Startup Spotlight: Hopscotch
All Things Venture #079
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve had a Startup Spotlight but we are back, and today we’re featuring Samantha John, the Co-Founder of Hopsctoch! I’m really excited to share this interview as I think Samantha and her team are doing incredibly important work (i.e building educational programming tools for young women). There’s been so many times in my life where I’ve thought, “Well I wish someone had just told me “X”, when I was younger.” I’ve been exposed to different things in my adult life like cooking, snowboarding, and venture capital, that have made a profound impact on who I am, what I do, and who I aspire to be. In each of these respects, I have been aided along in my journey by seeing myself in people I look up to in each field, and that visual truth, that representation is important. We all want to see oursleves represented in the products we buy, the careers we pursue, the places we live. It’s why people like Serena Williams are such a big deal, or Tyler Buchner. It’s why businesses like Skims or Savage x Fenty carry multi-billion dollar valuations. Representation is a winning strategy, and in business you can build with representation in mind day 1.
In my opinion, Samantha and the Hopscotch team are focused on bringing the next 1 million female programmers online, by building an educational product that represents them, and how they want to learn, at the earliest stage of their journey. It’s hard work, it’s important work, but I think they’re off to a great start. As always though, let’s dive right in.
Samantha! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and what is Hopscotch?
So, I'll start with what Hopscotch is. Hopscotch is a coding app where kids learn to program by making their own games, and what that means is they use their iPhone or iPad to learn the basics of programing as a concept so coding through our drag and drop interface, and then once they've made something that they're proud of, they can publish it to a community where hundreds of thousands of other kids will get to play their game.
So transitioning to a little bit about me, I am a programmer by trade but I came to it a little bit later in life. I came to it towards the end of college, and part of the reason I wanted to start this company is that I realized that I love programming. I think it's such a fun, rewarding, awesome activity and I was kind of astounded that I didn't even find out how cool it was until I had almost graduated from college.
When I looked around at my friends who were programmers a lot of them had started around age 10 or 11, and they were all boys and I just felt that, when I was that age, and even in college, I just had this sense that computers were not for me. So, I wanted to create a product that would speak to kids like me, to girls, to people who didn't see themselves as techies or as kind of computer people. but show them how creative and fun programming can be.
What were some of the intentional decisions you made, whether it was the brand or the product, that we're focused on the younger version of yourself?
The brand was very focused. The brand and then design are very much geared to that younger consumer. And from there we really thought about the aesthetics and making sure that the logo, the characters we use, and the language we use felt, inclusive and felt like it would be something that I would like, or that my co-founder, who's also a woman would like. It wasn't hard for us to do because it was just our own taste.
How did you meet your co-founder? I meet with a lot of folks who are interested or want to start a startup, but don’t necessarily know how. What I’ve seen is that the startups with the best outcomes are usually born from teams rather than solo founders, and the founders a lot of the time have some pre-existing relationship.
So, I agree with you on the team thing, having a co-founder is such a game changer. My co-founder actually took some time off during COVID. She has three kids, and it was a little bit of you know COVID parenting craziness. But, she's back now and to go from having a co-founder, to not having one? Even temporarily? It’s night and day. But I’ll say this about having a co-founder, and for my experience specifically, of course we get on each other's nerves, and we of course we argue all the time. But having someone to share the burden of running a startup and running a company is so valuable and in ways that are very hard to describe or quantify. The amount of happiness, I think you feel as the only one in charge, and the only one responsible if the ship goes on versus when you have someone else. It’s just more
When you're building Hopscotch early on, did you do a lot of customer interviews? Or was it an initial intuition of “hey there's a gap in the market, and we think we can fill it?”
