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.
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.”