“Welcome to BitsBox World Headquarters,” says Scott Lininger wryly. The small, shared office located within the tech dream space of Galvanize on Pearl St. in Boulder utilizes natural light at this morning hour. A few desks on their side of the room clog up the middle whereas Lininger and his co-founder Aidan Chopra share a window facing desk on the far side of the room. The rather quiet scene contrasts to the bright lights and openness of the long, white co-working desks that reside outside the office and in the core of Galvanize. The sleepy feel at BitsBox HQ is an elusive comfort, because Lininger’s team of four (including himself) are running on all cylinders due to their trending, educational toy. Yes, toy. Yes, educational.
Lininger exudes the relaxed, slightly overworked, but confident look of “start-up CEO.” After some short introductions, he wastes no time darting across the room to where a BitsBox model sits below the desk of his graphic designer.
Iconography of all sorts – rockets, a color palette, a double helix, a power button, etc., cover the box, surrounding the product’s logo in the center. The inside contains the bits of magic: a playfully-designed magazine style booklet and trading cards printed with lines of code that kids can input to make apps. ‘90s ephemera meet 2015 tech.
“Every month you get about 40 apps that range from 2 lines of code to about 60-70 lines of code. There’s a big ramp up from very, very easy to very, very challenging,” says Lininger.
Aidan Chopra, his co-founder, gets up from his desk and offers coffee – a beverage he’s likely more familiar with now as a new father. Walking over to the kitchenette, the moppy-haired 40-year-old shows off one of the best views in Boulder – a bold claim. The bird’s eye view of the Flatirons from the fifth floor, however, substantiates his claim. After pumping out the contents of a carafe and discussing sleeplessness and the onerous rewards of parenthood, he hands me off to Lininger again at a makeshift interview space.
“The idea came from my daughter Audrey who was seven at the time. She wanted to learn how to code. And I went and looked at the tools that were available and they weren’t quite what I was looking for as Programmer Dad. All the tools that were popular are designed for little kids as visual, drag-and-drop tools, so you never actually type code.”
After wrangling Aidan into a co-founder position, they both quit Google and spent last summer in Aidan’s craft room laughing a lot and drawing on walls. A few months later they were accepted into Boomtown accelerator refining their ideas and kicking around the funding question. Chase VCs or do a Kickstarter round? Ultimately, they decided on the latter. Their decision was validated over 44 days in December and January. The duo raised over $253,696, crushing their goal of $45,000.
Additionally, during their strategic launch of their website during the Hour of Code week in December over 250,000 kids around the globe wrote code in a free website version. These accolades might point to a more truncated timeline of progress, but Lininger is taking the wait-and-see-data approach he learned at Google.
“We have a stake in the ground to revisit things in year past our first shipping box. The dashboard is the first thing we built into the system to allow data to drive our decisions.”
While this may seem overly cautious and quantitative, Lininger and Chopra do not come from traditional computer science backgrounds, the former a Fine Arts major who graduated from CU Boulder and minored in Computer Science, while Chopra received his BFA in jewelry making and a Masters in Architecture.
“I bring the ability to not code. If were both fantastic programmers, it would be hard to empathize with our product,” says Chopra.
“I haven’t done print design for 15 years, and to get to do a technology start-up that’s doing print design.” He pauses. “It’s so much fun,” says Lininger.
Their ability to balance business and fun comes through as they speak about their BitsBox goals.
“We succeed when kids stop using our product. The kids who are really good at it, they are going to move on to other professional programming tools. And that’s great for us. We’ve set them free,” says Lininger.
His ultimate dream for BitsBox, however, goes back to his rural upbringing in Sterling, CO, a town about two hours northwest from Denver. He walks over to the far wall to dig out his first computer-a TRS-80 microcomputer system from Radio Shack.
“Just by play, I learned how to code. I didn’t think of it as work or learning. Because this thing helped me do that, 25 year later I sold my first start-up to Google. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I could achieve something like that coming from an economically depressed place. My dream is that five years from now there’s kid in Uganda, and kids in southeast Asia, kids who barely have access to computer, and BitsBox is this (pointing to the TRS) for them,” says Lininger.
Chopra’s attitude is in line with his “Captain” as he refers to him with a slight twist.
“What motivates me is getting more people in this field with varied skills set. I want to get more artists coding. I want to get more writers coding. This is a skill not a profession. There are people who can work on their cars, but it doesn’t mean they’re an auto mechanic.
“I really feel the future is too important to leave up to software developers and to get a generation of people fluent in this stuff could mean creating the more delicious world we might be headed for,” says Chopra.
Why spend the $20 per month for your kid to learn coding?
Anecdotes flood in everyday about siblings working together on these apps, fighting over computer time to code, and in one recent tweet, a dad informed BitsBox that his 3-year-old just completed his first app.
Chopra likens it to this: “We’re selling carrots as candy.”
by Daniel Webster Jr.
Photos by Dani Thompson