We started out with this intuition that there was a gap in the market, and I had gotten an iPad which felt so great. It felt like such a friendly computer and I liked it better than my computer, so I just wanted to do everything on it, including coding, so that was part of the germ of the idea. We wanted to build something for ourselves basically, but then we thought, “Oh, this could also solve this problem that both of us have.” Being, “why is there nothing that appeals to girls to get them into programming as kids?” So it started from an intuition that we had, but of course we did a lot of user interviews, and we got really creative to gather feedback. We would do things like teach programming classes for kids, and we would just use existing technologies and see how they reacted to them. We actually made two other products before we came up with Hopscotch. One was a much more simplified version of coding on the iPad it's called Daisy the Dinosaur and that's still on the app store. It still gets thousands of downloads. I think it's past like 6 million downloads or something like that maybe 8 million.
Can you talk about the role of serendipity in your journey? And luck? It’s something that I don’t think gets talked about enough in tech/VC broadly.
I consider myself a very lucky person in the most basic sense of the word, I have found a lot of money in my life, like, I once found $300 in an envelope and an unmarked envelope on the street in New York.
Really? that's awesome.
Yeah, haha It was awesome I think I was 22 so I was especially happy to have it. Another time I found $100 in Central Park just like 5 $20 bills on the ground. And so I think that I am just a lucky person in general, but even aside from that, I think there's some amount of luck that everyone runs into in their life and what I found is that there's luck that you can use and luck that you can't use. You know if I didn't know how to program, and I had met Jocelyn (my co-founder) and she wanted to start a startup but neither of us had the technical skills to do it, maybe we wouldn't have decided to work together or work out you know? There’s like a million proverbs about this, I think you know fortune favors the prepared is one of them, and I really believe that you have to believe in luck. I really believe in luck. and I believe in kind of being prepared for the luck that you want to have and then just watching out for it to happen.
Okay, so last question and it's my favorite question. I’ll break it out in two parts. First, for the younger version of yourself, or a young woman generally interested or curious about beginning their software engineering journey. Where should they start? And second, what advice would you have for anyone who's thinking about starting a company or striking out on their own similar to you?
So, for the first question, someone who wants to start being a software engineer at an early age. It's funny I’m going to give the opposite advice to to these two types of people, I think, if you want to be a software engineer. First, you should try Hopscotch, because it is actually very fun and if you are a programmer brain, type of person I think it's a great way to start. And then more tactically, this is, this is not my advice, but I thought it was really good advice. Someone told me they read this on Quora once, and the question was “what programming language should I learn if I’m trying to learn how to program?” and the answer was, “you should try and learn the language that your best friend knows.” And think that’s a really simple, but important framing because, you need mentorship. It's really hard to learn anything completely on your own, even if you're like the most incredible self starter, so go find those mentors. Find your best friend who knows how to program, make a best friend who knows how to program, get them to pair program with you. There's so much I think there's so much knowledge that you need to be a programmer and the best place to get it is from other programmers, so find other people to work with. and learn from, and also start building stuff with.
And then the advice for someone thinking about starting a company?
So if you're thinking about starting a company, I would say don't learn how to program. I've seen a lot of founders who started a company, and then they decide that they're going to build the technology themselves. And then they spend all their time learning to program and programming their thing. And the problem with programming is it’s so fun and it's so immersive and you've got all these wins. You can just get wins all day long like you fix a bug, you make a test, you adjust screen sizing. Just like little win, after little win, after a little win and being a startup founder is like loss, loss, loss, loss. Or you're just working on something for a long time, and you don't even know if it's going to work or not, or when all your hard work will come to fruition. So, I think there’s this like siren call of programming where you're like, “okay, well, I can send out all these emails to people who could maybe introduce me to VCs in the future, who could like maybe help me find employees or give me advice, but like I don't really know what's going to come of that… Or I could program for five hours, and my app will look better.” It's so much much easier to choose the programming side, so I would say it's actually kind of an advantage as a founder to not know how to do anything yourself, so that you’re forced to go find the best people possible to help you do it.
That’s it for this week folks! Have a great Thursday and rest of the week!