Take time to celebrate small victories — Taking the time to acknowledge your effort and the steps your team is taking to reach each goal is important. When you celebrate the small wins, it makes the extra effort you’re putting toward the big wins seem less stressful.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grechen Huebner. Grechen is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Kodable. She founded Kodable with her co-founder Jon Mattingly in 2012 in Louisville, KY. With a marketing background by training, Grechen taught herself design so that she could create the art and world within the Kodable game. 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I never planned on founding a startup but, looking back, it makes sense why I felt comfortable starting Kodable. Both of my parents started their own businesses when I was a child. I remember them working hard to get their business off the ground to provide for my sister and me. When I was in second grade, my mom said with great pride, “Your dad is an entrepreneur.” They helped me and my sister Mary start our own “business” selling snacks in their office break-room. I learned how to talk to customers and manage business relationships by watching them.
While these lessons were valuable and stuck with me, I still never expected to start my own company until my co-founder, Jon Mattingly, and I had the idea to teach kids programming. I’d taught myself to build websites while I was in college, and that experience opened a lot of doors. I wanted to give kids the opportunity to learn about programming early in life so that they could decide if it was something they were interested in before they got to college, when it is arguably too late.
What is it about the position of executive that most attracted you to it?
For me, it was never about seeking out an executive position. Starting a company is a difficult task so I really had to be pulled into it. I was intrigued by the idea of teaching kids programming, and the impact I could have by starting a company that helped them learn such valuable skills. My passion to build this company and deliver on its mission propelled me into the position I am in today.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As a founder, all responsibility falls on you. While other leaders are held to specific metrics and deliverables, it is the founder’s job to determine the direction of the company, what deliverables are expected, and most importantly, to develop new ideas and innovative ways to solve customer problems. When we were trying to establish our sales model at Kodable, we tried hiring a very experienced sales manager to help us, but quickly realized that the most important part of our business model needed a founder’s attention. I took my time, running experiments and talking to customers, until I was able to establish a repeatable model to sell to schools.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I love seeing the impact of Kodable in kids’ lives. We have a Twitter mentions channel in our company Slack where we can see stories and photos that teachers and parents are sharing online. It is heartwarming to see kids learning about coding every day on a program I helped create. I especially appreciate hearing about students who were struggling in other areas, but suddenly blossomed when given the chance to practice coding.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
I really appreciate our team and the effort they put into making Kodable great. We have developed a great bond working together. However, when you’re someone’s boss, you always have to keep a responsible line between being a friend and being an employer. The people I work with are wonderful, and I could easily be friends with several of them, but keeping healthy boundaries is critical because eventually you will need to have difficult and objective conversations about performance, salary, etc.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
MYTH: Executives are the smartest people in the room.
Actually, I’ve learned from other leaders and from experience that if I’m doing my job right, everyone else is smarter than me. It’s our job as founders to figure out a role, and to hire the best person for the job. That means everyone around me will be smarter and more specialized than me. I believe a smart leader is someone who understands what they don’t know, and is willing to bring someone onto their team who can do it better than they ever could.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women are expected to be “nice”even when running a company. As an executive, you often have to make decisions and have conversations that require you to show your tough side. This is a skill every leader has to learn, but I believe it is particularly nuanced for women. People expect more compassion and softness from a woman, so when you demonstrate that you can be a tough negotiator or a strict boss, there’s an internal struggle that I don’t think most men need to think about. Personally, I feel like I need to find the perfect balance between compassion and objectivity so I can keep everyone’s respect. I feel I will be judged by a different standard than my male co-founder if I show my tough side during delicate conversations.
There was one particularly difficult moment when we had to let an employee go for performance reasons. It was so difficult to maintain my composure when the employee started crying. I could see the person looking to me for support, but I had to hold my ground, stating that performance was poor. I felt so cold, letting the employee hold all this sadness alone, but I knew it had to be done. For anyone who has fired someone, this is a familiar feeling, but I believe it is slightly elevated for women because society has trained us to be polite caretakers and friends to everyone.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Last year, we held a design challenge for students to create their own mazes in Kodable. Kids submitted over 20,000 mazes and our team had the pleasure of reviewing all of them to find the top 20. I’ve been designing the levels in Kodable since we started in 2012 so I felt I had a pretty firm grasp on what makes a “good” level of Kodable. Boy, was I wrong! The amazing designs from the kids blew me away. They had so many unique, interesting and creative ideas that ranged from challenging to downright artistic. It was so humbling to see kids taking the program I created and making something better than I could have imagined.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Working with kids is a lot of fun. There’s no end to the awkward, hilarious, and silly things that occur when you’re working with elementary school kids regularly. Words that kids often shouldn’t say are usually the ones they think are the most hilarious. We created a student password system for teachers. This password was used to sign in at home and school. Teachers could send parents a login card with each child’s 8-character, alpha-numeric password to let them sign in to Kodable on their home device. It never occurred to us that inappropriate words would get randomly generated until we received a very strongly worded email from a parent. This parent was furious to discover that buried in their child’s 8-character alphanumeric Kodable password were the three letters every parent dreads their child reading: S-E-X. Needless to say, we all had a good laugh and added a filter to our random password generator that day.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought I would have things figured out, but now I realize when you figure one thing out, you run into more things you need to figure out. The problems don’t go away; they’re just different.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive
In my experience, a leader should be a great listener and excellent problem solver, as well as being a formidable individual so she can speak confidently and in a way that earns respect from others.
