For some of you out there, learning how to code might seem difficult.
So how do you take something complicated but important like coding, and make it so that even 6 year olds can understand?
Eli Kariv has the answer.
Starting a company right out of college is a tough, but it was the natural decision for Eli Kariv as he finished his senior year at Penn State.
Eli co-founded The Coding Space to teach children of all age critical thinking skills through self-paced coding projects.
Students have the chance to build what they want at the pace they are comfortable learning.
One of Breaking Hoops’ readers, Allen Cao, caught up with Eli to chat about what it takes to build a coding school for kids.
How did you decide to jump into entrepreneurship?
The first time I knew of someone starting a company was my brother. He started a company called Math4Sale, where he bought and sold reconditioned calculators online.
The business idea itself wasn’t the coolest, but I saw him build this eBay company into a multi-million dollar business 8 years later.
But it wasn’t until Penn State until I learned about startups, technology, and how to scale companies.
There’s a common mindset that college students aren’t ready and don’t know enough to start a business. What experiences helped you build relatable skills in school?
I took an entrepreneurship class in high school, which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t see what my brother was doing.
Then in college, the first Innoblue meeting I went to I talked about my brother’s experience. I didn’t actually know much at the time, but acting like I knew enough served as a gateway for me.
I would say I learned the most through Penn State, particularly Innoblue because there was this community of people with a mutual interest.
What types of experiences did you have beyond classes and organizations?
A cool experience I had in school was starting a web development company called CrossedClouds.
Looking back, it wasn’t really a company, but a really good chance for me to start something. I noticed all these small businesses in downtown State College needed websites and they were willing to pay money.
So you just went downtown and asked businesses if you could make a landing page or website for them?
Yeah, basically, I was working with a student org called Students Consulting with Non-Profits, and the one thing all the organizations needed was a website.
Initially they asked if our consulting group could make one. Then I offered to make the site myself, and asked how much they’d pay for it.
How much did they pay you in the beginning?
The first client paid us $500 and then others starting paying us $1500 per website.
For a freshman that was a lot of money.
I didn’t know any coding either, but I knew I could learn, and I knew it was a need.
Did you build the sites yourself or have like a student engineering student help?
I had a co-founder, Noor, who was also a business major, and we were working on it together.
We used WordPress themes, and installed the themes. If I had to do it again I would use Wix or Weebly, which is also a company by Penn Staters.
How did you arrive at the decision to actually start a company after graduation?
During college, I had internships at Firefox and an ed-tech startup called Remind. With that I kind of had four different routes: business consulting, full tech route, ed-tech, or entrepreneurship.
Like many, I also had the mindset that now wasn’t the exact time and I’m not ready yet. I thought I would just get a job at a really cool tech company.
It was actually my co-founder, Steve, who left school at UPenn to work as a software engineer in San Fran, and realized he wanted to do more meaningful work.
Essentially he wasn’t making the impact he wanted to make, similar to my experience working at Firefox.
It was cool to have that experience, but impact wise, I wanted to do be more tied into the results.
From there we went down the thought process of what are the things that we value most, what kind of impact we want to make on the world, and realized we wanted to be in the realm of education, specifically teaching kids how to code.
Not because coding itself is important, which is why everyone is teaching is now, but more to teach how to think and have independent problem-solving skills, something that I wasn’t taught at a young age.
We have gone through many iterations of the company from the name to business model.
We started with public schools in SF and offered them curriculums and professional development, but that didn’t work out as we’d hoped.
Soon, we decided to move to NYC where there’s more room for growth and a larger population.
After you guys moved to NYC, when did you guys see traction pick up?
Our first week in NYC we tried to get familiar by talking to anyone from schools to temples and churches.
After constant rejections, we ended up randomly on the 2nd St. Y and found their summer camp’s office.
After we told them about our coding program, they freaked out and literally said their saviors walked in.
They had started a coding class but couldn’t find any teachers, so they ended up hiring Steve and I to teach in the camp all break.
That ended up introducing us to a lot of parents in the area who ended up being big supporters.
In September, we started our own after-school classes. It started slow and we only had about 6 kids in the first week. Word started to spread around the community about this innovative program where we really let students decide what they’re going to learn.
By the second week our student count had doubled, and then doubled again by the third week.
At the end of the semester, we were full in all of our classes with 85 students. We knew then we were over the initial hump of getting started.
When it wasn’t going well, were there times that you wanted to give up and find a job or determined to keep going?
I was definitely scared, especially paying for rent and living in SF.
I personally had 2–3 months worth of savings I was comfortable risking, and worst case I run out of money and go find a job. I definitely had that backup option but I was definitely scared I would have to use that backup option.
One thing that helped us a lot is that we stuck to the Lean Startup principles by Eric Ries.
We stuck really close to that book and that forced us to find something that proved to provide value to people and people would pay money for from day one.
We crossed off working with schools because there’s a lot of people work and long sales cycle. You can start talking to a school in May and not have a contract until the next year.
For a startup that’s a very scary proposition.
Then we started playing around with the idea of an after-school program, where parents would pre-pay for the semester.
We would find out very quickly if there were a need in the market.
From there we just realized that New York city with a very dense family population versus San Fran, which already had a lot of programs for CS education.
They didn’t even value it so much because there are so many other options.
As a non-technical co-founder, how do you provide value to the Coding Space and how would you advise other students to provide value?
I think learning technical a skill is a way to start.
Although I don’t have the chops to become a software engineer but learned about how to build basic websites, what goes into app development, why you use certain programming languages over others, and the difference between front end and backend language. I know enough where I can hold a conversation about these topics.
I’ve always been someone passionate about marketing and that’s what I bring to the table. I was lucky enough to meet my co-founder Steve, who doesn’t just know how to code, but has a great product mind and understands what the world needs.
I take that and say how do we get this into 100 people’s hands right now, or how do we get our first 5 students or how do we make sure our classes are filled.
Timing, Funding, Idea, Team, and Execution are five critical factors of starting a company. How have these five things paired up for you?
Team was definitely the most important factor for me. W
hen I met Steve during my summer internship, we both knew we wanted to build something in the future, and although we weren’t exactly sure of what, we knew we had the same values and goals to make something work.
Idea was the last thing we thought about. Instead, we thought about our most important core values and ended up with deep impact, empowerment, and scale.
And we had this list of 100 things we were excited about and ranked them with our three criteria.
We narrowed it down to a few ideas that we’ve iterated and relocated until the model and location we have now.
We also have something we call the North Star.
When we’re in stressful situations we look up and know that if we are able to accomplish this then we will make deep impact in a lot of kids lives.
That North Star has pulled us out of many tricky situations.
What’s the next for you and the Coding Space?
Luckily New York City is a densely populated area, we’re looking at opening new locations in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn, so figuring out if we can find the right people to run those programs.
As we get more users on that we’ll spend more time developing that platform.
We’re also developing a something that will let people be able to code without learning all of the syntax involved, so those are some cool software projects coming up for 2017.
Guest post by Allen Cao.