Announcing BlockSchool: Live Online Coding Classes for Kids

As many of you already know, Charles and I set out to build an immersive language learning company nearly 2.5 years ago. We built a prototype, attracted some early customers, and raised nearly $1 million dollars from amazingly supportive investors.

Lingoland was an ambitious project: putting students and tutors into live roleplays in realistic 3D scenes on mobile. To date, I think Lingoland is still the only 3D mobile game with live multiplayer voice chat. As a two person team, this was an insane amount of work — Charles even built his own 3D game engine.

Although we hit many milestones, some vanity, i.e. 5 figure revenue, a decent referral rate, happy customers, others not, i.e. 10k downloads, etc. the company was not growing fast as it needed to. The on-boarding process was too raw, churn was high, and we didn't charge enough to make our LTV > 3*CAC. Although these problems have solutions, we were also having some disagreements with investor(s). So we decided to return the remaining money and move on.

So what to work on next? In the past, Charles and I have built products in industries we were excited about, but didn't always fully understand. In all due fairness, this is a common feeling for young entrepreneurs without decades of experience in a given industry vertical. We've learned a lot by swimming in the deep end, but this time around, we wanted to build a product that was integral to our long-term interests as people, not as opportunists or trend followers.

The idea behind BlockSchool happened quickly, but organically:

For the last 2 years, I have been teaching kids chess on Sundays in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Charles and I had heard about new cool STEM-related toys on the market (we're both super interested in STEM education). For fun, we bought a sample of toys to see if we would have enjoyed them as kids.

"Hmm. What if we taught coding to kids?"

As a test, I mentioned to my chess clientele that I was considering starting a coding class for kids. There seemed to be interest, so we built a few prototypes to see if (1) parents were willing to pay, and (2) kids could learn CS concepts starting at the young age of 6. Within a few weeks, my schedule between 4PM-9PM was booked every day Monday-Friday, and 8AM-noon Sunday morning.

Here in San Francisco, there are now a few businesses offering coding classes for kids, but they are not aligned with market demands. Classes tend to have 7+ students per teacher, they are in inconvenient locations, and they are very expensive – about $3,000+ per year for 1 big group class per week.

Could we do better?

After running the numbers, I concluded it would be nearly impossible to open our own class in SF. Renting commercial real estate is simply too expensive, hiring quality part-time coding teachers between 4-7PM is nearly impossible, and getting parents to drive across the city in traffic isn't feasible.

I looked to China for inspiration because education is something every parent is willing to pay big money for, and as a result, entrepreneurs innovate.

There is a company called VIPkid that teaches Chinese children ages 5-12 English via 1-on-1 live online tutoring classes with American English teachers. While their margins aren't great due to the 1-to-1 nature of their classes, this business model solves many of the problems I face: (1) hiring great teachers, (2) giving parents the ability to schedule classes whenever they want without driving across town, and (3) keeping class prices reasonable by eliminating overhead.

Unlike learning to speak English, which in an ideal setting is undoubtedly a 1-to-1 experience, coding can be taught in a 1-to-3 or 1-to-4 setting without compromising any student's learning trajectory. I have discovered this first hand, and some of my friends and colleagues (namely Steve Krouse at TheCodingSpace in NYC) have also confirmed this.

So the question we asked ourselves is "Can we offer a fun, effective, and affordable (in that order) coding course for kids in a live online class?"

I believe we can, and here's why:

  1. Fun: We are leveraging concepts from Minecraft because Minecraft has done an amazing job at giving kids a free space to create, and they LOVE it! In many ways, Minecraft is a digital representation of LEGOs mixed with some simple gamification. Minecraft is now the best selling game of all time, even moreso than Tetris!
    In BlockSchool's 3D block world, kids write code to harvest resources, build things, and achieve their goals. Kids are required to use critical thinking skills, and flex their procedural and spatial thinking abilities.

  2. Effective: We created a visual programming language called "Puzzle" that is specifically tailored to create things in BlockSchool's 3D world. Puzzle is like MIT's Scratch — it doesn't require typing, kids don't need to hunt syntax errors, and it's expressive. With just a few code "puzzle pieces", kids can create really cool things.
    We have also chosen to create a project-based curriculum where kids are given a project like "Build a House" and they must meet various requirements like "The house must be safe enough to prevent zombies from entering." There is no single way to solve this, so kids get to build solutions in their own ways!
    With a wide variety of projects that are each designed to touch on different CS concepts, kids have a lot to learn. We are also making a serious effort to create projects that young girls will find appealing, CS education can't just be about boys!

  3. Affordable: By being an online-only school, we can keep our costs at bay. Without real estate and teachers available for a part-time job from 4-7PM M-F, we can offer more value at a lower price. We are also letting parent purchasers invite 1 guest student to any class. This can be a friend, sibling, or family member. As a result, cost is reduced by a factor of two.

We are proud to announce today that we will be accepting new students for our online classes. If you know someone who might be interested, we are offering $150 referral bonuses to anyone who refers a new customer. Class packages start around $900 with lower class rates available if more classes are purchased upfront. We also offer complete refunds if you aren't happy with your purchase after 3 classes.

The best part about purchasing a class package sooner than later is that you'll have me as your teacher! We will be hiring teachers soon too, so if you're interested, please apply on Angel List. We will be offering equity to our early teachers as well.

Thanks for reading, now back to teaching :)