How an idea led to a business with 135 employees and millions of euros in funding.
Just three months before finishing the EIT Digital Master School they dropped out. No double degree. No EIT certificate. No Graduation Ceremony. Regrets? No, says Yue Sun, co-founder of CodeMao. Instead he and his partner Tianchi Li raised almost seven million euros in funding and are now founders of a company that employs 135 and is preparing to expand globally. "We were trained well," he says.
Mao(猫) is a Chinese character for cat. Sun (27) and Li (26) love cats. They have dozens of them walking around in their offices in Beijing and Shenzhen. Also their business logo symbolises a cat. Yet their business is not about cats. CodeMao is a learning platform which focuses on teaching programming to children. Sun: "In China there is a famous Japanese cartoon cat called Doraemon that makes dreams come true. We want to realise the dreams of children through the magic of coding." Hence, the cats.
Doraemon has made Li and Sun's dream come true as well. In January 2015, during their last semester of the EIT Digital Master School, the graduates sent in an idea to a competition run by a Chinese accelerator called Fusheng Battle Team. They won. "The accelerator offered seed funding directly."
The two considered the offer and decided to go for it, just before graduation. "We were given the chance to do something really cool with what we had learnt. We'd had highly developed technical traineeships, learnt how to make business plans, and the professors taught us what great scientific research looks like. These learnings are really precious. It's not just about the skills that you learn, but also about the whole scope of thinking about the future. We will hold on to that for the rest of our lives."
Starting a company
So they had to live up to expectations. With no time to lose, they flew to China and started coding. "We barely just had an idea. And the skills we brought from the EIT Digital Master School." At the beginning they did everything themselves, coding, designing, making courses, teaching, "everything". "Running your own business felt like rolling a snowball. We kept solving problems and facing new challenges." At some point they started needing employees, so they started hiring and now they have 135. At the time of writing, they have had four rounds of fundraising totalling almost 7 million euros.
Kids learn coding easily. Sun and Li experienced that first hand at Web Summit in Ireland in November 2015 where they saw a group of children, aged 7, programming with CoderDojo as if they were professionals. "That reminded us of when we were young and learned to program ourselves. We wanted to be programmers and hackers. We did not have much material to learn from. These children got training and opportunities. Why don't we give that chance to all children?" Sun and Li were motivated to start their own business teaching children how to program and started conceptualising an idea that they brought into practice sooner than expected.
Ranking the apps
Children play, parents pay. That is the principle on which Sun and Li built their business model. Parents pay for the programming education CodeMao provides. They can take course packages for example or subscribe for a whole year. Kids can upload their own made apps in a store on CodeMao and share them with others. At this point Codemao has more than 220,000 apps. Editors look at these and make an editor's choice for the best ones. An algorithm and a rating system rank the apps. In that way, Sun explains, the best apps appear at the front of the store. Whoever wants to download an app, just needs to scan a barcode with their smartphone.
"In China they hardly face any competition," says Sun. "Within the niche market of code-learning, we are the leading company in China." The international market they want to enter, is different. Scratch, says Sun, is the biggest visual programming tool in the world and has the greatest community of programmers. The basics of CodeMao is inspired by this player. "But it is not similar to what we do. Scratch does not teach. We do. And we improved the visual programming language."
Besides, Sun and Li also see Apples playground and Google Blockly as competitors, and there are more players overseas, like Code Monkey, Coding Kids, CoderDojo to mention just a few. There is still space to grow, the two of them believe. "The market is not mature, so competition is not really established yet. Kids love programming and love our product. Coding is a global language, like English. Therefore, programming will be a huge market in the future. A global market. We have the ambition to be a global leader. We want to make the best teaching programs for children to develop their coding skills."
Free minded people
Sun and Li met each other in 2014 on the EIT Digital Master School at Université Paris-Saclay while studying Human Interaction Design. They felt instantly connected. "No wonder", says Sun. "The EIT Digital Master School is a perfect environment for free minds with technical backgrounds. The multi-cultural backgrounds of the students are really inspiring (more than 55 nationalities). This all makes you find very cool people you want to work with."
The two of them seem to have more in common. Both taught themselves to program when they were kids, both travelled to the USA and rejected an offer from American universities (UC San Diego and UC Berkeley) when they read about the EIT Digital Master School, explains Sun. "We were awed by the possibility to study at two top universities with distinguished courses, the coolest topics ever and all combined with entrepreneurship!" After the Summer School they attended in Eindhoven, the two separated for a while. Sun spent his second year of study at the Aalto University in Finland and Li at the Technical University Berlin in Germany.
Sun wishes to come back to Europe. "To meet colleagues and our great professors like Michel Beaudouin-Lafon and Wendy Mackay from Paris and Mika P. Nieminen from Aalto. Also we would love to share our experiences and lessons learnt in doing business with the current students who will be tomorrow's leaders as well."
If they do, they may have to leave the cats at home...