People who aren’t willing to admit when they’re wrong, or are unable it, should avoid becoming an executive. The irony is that if they have that quality, they probably won’t admit it. Everyone makes mistakes and executives are no exception. However, when you’re leading a company, people look at your actions to guide culture as well as the company’s direction. A great leader practices humility, knowing when she made a mistake and correcting it. This will have benefits for your product, customers, and company culture.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Women are problem solvers. We’re incredibly capable when it comes to multitasking and finding unique solutions to problems. I truly believe there’s nothing that can stop a woman who puts her mind to solving a problem she cares about. Lean into that! I often feel like I should defer to those around me rather than relying on my own instincts and intuition, but I’ve found that when I trust myself, I can make big changes happen. You’ll make mistakes, but you will learn from each and every mistake and eventually reach a solution.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I actually have three people who were absolutely essential to my journey with Kodable. First, my co-founder, Jon Mattingly. We’ve been through thick and thin together. Kodable would not have a fraction of its success without him.
Second, my parents Norman and Shannon. They’ve been supportive since day one. Their support has meant everything to me. I’ll never forget the night before we released Kodable into the App Store. We were behind schedule and needed to thoroughly bug-test the game before submitting. They stayed up with us until 3 a.m. testing and logging bugs.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At this point, millions of kids have used Kodable to start learning to code. The kids who used Kodable in kindergarten when we first started are now in middle school and have skills that can help them change their future, the future for their families, and impact their communities. Technology gives people the power to do great things with very few resources, and millions more kids will have that opportunity since they used Kodable to start learning to code.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Help people see your vision — As a founder, it is easy for me to visualize Kodable’s success and our path there. As a leader, it is my job to help others see that vision and inspire them enough to do the work that needs to be done to make it happen.
- Set small goals — It’s easy to see exactly where you want to be, but it’s more difficult to know the path to get there. I like to work backwards from my stretch goal and set smaller goals to help me stay on course to reaching it.
- Take time to celebrate small victories — Taking the time to acknowledge your effort and the steps your team is taking to reach each goal is important. When you celebrate the small wins, it makes the extra effort you’re putting toward the big wins seem less stressful.
- Learn to let go — Part of leading is giving your team enough freedom to run with ideas. It took me a while to learn to let go of ideas and let the experts I hired own them. I found I was slowing our progress and they were getting frustrated when I was trying to maintain control on projects. When the team had freedom to explore all sides of an idea, I was blown away with the final result.
- Keep everyone connected to the product — Communicating with your users is absolutely essential for team members to understand their needs. At Kodable, every team member answers support questions and talks to teachers, parents, and kids about Kodable. We want to make sure the entire team is in touch with the power of Kodable and how we can continue to improve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I recently committed to only buying things I need for one year. This meant no shopping for leisure or buying things on Amazon “because I like it.” Taking a break from buying new things all the time changed my entire perspective on buying things altogether. It was a completely liberating experience. Now, before I buy things, I think to myself: “Do I really need this? Is there something I already have that can work instead?” I’m also much more aware of how much stuff I actually have. I feel like I can go without many of the things I used to think I “needed” and consider my carbon footprint when I buy new things. For example, did you know it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans? Now, when I do need or want to buy something, I’m more inclined to buy something gently used from a thrift shop.
If I could help others experience the joy of liberation from the desire for more things, I believe people could live happier lives, and we could delay climate change by slowing pollution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life has to be a little nuts sometimes. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together.” — “Rumor Has It …” I love this quote because I reminds me to roll with the punches. Life is unpredictable, you can have the best plan, but life has a way of throwing things at you that you couldn’t possibly plan for. The unpredictability and constant changes make life interesting.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I heard the founders of SoulCycle, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, on the “How I Built This” podcast and I was so impressed with how they marketed SoulCycle in the beginning. I’m currently working on growth marketing for Kodable, and I would love to talk with them and learn more from their story. I would also love to meet Eileen Fisher, Jenn Hyman, or Sandy Lerner because they all seem like amazing women with a lot of knowledge.