20 below: Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis (15)
Hometown: Halifax, N.S.
Executive summary: High school student with a passion for sailing, soccer, downhill skiing, photography, technology and computer programming. Alex is the co-founder of Microcent.org (a micro donation and content discovery platform) and Frame (a service similar to NetFlix that offers stock photography instead of video or television).

ABM: Who is Alex Gillis? – family, friends, likes/dislikes/hobbies/special interests/best and worst qualities.
Alex Gillis: I am a 15 year old grade 10 student, born in Toronto but have lived in Halifax for the most part as my mom is from Halifax and moved back when I was a baby to complete her medical training at Dalhousie University. I attend the Fountain Academy boy school which is part of the Sacred Heart school of Halifax where my mom and aunt also went to school. I have a passion for sailing (I sail and race 420s but am looking to try my hand at racing lasers this summer), photography, anything do with technology and of course programming! During lunch hours, evenings and weekends, you can find me and my co-founder Aristides Milios hard at work on the third floor of Volta Labs in the heart of downtown Halifax. I would consider myself to be pretty laid back, though I have an eye for detail, need to see projects through to completion and am definitely meticulous!

ABM: How and when did you discover your passion for programming and business?
AG: I’ve been very interested in technology since a young age and have always liked to tinker and build. Having an interest to look under the hood (so to speak) at the inner workings of things is what has really inspired my passion for programming and understanding the hidden internal workings of the internet and how the phenomenon of start-ups has evolved to allow for invention and creative entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone of any age.

ABM: Who taught you how to be a programmer and business owner?
AG: My mom. She’s a medical geneticist at the IWK hospital and teaches at the Dalhousie medical school. A single mom who has done it all on her own going through graduate school and medicine while raising me. I have learned from her and hope to follow in her footsteps as a strong independent individual who strives to make the world a better place through assisting others. So, I guess it’s only natural I’m a self-taught learner/self-taught programmer – it’s in my genes! I’ve been programming since age nine. I started with visual basic through online forums and then became very passionate about web technologies and started to become fluent in both frontend and server-side languages by the time I was in grade six. I have recently started to spearhead into the business side of things while launching my startup, MicroCent. I’ve received a lot of support and guidance from not only my mother, but also Milan Vrekic, executive director of Volta Labs. Ian Earle and Colin White from Print with Pixel, as well as, Mark Hobbs and Chris Kolmatycki from Fund Metric continue to provide great support.

ABM: You’re a high school student with two businesses. Where does this confidence come from?
AG: I subscribe to the 1,000-100-10-1 rule of thumb for entrepreneurship. At any given time, about 1,000 people around the world will have the same idea. 100 people will start exploring the idea further, 10 people will actually go ahead and build something and in the end 1 will succeed. With this in mind and the capacity to dare to fail, anything is possible. At my school, the Fountain Academy, the teachers nurture confidence and provide a ton of support! My fellow classmates and students are positive and a great group of friends. The school motto says it all really Tum Audax Verax (Dare to be true) and at 15 I have many people supporting me and nothing but opportunities to explore which is a luxury many people don’t recognize.

ABM: Where did you get the idea for MicroCent.org? How does it work? Has it been successful so far?
AG: The idea for MicroCent.org came to me while at the Volta Hackathon this past January. I found that more and more of my favourite blogs and online news sources were forcing readers to purchase subscriptions as advertising wasn’t generating enough revenue. The mission of MicroCent is to make the web a better place by keeping the web open and free. You simply purchase a monthly subscription and continue to browse the web. At the end of every month, MicroCent tallies up which articles and posts you’ve read and rewards the writers and content creators based on how much of their content you’ve read. The best part is you also get to reward the charity of your choice every month by select a percentage of your subscription be passed on to them. With MicroCent you’re not only making the web a better place but you’re rewarding your favourite content creators and supporting great charities. Sign up today at MicroCent.org!

ABM: Tell us about Frame – how does it work? Is it still in the concept stage? How will you take it to the next level?
AG: Frame is similar to NetFlix but offers stock photography rather than videos and tv shows. Currently, stock photography is only used by larger corporations and can be very expensive to use. The goal of Frame is to expand this market to personal uses such as blogs and personal projects by charging a low flat fee per month. With the idea that these images will be used online, we can reward the photographers through a cost per impression schema tracked by our embed code.  Frame has recently moved into the validation stage and I hope to see Frame become a reality shortly!

ABM: How much time do you spend on developing your businesses and programming as compared to your high school studies?
AG: I spend much of my free time on business development. I am an honours student with a thirst for learning and I take education very seriously. I plan to attend university to further pursue and develop my skills and interests in entrepreneurship and computer science. For now, I look forward to continuing my collaboration with Volta and truly appreciate the work space and resources Volta Labs in downtown Halifax have kindly provided during many of my free periods and lunch hours during the week as well as weekends… During the evening you can either find me attending start-up related meet-ups and talks or working on a homework assignment.

ABM: Do you have time for any other extracurricular activities?
AG: I am a member of my school’s robotics club and am working towards obtaining my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award. I play soccer for the Fountain Academy senior boys soccer team and downhill ski in winter. During the summer I sail and race 420s out of the Halifax Royal Yacht squadron or the Weagwoltic Club.

ABM: Are your friends also aspiring entrepreneurs? What do they think of the “alpha programmer” among them?
AG: I’ve have a number of friends who have similar interests but also have their own interesting projects on the go. They are supportive and helpful to bounce ideas back and forth.

ABM: What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
AG: I am fortunate. There have been so many highlights throughout my life, I would need a lot more space to describe them all then I have here! I’ve been invited to attend and I am really excited to participate in the upcoming Shad Valley 2014 Summer Enrichment Program. I was awarded the Terry Donohue Award for school spirit inside and outside of the classroom which was presented by Mrs. Donohue which was really special, and learning how to sail. Winning the Voltal Hackathon has definitely been one of my greatest achievements as it has opened so many doors for me.  

ABM: What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
AG: I have thought about this one and I really can’t come up with anything.

ABM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Are you planning to stay in Atlantic Canada?
AG: Despite being born in Toronto, Atlantic Canada is home. In the next ten years, I hope to have launched a successful start-up and to be a mentor for aspiring young entrepreneurs.  Ultimately I would like to build connections to Silicon Valley but maintain my strong ties here in Atlantic Canada.

ABM: Who inspires you?
AG: Other young founders inspire me. People like Brian Wong, founder of Kiip and Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress who were both under 20 when they developed and founded their now very well-known start-ups.

ABM: What motivates you?
AG: Learning, opportunity and the potential for success motivate me.  As I continue to work towards the end goal of launching MicroCent, more and more opportunities become available every day. I’ve received many requests to collaborate along with invitations to meet and talk with other founders such as Dan Martell from Clarity.fm and Brian Wong from Kiip.

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