome of her reach outs. She often asks mentors before the end of the call when they can meet again to start developing a long-term relationship.
If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, jump into it! There are so many resources at Waterloo to support you.
There are many different opportunities for students including entrepreneurship clubs, hackathons and volunteering at startups. Although many hackathons are advertised more as software engineering focused events, Stephanie likes to approach them from the lens of a founder and treats them as mini startup competitions.
How technical should tech start up founders be?
A lot of times you don’t need to be an expert to start a company. You do need to move quickly and learn fast. Having a strong technical background will help but isn’t necessary. Stephanie doesn’t consider herself a software expert but her past experience as a software engineer equipped her with the skills necessary to get Codegem to a state where they can now bring on more talent. As a founder, she focused more on getting Codegem to a stable state where they can bring more people on to help push it forward.
Being a solo founder has had its pros and cons. Codegem is at a stage where it’s a little too late to bring on a co-founder but she highly recommends it when starting out. A benefit of being a solo founder is that decisions can be made quicker. However, statistically, solo founders are not as successful. It’s really great to have someone to walk you through decisions with while starting a company. Codegem did initially have a team behind it — it was part of her capstone project. However, expectations are a huge piece to manage when working with a team. When it got to the point that Stephanie was awarded the Thiel Fellowship and about to drop out of school and pursue her idea, her team members weren’t quite ready to meet the same level of commitment.
Interested in working at a startup?
There is so much you can do to build up your experience before your first job! There are personal projects, hackathons and online courses that can help build your personal portfolio. In our increasingly digital world, there are so many opportunities to showcase your work online. When hiring for a startup, Codegem looks for candidates who can work more independently and have more experience. As Codegem grows, they hope to have more senior team members who will have more capacity to manage. At that point, when Codegem is more stable there may be opportunities for more junior roles and interns.
Codegem is hiring right now for full-time roles — particularly for software and design roles. They are not currently hiring interns or recruiting for volunteers but reach out to Stephanie Mills on LinkedIn if you’re interested!