Mail-Order Coding Education: Interview with Scott Lininger and Aidan Chopra, Co-Founders of Bitsbox
Scott Lininger and Aidan Chopra, co-founders of Bitsbox, have a unique vision for coding education: to provide access to coding instruction to children from all socioeconomic tiers, through a monthly kit for classroom and home use.
In an interview with Hannah Nyren of EdTech Times, the co-founders discuss startup accelerators, their backgrounds in the fine arts, and how their company has grown since launching in 2014.
ETT: Hello, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am interviewing the founders of Bitsbox. If you could both introduce yourselves individually?
SL: I’m Scott Lininger; I’m the CEO.
AC: Hi, I’m Aidan Chopra; I’m one of the co-founders and the chief creative officer.
ETT: You really like your job title, huh?
AC: I spent a long time in development.
ETT: I want to be a chief creative officer. Alright, so tell me a little bit about, kind of, Bitsbox and what it does, in a sentence or two.
SL: Bitsbox is a website and a system for teaching kids to code.
ETT: Oh, that’s really cool. So what inspired you both to start this company?
SL: Aidan and I met together when we worked at Google. We, uh—
ETT: You’re saying it out loud.
SL: He was on the creative side of the house and I was on the technical side of the house, and I was ready to leave the company and go do a startup. My daughter Audrey was getting interested in computer programming. She was seven at the time. We did some of the existing tools that were available, and they were great. But when she was ready to do that next step, she needed something new. And that’s when we came up with the idea for Bitsbox.
ETT: Wow, that’s really cool.
AC: He built it as a prototype for his kid and decided this would be really good for other kids too.
ETT: Tell me a little bit about how you got from point A to point B. What was the progression to where you are today?
AC: Well, uh, Scott proposed to me that we should quit a little over two years ago.
ETT: Okay. How long did it take you to actually quit?
AC: It took me two months to quit. [laughs] Eventually though, that summer, 2014, we quit; we holed up in my house. We played, like, bad, bad Britney Spears music and flew kites on some days and built the product out. And we were building such a good product, and we knew what this product roadmap was for years. And then we realized we are not business people. Like, we know exactly what the product should do, but whenever somebody would ask us, “Oh, how does it, you know, how do people find it?” we’d be like, Oh, they’re going to find it ’cause good things get found. Or, “How much does it cost?” Oh, we don’t really know yet.
AC: “How old, you know, are the kids?” Oh, we don’t really know, but we have this great product! So we realized—
ETT: I know all too well that good things just don’t get found.
AC: Yeah, that’s the thing.
ETT: It’s not that easy.
AC: So there’s a terrific startup accelerator called Boomtown out of Boulder. We applied; we got in. We went through that three-month program at Boomtown. We graduated. Immediately, we had tutorials available on code.org’s Hour of Code page in December 2014. And in that first week we got about a quarter of a million kids using our prototype. And the feedback was really positive—
ETT: So advice for other start-ups…[laughs]
AC: Yeah, you know what, people say launch early and often, and in our case, it really worked. Like, we probably would not have shown that to that many people if there hadn’t been that really great opportunity to do it, so we did it. At the very same time that we launched that thing for code.org, what did we launch that same day?
SL: We launched a Kickstarter campaign, which is another great thing for startups. We raised over a quarter of a million dollars on the Kickstarter platform, and that got us several thousand pre-orders, so we knew we had customers and we knew they loved the product idea.
AC: In forty countries!
ETT: Forty countries?
AC: So we finished up the Kickstarter about a year and a half ago and then had three months to actually ship product. Started shipping our first product, which was a monthly subscription box for home users—parents and aunts and uncles, people who want their kids to code—in April of 2015, and we’ve shipped new content every month since then. So we’re shipping our sixteenth month of content, something like that.
AC: Now we’re up to over sixty countries.
ETT: Wow, that’s really cool.
SL: Yeah, so for awhile we thought we were just going to be a consumer business, selling to individual parents, and then teachers started buying our stuff, without asking us if that was okay. [laughs] Of course it was great; we loved it. And so now we’re here at ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education]; this is our very first education show. We got accepted into the AT&T Aspire Accelerator cause we realized that, man, teachers really need this stuff. And Bitsbox is great for the classroom. But just like with Boomtown, we need help to figure out what works best in the classroom. We’re not teachers, we’re not formally trained educators, and so AT&T is helping us bridge that gap.
ETT: So how long was the AT&T Aspire program?
SL: It’s a six-month program, and we’re right in the middle of it right now, so demo day is at the end of the year.
ETT: Six months?! That’s kinda long.
SL: It is. They have a different model than most traditional accelerators in that a) they wanted a little bit longer time period and b) it’s a remote program. So you don’t have to relocate your whole company.
