In an Entrepreneur Magazine profile on Youth Digital in 2013, the Chapel Hill startup’s founder Justin Richards predicted the movement to teach kids to code would increase exponentially over the next few years and Youth Digital would be a big player in it.
Richards was only half right. The movement to teach kids to code has indeed grown tremendously over the last two years, but Youth Digital isn't just a player—it's a clear leader.
When the article was published, Youth Digital had 800 customers. Now, its instructors and software programs have taught more than 70,000 children in over 100 countries how to build and design games, apps and computer programs, proving that Youth Digital wasn’t destined to be just a player in the movement or constrained to being just a coding school.
Youth Digital’s courses train kids to design games, 3D animations, mods for Minecraft games, apps, fashion and even servers. They foster creativity in children through technology, ultimately “creating creators.” Since its accidental founding in 2010 by Richards and his wife Molly, Youth Digital has grown in every way. New courses are consistently being designed, produced and packaged in-house by a rapidly growing team of 53 employees.
The executive team has grown to include top talent from successful local tech companies like Appia and Shoeboxed—former Appia CFO Tim Oakley has become a key advisor to the company. And it’s happened without any outside investment.
It's for these reasons respected leaders in the Triangle's startup community are both impressed by and excited about Youth Digital. The Startup Factory co-founder Chris Heivly says he's "excited for this company as its mission is something that I strongly believe is or should be a long-term competitive advantage for our metro and our nation."
The founders say that Youth Digital curriculum is unlike any coding or tech training currently available to kids. While trainings, camps and classes are available to children in most local communities, few online technology courses are tailored just to them. And the ones that are—like KidsRuby or Hopscotch—typically focus on one single programming language or product type.
But the company isn’t just filling a void in the market, it’s also creating a high standard for training kids to use technology to create new things and for delivering that content in meaningful ways. The content is engaging yet informative and the instruction is meant to both entertain and empower.
By focusing on the mission that sets Youth Digital apart from its competitors—creating creators—the company will do more than just churn out an army of coders. Instead, Justin Richards says Youth Digital kids will contribute more holistically to the workforce they enter one day because they will be better prepared and “can enter a job they love and connect with their passion and create.”
Developing Youth Digital
Richards isn’t a trained educator, nor is he a trained computer or game programmer. In both areas, he’s entirely self-taught—tutoring paid the bills while he worked toward a master’s degree at Duke University in 2010. But despite his lack of qualifications, his techniques are now successfully teaching thousands of kids around the world to design games, apps, servers, mods and 3D animations.
Richards became interested in game and computer design after falling in love with Toy Story as a child. He had always loved art and computers and the movie’s animation gave him a model for how to integrate the two. But when he tried to learn how to use technology to create digital art, in hopes of becoming the next Pixar animator, he couldn’t find any resources to help kids his age learn computer, graphic or game design. So instead of waiting until college—where everyone told him he would learn what he needed to know—he began teaching himself.
By the time he enrolled in Georgia’s Covenant College as a cross-cultural ethics major, he already worked as a freelance graphic and web designer. He sharpened his skills on the side and upon graduation, moved to St. Louis to work at the non-profit Youth Learning Center, where he taught web and game design to at-risk youth in after-school programs. It was there that he developed a passion for teaching children to create new things using technology. He also began testing different teaching techniques, and learned how to best connect with the kids—lessons that he would later integrate into Youth Digital.
Richards found that what really captured kids imagination wasn’t the computer programming itself, but the real projects that came out of it. He connected best with the children by listening for their feedback and paying attention to details, like which jokes fell flat and which received laughs.
When he decided to go to grad school in Durham, he visited the area and met with local schools, non-profits and parents in hopes of earning money for school by teaching web and game design to children on the side. Everyone he met with was interested in hiring him, but only the parents called him back. By the time he moved to Durham, he had 20 jobs.
But within two months, the 20 students doubled to 40. To meet the demand, Richards hired another instructor and his wife Molly, who had a background working with children with special needs. When they hit 100 kids, they decided to create online classes to reach even more children. Richards took a leave of absence from his degree program to focus full-time on Youth Digital, and the business has been adding customers and employees ever since.
A big decision came early into the scale-up—Richards had to choose between turning the business into a non-profit like the Khan Academy, and keeping it a for-profit company. He chose the latter because he and his team determined that for-profits have a faster and more direct way of reaching children by selling the courses directly to the parents. And without a board or grant makers to please, Youth Digital can focus 100 percent of its energy on pleasing only the children and their parents.
