In this episode, we speak to Samantha John, Co-Founder and CEO of Hopscotch, about the amazing things kids can create when they have access to software tools, why coding isn’t just for boys, and what landing an investment deal on Shark Tank is really like.
Samantha fell in love with programming during her senior year at Columbia. Since then, she’s been on a mission to introduce every kid to this amazing skill. She’s been influenced by the likes of John Holt and Ivan Illich and cares deeply about empowering kids to learn on their own. She hails from the proud city of Detroit and can probably beat you barefoot in a marathon.
Teja: Thanks for doing this Samantha, I’m super excited that, um, we were able to get you on.
Samantha: Thanks for inviting me.
Hey, so congrats on the Shark Tank appearance and the successful raise from Mark Cuban. That’s uh, yeah, that’s really fantastic. And you’ve done like a number of interviews and I’m sure everybody in your friend circle has asked: how did that happen? How’d it go?
We could talk about that if you want. Do you want to talk about that? Is that still exciting for you?
Samantha: We can talk about it. I can tell you a little bit of the story.
You know, I had been looking to do more publicity, so I kind of had my ears open and my ears to the ground like, what can we do to get our name out there more?
And I actually got a LinkedIn message from a casting producer, from Shark Tank. I don’t usually respond to random LinkedIn messages and I wasn’t even totally sure that this person was for real, but it seemed as if it fit the type of opportunity I was looking for. So I figured I would just answer and I ended up talking to the casting producer and he convinced me to submit an audition tape.
Like he didn’t just want me on Shark Tank. I still had to do a whole audition tape. He helped me out a little bit in making the video and then they didn’t really ever accept me. They kind of kept saying you haven’t been kicked out yet. You’re still in the running to be on Shark Tank.
And then by the way, you know, it was COVID. So everything was so much more complicated, but I got the message in April and filmed Shark Tank in September, and then it aired in February. So, to give you a sense of the timeline. It was almost a year.
Teja: Wow. Did you think the LinkedIn message was fake at first?
Samantha: I kind of thought it was fake at first. I kind of think all LinkedIn messages are fake.
Teja: They mostly are, I think.
And so did you get an opportunity to meet other folks who are on the show or just the Sharks?
Samantha: So kind of, there was a waiting room beforehand where they did a few people at the same time. And there were, I think, three other companies in the waiting room with me. So we all practice our pitches to each other.
And at that point you work with a producer, they help you out with your pitch a little bit, and you’ve practiced it a lot at that point. You know, every word of that pitch, but we all did our pitches for each other, which was pretty fun. And then it was cool to see those people’s shows. air.
Teja: Yeah, that’s so cool.
So do you have a good sense of the line of questioning or is it sort of like you kind of know and whatever they feel like asking they ask.
Samantha: Yeah. Whatever they feel like asking, they’ll ask. They’re not crazy people though.
So what I ended up doing is I gave my pitch to a bunch of friends and family and investors.
And then I just asked them to pretend they were sharks and ask me questions after the pitch, which was really good strategy because I was so bad at answering the questions. I spent about a little over a week before Shark Tank doing this. And probably for the first five days I sucked, it was only probably a day or two before the show filmed that I finally was pretty confident in how I wanted to answer things and felt as if I was able to get across what I wanted to get across.
Teja: So I remember I was like many years ago when I sort of like Googled, like how to raise money. There was like a local incubator in town in Nashville, and I just ended up going down there and one thing led to another and we ended up like graduating from this incubator, but had never pitched the. You know, they sort of prepare you to do this.
And so my mom was there and, you know, you’re going to go present for the large crowd. So I remember just like shotgunning too. Like my mom didn’t know what a shotgun of a beer was, but I was like, I need a, mom, I need a way to take the edge off because I’m going to go and talk about this concept that’s now a business in front of hundreds of people. You know, I was like 22, so.
Yeah. It’s many, many years ago.
And so I remember that, I’m sure it was nerve wracking, but I mean, from what I could see, you handled yourself really well. And I liked Barbara’s answer like, “you’re so impressive, but I’m not investing”. It’s like what?
Samantha: Barbara I thought, was trying to trip me up a little bit.