ETT: See, that’s the issue with a lot of accelerators is it’s hard for people to relocate. Sometimes they can be great if the location gives them a lot of access to–
SL: Right. It’s fantastic for, like, very early-stage companies, where it’s just a couple of people, a couple of founders, but once you have a team of, you know, six people, like we do, who all have families and lives, it’s pretty much impossible. And AT&T wanted companies that were a little bit later stage than your traditional accelerator.
AC: Scott and I are parents. I mean, we have kids—
ETT: Yeah, you can’t leave your kids for six months.
AC: —and spouses. And we like them! We really, really like them. And we really like our houses—
ETT: You’re not looking for a 6-month vacation.
AC: —and our own beds. We like all kinds of, you know, everything about our lives. And picking up and moving for several months just wasn’t in the cards. Which is why we did Boomtown.
ETT: Yeah, it’s not for everyone. That’s why a lot of the people who are in those programs are typically younger, don’t have children. They can move around a bit more.
SL: Yup. Exactly.
ETT: What do you have planned for the future? What’s next?
SL: So we’re eager to get Bitsbox rolled out to as many kids as we can, and we think the best way to do that is through schools. So we’ve recently introduced some new classroom kits, and library and makerspace kits, that allow us to take all of that sixteen-months-plus of content that we built for home subscribers, repackage it a little bit based off of all the data that we gathered and learned what works, and turn those into kits that, you know, we can sell all over the world.
AC: Yeah. When we founded, our goal wasn’t, you know, become yacht billionaires. But some people honestly start companies for that reason, right?
ETT: It was “create something cool.”
AC: It was “create something cool,” but it was teach kids the skill that’s becoming, you know, increasingly obvious that this is really important. If you’re a kid growing up in the twenty-first century and you want to be the sort of person who makes things, or can conceive of making things, you don’t necessarily have to be a software engineer, but you have to know something about coding, you have to know how it–how it works. We don’t teach our kids to, sort of, read and write because we want them to be novelists, right? We teach them because we want them to be contributing members of society. And coding is just a form of literacy that’s about how things work. And you know what? It’s not gonna work if we just teach rich kids, and it’s not gonna work if we just teach kids where both parents have college degrees and they live in affluent suburbs and things like that. It’s only going to work really, at a societal level, if we reach everybody, if we reach kids who don’t have quite as much socioeconomic means, whose parents might be first generation, who don’t even necessarily have a complete mastery of English. And who certainly can’t afford it. Schools are the way to do that because schools serve everyone. So we started the company, we didn’t have any money; we decided to go after the easiest thing, which was selling directly to parents. But in our minds it was always about scale; it was always about serving every kid, and we’re really excited to have that opportunity now.
ETT: That’s really cool. So do you think that your experience as students might have played a role in your approach to this educational product?
SL: Yeah, both Aidan and I studied fine art as undergrads, and we are not the–totally–the prototypical, not the most prototypical computer scientist types.
ETT: Yeah, that doesn’t sound prototypical at all.
SL: And so I was probably the only senior software engineer in our whole office that had a fine art degree at Google. And it’s really kind of awful that the people who have the reigns on the creativity and building the products of the future all are kind of the same sorts of people. There’s way too little diversity in our technology companies, and the way to fix that problem is to have kids start earlier. A seven-year-old girl has not yet formed this idea that computer programming is for boys. And a kid from the inner city has not formed that idea of, like, Oh, that’s too hard for me to ever go to college and do that skill; that’s beyond what anybody I know has ever done. But computer coding is really, really fun! It’s incredibly creative.
ETT: You just have to see what you can to do with it.
SL: You just have to be shown it at a point in your life when you’re not closed-minded to it. And then you’ll go on to choose whatever path you do. We think that it’s important that a much more diverse set of people are driving what the future’s going to be. And we’re hoping that this box is going to help with that problem.
AC: New York Times has a really interesting article this week actually. I think it’s the “AI’s white guy problem.” I think I’m paraphrasing; I think that’s, like, the title of the article. It essentially says, if you look at the way systems are designed now, and you know, literally, it’s sort of life and death. Like, the people that are programming the software that are going to drive self-driving cars, and they’re programming in the moral decisions that the cars are gonna make about, literally, like, I have a choice. I know I’m going to hit something. Do I hit the tree, or do I hit the kids, or do I hit the construction worker? Do I hit the other car? I mean, what do I…you know, there’s all these kinds of HUGE implications to the kinds of decisions that programmers are making right now. Uh, and if you’ve got one kind of person represented in that field, that’s a huge bias for the way those kinds of decisions are being made. So it’s not just about incorporating first kinds of characters and themes and narratives and stuff in the technology we’re making; it’s really world-changing stuff. It has huge moral and ethical implications. And so not just women, but people of color, and even younger people and older people, everybody, needs to be in on this.
ETT: Right. Wow. That’s such a great message to send off. Thank you!
SL: You’re welcome. Thank you.
AC: We think about it A LOT.
ETT: Yeah, I know. I can tell.
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.