Evelyn was born and raised in Linz. Thanks to her parents, she came to computer science early in life and decided to stick to it. In 2018, together with Markus Zimmermann, she cofounded Symflower and launched a tool that generates software tests automatically. Linz, she says, is the perfect place for software companies, as it provides a constant outpour of offspring from several university programs in the field.
How did you get into computer science?
I went to an IT high school and got into programming pretty early, at around fourteen. My parents always encouraged me to branch out, look at all kinds of different paths and then pick the most interesting one. They showed me a lot of things. There was this notion in my family of paying extra attention to fields that weren’t considered traditionally female. Both my parents studied economics. They weren’t into tech, but my mom identified as a feminist. She was the leading influence, I believe. For some time I was very into chemistry too, it was a tough decision to make between the two areas. Funny enough, no one else in my family was interested in computers. Many kids start getting interested in computer science through gaming, but that wasn’t my way in. I’m not a gamer and never have been. In my school many kids who liked gaming didn’t actually end up in IT. Those paths don’t always correlate.
Are there other founders in your family? How did you come up with the idea to found your own company?
There are other founders in the family, but that didn’t lead me to becoming a founder myself.
After finishing university it didn’t even cross my mind to have my own company. There was not a single class in which anyone told us about the challenges and gains of founding. It might be different today, but back then we were basically trained to work for existing companies. So I started working as a software developer. Four years into the job, my later cofounder Markus Zimmermann approached me with his business idea. That was, to fully automatically generate software tests, rather than manually writing them. There is somewhat of a technical challenge to be solved in this process, and that pulled me in. I know it sounds weird but founding was never my priority; it was the problem-solving that got me hooked. Again, my parents were immensely supportive, never holding me back by saying, “This is too dangerous, don’t leave your job.” Instead they told me to go ahead and try it out.
How would you describe what Symflower does to a lay person?
Symflower is a productivity tool for software developers. We increase productivity by automatically generating developer tests through source code analyses. Developers no longer have to write these tests by hand but instead get them automatically written by our tool. Let’s say you have a website with some kind of log-in forum where users have to provide a name and password. At some point you need to check if this log-in form behaves as it should behave. Usually you would write an automated test for that to make sure that in the future the log-in forum is working. With Symflower these tests can now be written through fully automated source code analyses. It saves you a lot of time and effort.
Can you share a little bit about your struggles when first starting out?
The big challenge was to get the first funds for Symflower. We didn’t start immediately to look for investors. The public funding opportunities in Austria are really amazing, so instead we applied for those. The first attempts weren’t successful though. We were two tech founders and they wanted to see a third person on the team with a business background. The reasoning was that with solo tech teams the likelihood of failing is much higher. That led us to do projects on the side, because we still had to pay rent and put food on the table. It was a huge distraction, time and energy-wise, and the whole situation was pretty devastating. We were self-employed but not really working full-time on the project. There were other drawbacks too, I just picked the major one.
How did you manage to overcome this setback?
We always asked for feedback on why our application got turned down. Eventually, when we reapplied, we managed to explain better what we were aiming to do and why we didn’t have a third founder. Finally, our application came through. And after we received the first funding it got easier to convince other people too, investors for instance. The important thing is not to get too devastated with two or three declines when writing funding proposals. Ask for feedback and then reshape and reapply. It’ll most likely work out.
What was the biggest decision you ever made?
In the beginning of Symflower I decided to go ahead, quit my full-time job and go fully into founding and building Symflower. It was really frightening. You know, I liked my other job and the colleagues I was working with. Plus, I had a little bit of cold feet. Today, I think I should have done this way sooner. It absolutely was the best decision.
It sounds daunting though. After all there is no cookie cutter way to found a company, right?
Yes, you have to leap. In the beginning you don’t have a team of twelve people, you don’t even have a company. Instead, you don’t have a stable income anymore. Two things helped me a lot. My cofounder had been self-employed since he was seventeen, so he knew a lot about how to make it work. Doing various kinds of projects and consultancy work on the side, meanwhile working on your own project and doing a lot of networking. Markus was experienced and I could learn from him. What helped especially was the incubator tech2b. They had little classes for different areas of the founding process. And they provide you with contact people for all the million questions you will have in the process. Incubators are gamechangers, really. Eventually we had our office at tech2b. And during lunch break we chatted with other founders who were roughly at the same stage as we were. That was very helpful.
Tell me about Linz, you must know the city well, having grown up here.
From a company perspective it’s super due to the universities in Linz. There are several software development programs and many promising graduates to work with, mainly from the computer science program. A little outside of Linz, in Hagenberg, there is another university where you can study similar programs, but also graphic design and gaming.
And from a more personal standpoint, I find Linz just the perfect size of a city, not too big and not too small. There’s so much culture happening. Public transport is great, you can get around by bus and tram fairly easily. Plus Vienna is close. And if you are a parent, Linz has very good childcare for young kids.
There was this notion in my family of paying extra attention to fields that weren’t considered traditionally female.
What’s your favorite place in Linz?
That would be a huge swing in Urfahr, a district in Linz. Not many people seem to know about it, so I’m letting you in on a secret. There is this little park with two small hills and a swing in between them, and you can swing from one hill to the other. It goes really high, so you should have a good head for heights. It feels like you’re on a halfpipe, pretty great. Walking along the Donau at dusk, beavers appear and you can watch them swimming and nibbling away on trees. Beaver watching – lot’s of fun!
Can you give some advice to someone who is just starting out on their entrepreneurial journey?
I would advise against founding alone. Building a team of founders who ideally already have all the skills you’ll need further down the road is essential. Have someone who focuses on product development, someone for marketing and/or sales, someone doing operation and fundraising. At Symflower we were just two people for a long time. It was always too much for each one of us. When I speak of a team I don’t mean employees. Early on in the history of the company, employees tend to not be as devoted as cofounders. They might decide after a year to leave because they have a better offer. What you need is people you can trust and who are giving their very best. Since February, we have a new CEO, he is only twenty-nine and already built and sold a company. I hope we are done with the extensions now.
How old were you when you cofounded your company?
I need an issue tracker in order to work in a structural way
What do you wish for your future?
I wish Symflower to stay a fun place to work at.
What’s your most used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Trust your gut feeling in interviews..
What’s your most valuable skill?
I can work in many areas and fill in gaps.
Main Photo by: Antje Wolm