She asked me the question: “you look scared, are you scared?” And I just, in my mind, I was like come on.
Teja: Of course.
Samantha: But Mark Cuban is an investor and he has been really awesome.
He gave an interview where he said he never takes calls. He takes maybe one call a month. He does everything over email and he’s so responsive on email.
He answers every email within probably 10. It’s really amazing.
Teja: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s that’s so cool.
So we should probably actually talk about what Hopscotch is and what your company does.
Samantha: Of course.
So Hopscotch is a coding tool for kids and what that means is kids use Hopscotch to first learn how to code, and we make that really easy. You don’t have to type anything it’s built for iPads and iPhones. Everything is touchscreen. Everything is drag and drop. So it’s smooth and simple and gets rid of a lot of the hurdles to programming that you would face in a lot of other environments.
Whether it’s setting up your development environment or downloading the programming language or learning the syntax, or even just getting your program to run all of those things. We’ve made really easy. And kids then immediately jump into the actual programming part of programming and actually making stuff. They make games, they make apps, they make animations simulations, really anything you can imagine, they make.
And once they’re done, they can share it with our community. So they make something really cool, they make a really fun game, they make a really interesting animation, they make a weird simulation and then they can share it with hundreds of thousands of kids. So they see that there’s actually an audience of people who care about what they’re making, which is super powerful and a huge driver of what kids love about Hopscotch.
And the latest thing we’re introducing is an in-game currency called Seeds that you can use to buy various things in Hopscotch. Including now, kids are able to sell stuff inside their Hopscotch projects for Seeds, certain currencies.
And eventually where we want to go with that is payouts for real money so that kids can look at Hopscotch and say, okay, this is cool. I’m going to learn how to code, I’m going to make something cool, and I’m actually going to be a real programmer because someone will pay me to program.
Teja: That’s so cool. That’s awesome. What age cohort is the ideal Hopscotch user?
Samantha: It’s interesting because what we’ve seen is, and I think this is true for a lot of creative tools, it kind of adjusts to fit where you are. So most people start when they’re between 9 to 11 and they’re learning the basics. They’re doing very simple things, but still having a lot of fun and then they get hooked.
We’ve been around for a little bit, we launched the app in 2013, and there are still people using the app who started when they were 10 years old in 2013, and now they’re 18, 19.
You know, it’s pretty common that our best users have been using it for at least four or five years and it’s something that kids stick with and the platform kind of grows with them both because we’ve improved the platform since we launched it and just because programming just has an extremely, extremely high ceiling.
And that’s probably my favorite thing about Hopscotch, just seeing the journey that these incredibly creative, brilliant kids are on.
Teja: Awesome. I mean, so 10 years old, I think that’s third grade, right?
Samantha: Third, fourth grade is about the youngest where they’re successful. Fifth graders do really well.
It’s interesting because I think it’s good for those ages because they are young enough where the stuff they can make on Hopscotch off the bat feels really cool, but they’re old enough that they have the focus to keep working on something and keep improving it and you do need some sort of ability to focus to program and an ability to read.
So for six and seven year olds, they’re a little bit too scattered and they can’t read quite well enough. So they have fun with it. They like playing the games. They liked doing it, what they’re paying but they’re not quite ready to sit down and build something from start to finish.
Teja: What’s the way that parents can get involved in supporting their kids’ use of Hopscotch?
Samantha: What I see a lot is the parent is just kind of there to answer questions and often the parent doesn’t actually know the answer to the question. Usually the kids like to work on it on their own, but then have a parent nearby when they feel stuck or are confused.
I think a lot of times the parent is kind of the rubber duck and the kid just needs to talk something through.
Teja: That’s so true.
Yeah. I think that happens with like homework, you know?
I sort of, especially if you’re studying, I don’t know, my parents are immigrants so at a young age, my parents were unable to help me with my homework. I just needed to talk to them, talk at them for a little bit and get the answer.
Yeah. That’s cool.
So I guess this would kind of replace like Scratch maybe in computer science classes?
Samantha: Yeah, for sure.
I would say Scratch is very comparable and I love Scratch. I think they’ve done so much for kids coding, kind of putting out the idea that this can be accessible and I think they’ve done a lot of things right, but obviously I think Hopscotch is better.