It’s this same rationale that is behind Richards’ choice to bootstrap rather than seek outside capital, like many of his competitors. While bootstrapping comes with its own set of challenges, Richards says it’s been healthy for the company. He never had the option to spend money that wasn’t in the Youth Digital bank account. And it’s allowed the team to remain singularly focused on serving customers and building the business.
In the Triangle startup community, Richards has earned the reputation of "a grinder," says Heivly. "He's someone who just keeps pushing, pushing and pushing the company forward...and it (Youth Digital) achieved these results outside of investors."
While he’s not opposed to raising funds in the future, Richards says he’ll only do so if it would expedite his ability to reach more kids with the same quality of content.
More than coding, it's about creating
Today, Youth Digital offers both in-person and online classes. They’re all self-paced and project-based, meaning that children learn coding languages and techniques by working on projects at their own pace.
The in-person courses are mostly delivered through summer camps in nearly 20 East Coast cities from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg, Fla. Youth Digital partners with existing camps held by schools and non-profits, and sends its instructors to teach the material. Next year, 40 cities will host camps.
Meanwhile, at Youth Digital headquarters in Chapel Hill, local students can enroll in six-week after-school programs where new content, curricula and technologies are tested so Youth Digital can constantly improve its programming.
But the real focus of company growth is online, where 90 percent of Youth Digital students are learning coding and design skills with the same instruction, software and support as they’d have in a classroom.
The course packages, priced at $249.99, include the necessary software, step-by-step videos, instructional materials and real-time support from instructors all hours of the day. Even this “help” function—a messaging service similar to text messages—was purposefully designed for optimal learning. By encouraging children to write their questions in a limited number of characters, it encourages them to think through the questions before they ask them.
Global growth has happened organically so far—all courses are taught in English since it is currently the most ubiquitous language used by technologists. However, Youth Digital may eventually translate the courses into other languages if the right opportunities and partners present themselves.
The courses’ reviews and results are overwhelmingly positive. Richards says that’s because the courses use examples, jokes and games kids are already excited by. Richards says what excites him most is that the courses are exactly like the type of courses he (and others like him) would have liked to learn from when they were children.
He also loves seeing what Youth Digital students come up with. Past students have created apps featured in iTunes, and one recent pair of kids even created a game called “Etiquette Anarchy” and won the 2013 National STEM Video Game Competition. They were 14 years old at the time.
The company has recently doubled its production team to create new courses and update older ones. Keeping the content fresh and up to date is important, and a key differentiator for the company in an industry notorious for not keeping pace with the times.
An experienced leadership team is also important for growth. From Appia, which was sold to Digital Turbine earlier this year, came Oakley as an advisor and vice president of marketing, Sally Lowery, who has also worked at Bronto and iContact. She chose to work at Youth Digital over other companies because of the opportunity to positively impact children’s lives. Uniquely addressing a challenge in the market that hasn’t been adequately addressed before helped too.
Blowing past goals
Richards plans to keep Youth Digital in the Triangle. He admits he’s considered moving to the Valley but ultimately resisted the draw because of the strong network and competitive talent in this region. He also prefers the quality of life here.
But expansion is imminent for the five-year-old company. Since it has blown past every goal in previous years, a goal to enroll 100,000 students by the year’s end doesn’t seem too far off. But Richards says his team won’t be content with 100,000 or even 1,000,000 users. As Youth Digital reaches goals and milestones, he’ll just keep increasing the goals until all children all over the world have taken Youth Digital courses.
New growth channels are also being considered. Though Youth Digital’s primary focus is selling directly to parents via its website, Amazon and discount services like Groupon, the team is exploring a larger enterprise partnership program. Doing so would increase the number of organizations like schools, camps and non-profits that can purchase Youth Digital courses and teach them to children in their respective communities. Youth Digital only partners with a few organizations today.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges to overcome. For example, Youth Digital isn’t designed to reach children whose parents might not be able to afford the courses or who don’t have access to a broadband connection at home. Early attempts at solving the problem include partnering with non-profits like the Emily K Center in Durham to reach some low-income children. Lowery says the company is in the early stages of defining and refining a giving program for the future.
That will be necessary to meet Richards’ big goals of reaching every child, connecting those children to their passion early and giving them “the type of satisfaction we get in our own jobs.”