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$6 million business in four years

After being named the third-fastest-growing SME in Australia, the founding trio of Code Camp didn’t get together and throw a party or take a day off. In fact, all that was involved was a few celebratory emojis in their group chat (and maybe a wine or two).

This is because each founder is currently scattered across the globe — located in the UK, the US and Australia — putting in the hard yards to take their kids coding education business global.

Like many businesses, Code Camp comes from humble beginnings, brewed up at co-founder Hayley Markham’s kitchen table back in 2013 after her two co-founders, Ben Levi and Pete Neill, devised the idea after meeting at a coworking space.

“One of them had kids who had learnt to code, and the other had just taught himself to code. They invited me on to help organise everything because they weren’t at all ops based,” Markham says.

“We got eight kids together, and over a holiday we taught them how to code. Eight weeks later in the next set of school holidays, we had double that amount.”

“And it’s been growing and growing every holiday since.”

This growth is not only reflected in the number of kids keen to sink their teeth into coding, but also in Code Camp’s blistering revenue growth over the past three financial years. In 2015–16, the business had just tipped $1 million in revenue, and in the last financial year, it came in at $6.2 million.

This adds up to a three-year growth rate of 510.6% — an impressive task for a business Markham says was “effectively a hobby” for its first few years of operation. Today, Code Camp is far beyond that, with over 150 schools using its program and over 60 employees.

Today, Markham describes Code Camp as a “well-oiled machine”, and isn’t shy about calling the business a market leader, confident few other competitors offer the same level of holistic coding education it does.

But despite revelling in the company’s growth, the founders were recently faced with a tough choice: keep expanding the business’ product offerings in a market they already had a strong grip on, or spread themselves internationally into new and unknown markets.

After much deliberation, the latter option won out, and the business is now currently focused on expanding its educational offerings in the US, the UK and even Switzerland. While it’s taking up much of the founders time and energy, Markham says it was a necessary move.

“Picking that international route was one of the harder decisions we had to make, but it’s turned out to be the right one for us so far,” she says.

Outside of looking abroad, Code Camp’s growth has also been fuelled by the company’s unusual choice to build their own coding software from the ground up instead of using popular kids coding programs such as Scratch or Stencyl.

Markham says Code Camp is Australia’s only kids coding company with its own software and is appreciative of the competitive advantage that brings as creating the software cost the business “a lot of time and money”.

Some of the Code Camp kids at work. Source: Jacquie Manning.

“We had been working on off-the-shelf products for a year or two, but we found they just weren’t working for kids. They had to jump through all these hoops just to upload their game at the end, and a lot of them were just getting lost in the complexity,” she says.

“It really wasn’t conducive to a three-day coding camp, and we couldn’t find any other alternatives.”

The company’s own software pares back much of the experience and takes a lot of the harder syntax out of the program, focusing more on the fundamentals of coding. After making the change, not only were the kids enjoying the program more, but the company found it didn’t need as many staff in the classrooms, saving it money.

“I would pick that as a turning point for us — it’s had a big part in our growth,” she says.

Throughout this financial year, Markham says her business’ growth has been continuing but notes it’s not something they expect to happen forever. She hopes Code Camp will continue to thrive into the future, but says it’s reliant on more parents being aware of the potential benefits for their children.

While the modern-day hyper-technological climate means it’s easier and easier to spruik the benefits of learning to code, the co-founder says a number of parents still don’t understand it, or why their children would want to do it.

“It’s something kids are going to need for the future, but parents still find it confusing, especially as we’re battling with the ‘all-screen-time-is-bad’ mentality,” she says.

Furthermore, Markham laments the gender split in Code Camp’s classes, which are resolutely dominated by at least 60% boys, despite the company’s best efforts to reach a 50–50 split.

She says the slow growth in this area is more of a parenting issue than a kids issue, as she believes parents don’t see it as something their daughter could be interested in.

“We’re trying to push the message that it’s almost like a digital arts class, because designing a game is really creative. It’s going to be hard to change, but I think we’re only about a year away from equality,” she says.

For the three founders, Markham says there’s been no real point where the existence of the business was in jeopardy, having continued to grow steadily since its launch.

However, there have been struggles for Markham on a personal level, as the co-founder had her daughter a year into running the business.

“Like most working mothers, it’s been hard and stressful. When you’re with the kids, you’re worried people will notice you’re not at work, but when you’re at work, you’re missing your kids’ pickup or school event,” she says.

“I never felt like I was putting in 100%, but in the end, I worked out it was about being okay with that.”

It did lead to some hard moments with managing meetings with the other founders, however, as a last-minute meeting change would result in Markham having to find a new babysitter or friend to mind the kids at late notice.

“I ended up saying ‘guys, please don’t change the meetings around so much, I had to organise 48 different things just to be here’,” she says and laughs.

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