Teja: Yeah, totally.
I mean, you know, products have life cycles that you’ve learned from them.
I mean, I think something that’s really interesting is that, what we’ve found is that kids actually do really love to be able to make things that they can play on their phone and tablet and that’s kind of what they think of as their computer and especially the kids in the kind of middle school, age range, I think.
As they get older, and this is something we want to eventually address is, start to build for more platforms, especially web, because I think that is a really good tool for the older kids.
As they grow into Hopscotch, they’re getting better at typing, they want to kind of get more performance. You can do things very fast. If once you get good at typing and have keyboard shortcuts and all, but first starting out, it’s so much more delightful to be able to do something on a touch screen and if you’re trying to do drag and drop on a desktop, it kind of hurts your hand after a while.
Teja: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve made a lot of decks and it’s dragging and dropping PowerPoint decks or Keynote decks is just, I don’t know. It’s mind numbing and hard on the hands, as you said.
Yeah, that’s cool.
Okay. So how’d you sort of conceive of Hopscotch? I know you studied applied mathematics. Were you looking for a way to teach somebody in your family how to program?
Samantha: I started Hopscotch cause I was looking for a way to teach my younger self, how to program.
I started pretty late. I didn’t really do programming in college. I had this sense that it was something more for boys. It didn’t feel as if it was aimed for me.
I actually went to engineering school where I studied applied math and started out and just said, okay, no computer science. That’s not my major. That’s the first one I eliminated.
Teja: Wow. Why?
Samantha: I was very frustrated with my computer at that time.
I spilled water on it the other day, and it has like a giant map of Greenland watermark on my screen. I’m so bad. I’m still terrible with computers.
And it was very interesting, when I found out about programming and got really into it and started to love it, that was something that could be separated from being good at computers and being good at machines, which I most certainly was not and still am not.
I remember, I had an exchange with our head of engineering and I said something like, I know how to use a computer, and he was like, “do you though?” I’m like, probably not actually.
How did you find your way to applied math?
Your mom was a scientist, did you have an interest as a kid in science and math?
Samantha: A lot of things of this nature, I think, sometimes happen for not super great reasons or maybe they are great reasons.
I applied to, I don’t know, seven colleges or something, which seemed like a lot at the time. Maybe, now it’s not a lot anymore?
And I tried to optimize for having something different at each college. So I only applied to one engineering school, which was Columbia University in New York. I think because I thought Columbia seemed to be very liberal arts leaning. So I knew I was good at science and math and then I didn’t know what engineering was, but I thought it was something I should investigate.
So I thought that by choosing engineering at the more liberal arts leaning school, that would be a good mix somehow.
And then what happened is, I just visited the schools I got into, and I remember that it was called “Days On Campus”. It was the spring of my senior year of high school and I visited Columbia and the engineering school was probably only about 30% women, but every single girl I met at days on campus was so cool and smart. They were all my people, and I’m actually still very, very close friends. My best friend from college was someone I met at that “Days On Campus” event.
And I met all these people and I was like, oh, these are the people I want to be friends with, these are the girls I want to know, and that was basically what made the decision for me more so than anything, super scientific. It was kind of a gut call based on the people I met.
So are you from New York?
Samantha: I grew up in Detroit and then went to New York for college in 2005, and then I stayed just because I love New York. I stayed from 2006 to 2020, and then mid pandemic, I moved to Puerto Rico.
So shark tank was filming and I used that as a date to move out of New York. I stayed with my parents for a couple months and then moved to Puerto Rico and that’s where I’m calling in from right now. I’m in San Juan.
Teja: Okay. That’s a way different answer than I had anticipated. I was going to ask you like where in New York you get that kind of sunlight. That’s incredible. Usually there’s like a building right next to you.
That’s so cool. So do you have any friends there?
Samantha: Yeah. You know, it was also for the people, a friend of mine, not even a very close friend at the time. Now, she’s a very close friend. She rented a seven bedroom house in San Juan and got all her friends to move in.
Teja: That’s so cool.
Samantha: I’m living in a seven bedroom house right now. It’s a giant COVID pod.
I actually just got vaccinated, so it doesn’t even need to be a pod anymore.
But I was feeling very lonely in New York during the pandemic.
You know, actually the summer wasn’t bad, the summer was pretty fun when you could do everything outside.
But I also, for various things, I felt that I needed to try living in another city. Even if I eventually ended up in New York, I wanted to try something new and had been originally planning to move to Paris but that didn’t work out due to the pandemic.
Teja: Totally. I mean, it’s killed basically everybody’s trip plans.
So I assume everybody’s working remotely in the house?
Teja: Okay, cool. Are you the only entrepreneur or are there others?
Samantha: Of the eight of us, six of us are startup founders. One works at kind of a VC slash incubator thing and the last person was like an early employee at a start up.
So, it’s like real world startup.
Teja: Do you like that? Or does that get troubling? And before you answer, I’ll share my own bias with this question.
So I lived in San Francisco for a year. Like the fund that we first raised from just had like an apartment out there and I was like, you know, let’s just go. So my co-founders and I, we went out there and man. I did not enjoy being around other startup founders personally. I was like, I want to meet different people from different backgrounds, you know? And I just was like, I’m spending my life’s energy working on a website. I want to meet other interesting people.
But I think as I’ve gotten older and maybe more mature, I appreciate people who are going through the same journey. So I’m curious how you feel about it.
Samantha: I have very similar feelings about San Francisco. I will say it’s such an industry town and it can be hard, it’s hard for me to get my head out of that bubble.
And it’s the start-up thing, but it’s also the raising money thing and it’s hard not to compare yourself to everyone all the time, feel as if you were falling short.
Oh yeah. Some company just started a year ago, they’re at a billion dollar valuation already, and you’re like, what am I doing with my life? Why am I not good? Like, I’ve been working on this for six years.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a session, but that’s my internal monologue
Samantha: I feel like that all the time, all the time.
I think for me, and this is something that is actually been kind of a recent realization when I can come back to the mission of what we’re working on that definitely reinvigorates me and that reminds me, oh yeah, this is why I’m not an investment banker because I’m trying to change the world and spending nine years trying to change the world is really not very much time in the grand scheme of things and I’m happy to spend more than that, if it works.
Teja: I think it’s already working.
Samantha: It is.
And one of my favorite things to see is that there’s these kids who didn’t see themselves as programmers and didn’t think of this as something that they would want to try or, you know, wouldn’t have come through the traditional paths and something that I just think it’s important is that Hopscotch feels very welcoming to girls.
There was a little bit of effort into it, but I mean, mostly it was just my co-founder and I are both women and we used our own taste to decide what was cool and what wasn’t.
I think that the opposite bias exists as well for a lot of companies or languages or tools that are started by men that, especially for kids, can feel very gendered and turn off girls or turn off people who maybe don’t always see themselves as technical.
And Hopscotch, in my opinion, is much more creative, much more as if it’s a tool that anyone could learn. And if you’re a girl, you might think that this is something you could do or something that’s for you. And seeing those people get on Hopscotch and learn to code and start making really interesting and weird and creative things that I never would’ve thought of.
Having that content that they make or having that software that they make out in the world, the software that just wouldn’t have existed without Hopscotch, and seeing these people go on a journey that wouldn’t have existed without Hopscotch, that is very powerful to see.
In some ways, you’re making this future arrive faster by enabling people to code.
Samantha: Hopefully making the future arrive in a slightly better direction.
Teja: Yeah. We can hope.
So, I’m curious, what are some metrics that you guys track around information uptake?
Samantha: That’s literally a trillion dollar question. It’s so hard. We don’t have a good answer.
And I see a lot of people who do education tools or education apps, and there are things that are easy to track.
Such as how many lessons did you do? Or let’s make some puzzles, how many puzzles did you solve? How difficult did the puzzles get?
The more you can constrain the problem, the easier it is to measure. The problem is, the more you constrain the problem, the less interesting educationally it is. So if you’re really trying to open people up and have them learn by doing and creating and let them explore different avenues.
You know, think about just yourself when you learn something new, how do you even know that you’ve learned it? A lot of times, you don’t. I’m constantly trying to figure out like, do I actually know that? Oh, I don’t know.
So for us, as a platform where we’re not even interacting with you, to figure out how much you’ve learned, it feels very audacious for us to say we know how much you’ve learned or didn’t learn.
That said, people, when they’re learning, love to have someone tell them that they’re learning. So, it’s attention that we face, and we have a lot of tutorials.
So we do all our tutorials as videos that you follow along and started to kind of arrange those into a path.
So you do have like progress through all the different videos to learn Hopscotch and that’s somewhat self administered. We tell you that you finished the video, but you could go back and do it again, if you wanted. You can skip around, if you want, but we do kind of tell you the order and you can see that, now I’ve done the first module of Hopscotch and I’m halfway through the second.
If I were to get my nephew to do Hopscotch, I’m trying to think about how I can pitch it to him because you know, he’s fairly sure he wants to go and take computer science. He’s playing with stuff online and trying to build some applications himself.
Samantha: That’s awesome.
How old is he?
Teja: He’s 12.
You know, in Indian families, when you come out of the womb, your parents are like, all right, listen, you will be an anesthesiologist and if you can’t do that, then you’re going to be this other thing, you know?
So who knows, he may go to school and be like, listen, I want to go teach yoga.
Samantha: Yeah, totally. I think that especially, you know, if he wants to make apps, there is a very cool property of Hopscotch projects that they play on your phone and your iPad and all the things that come with it.
You can use accelerometer and you can use multi-touch, and they’re basically iPhone and iPad games that you’re making, which from what I’ve seen from kids, if you’re like, Hey, you can make a game like you see in the app store, they’re like, what? Sign me up.
Teja: Yeah. That’s so true.
Cool. Okay, after this, I will pitch it to him.
Samantha: Getting customers one podcast interview at a time.
Teja: I think that there are probably a lot of engineers who want to gently expose their kids to programming.
Samantha: Yeah, for sure.
And I think a lot of engineers, at least in my experience, they do really enjoy what they do, and they’re like perplexed why no one else enjoys it too. They’re like, no, this is so cool, why can’t you? You should try it. It’s going to be so awesome. And then everyone else sees programming and it just feels too hard or the hill is too high to get over.
So Hopscotch let’s you show that thing as an engineer, it lets you show your kid that thing that you love and get them there so much faster without also showing them that thing that frustrates the heck out of you every day.
Teja: Oh yeah. Spending two days to set up your environment.
I’m curious about this, do you think that maybe in 20 years, everybody will know how to code?
I think that’s what a lot of the tech literati seem to be pointing to, but I don’t know if everybody does want to code. So, I’m curious how you think about that.
Samantha: I think something that’s interesting is first of all, what does it mean to learn to code? And that’s changed over time.
So, if you look at the history of programmers, it is a history of the grumpy older generation telling this generation that their fancy new tool is not programming.
They were the hardware programmers and they were doing their thing, and then they got assembly language and the young people are programming in assembly. And the hardware people were like, this is nonsense, this isn’t real. And then people started writing, I think probably one level up was Fortran over assembly, and the assembly people were like, that’s not real programming, what are you doing? You know, on and on and on up the distraction ladder. Of course they were all doing real programming.
You know, the way I like to think about it is, making the tool fit the human, rather than trying to make the human fit, the tool, and you see this in violins and string instruments.
I used to play violin when I was a kid and I started with a quarter sized violin, which is a really tiny violin for a little kid, and it’s not really any different than a regular size violin. It’s just fits you. Then, as you grow larger, you get a bigger and bigger violin, and I always thought that was really cool.
The instrument makers were not like, ” you have to wait until you’re big to get good at violin” because there’s all these things you need. They’re like, ” no, you can actually start getting good immediately as long as we just adjust the tool a little bit so that it fits your body”.
And my hope is that we will kind of continue to adjust and refine the programming tools so that they fit humans better, rather than fitting computers better.
Which is often, I think the way they go. People design the tools for the computers, rather than for the humans who are going to use it.
Teja: Wow. That’s powerful and it’s so true. That’s really compelling.
So if you had to sum up Hopscotch’s mission, what would you say it is?
Samantha: Our mission is to teach kids about the powerful ideas of computing while letting them make real software.
Teja: Awesome. All right, Samantha, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Samantha: Thank you. This is so fun.