February’s entrepreneur of the month James Whelton has achieved an outstanding amount for the age of 22. In only his teenage years he co-founded the incredible global movement Coder Dojo. James developed this initiative to help develop the skill of coding amongst children globally, and give them an opportunity to learn technology skills. He has been honoured at Web Summit and named as one of Forbes’ ‘Top 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs’. Currently James is focused on the emerging tech scene in the Middle East.
+ Can you give us a quick overview of your background such as your education, interests, and relevant experience in the entrepreneurial world? Is Coder Dojo your first venture?
Education wise, relatively poor performer, didn't see the applicability of most subjects in school so it was difficult to keep attention. I got an A in religion in the Junior Cert so the priesthood was my back up plan! Growing up I loved computers and making things on them, because it felt tangible. I made my first website at 9, and I used to read computer books in an Eason's next to my dad’s work while I waited for him to finish.
Other interests included TaeKwon-Do, computer games, skateboarding and being an edgy teenager listening to Linkin Park. I used to try out a load of different hobbies (origami, various martial arts, breakdancing, art, etc.) so learned a lot of these different things. Work wise I used to build websites for some extra cash, but also worked during summers as a waiter, in a chip van, bin/maintenance man, on a sailing course and a few other things. Worked in a computer shop most weekends later on in school, fixing computers and refilling ink cartridges for minimum wage!
Regards proper business, I had done freelancing work before 6th year. During 6th year I created a social media monitoring platform and had gone through the process with Enterprise Ireland to get a grant, they kept telling me to come back with a more detailed business plan and financials, so I learned all that out of necessarily!
CoderDojo properly kicked off (first session) 2/3 weeks after LC, but it had a lot of planning prior!
All in, I had a lot of different experiences in both business and personally prior, so getting up and running was easier and allowed me to take on a new set of challenges/things to mess up!
+ For those who haven't heard about Coder Dojo can you give a brief overview of what it's about? Where did the idea come from initially and what were your first steps to getting it off the ground?
CoderDojo is a global network of free programming clubs for kids. Kids come and learn how to make apps, games, websites and more. It is entirely free and volunteer based. In addition to developing hard skills like programming, it develops soft skills like communication and teamwork by getting kids to mentor each other, present their creations at the end of sessions and various other activities. The environment in CoderDojo is very different to traditional class room setting, it is fun and relaxed and focuses more so on the kids creating sites/apps/game personal or meaningful to them.
I started programming around 9, it was really frustrating not having anywhere to learn or have a social outlet for me to fit in it to. I continued to self-teach and used to attend some lectures in UCC in Computer Science when I was 12/13. I found the teaching style didn't really resonate with me as young person and having been a poor performer in school wanted a different environment. I started a coding club in my school when in 6th year encompassing these experiences. I taught 40 pupils twice a week after school and had people from other schools wanting to come.
I met Bill Liao at Web Summit where I was invited to speak after doing some hacking on one of the new iPod Nano's (had to get a note to skip my maths mock for it!). I told him about the coding club, my thoughts to roll it out to different schools and some of my members were worried about what would happened after I left the school after LC. He had a similar experience growing up and saw the economic demand for programmers. We amalgamated all this and said we would create just 1 club, outside of school and do that well. That was the first CoderDojo.
In about a week or 2, people were traveling from Dublin to Cork to attend each weekend. Then it organically grew and we focused on packaging it up, and making it easier to roll out in other locations.
+ Has tech been always played an important role in your life? Where did the interest come from/when did it begin?
Yes it has, I didn't grow up with a lot of kids around me my age, so as a source of entertainment I loved it. I think it was time spent sitting at the computer, not necessarily any games or anything on it, but just messing around, seeing what I could get it to do. I figured out I could make animations by using MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker, I then wanted to show them to people, so thought putting them online would be best, and it all kind of spiralled from there.
As I got older, the importance of tech has continually been reinforced. I am passionate that it will bring society to the next level, and bring a massive increase in standard of living as the general population’s ability with it increases.
+ Having featured in Forbes top 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs, what made you opt for starting a social enterprise rather than focusing on profits as many business people do?
I had that split at the start. It was like 3 or 4 months in, CoderDojo was growing and making meaningful impact, and I had this social media monitoring product that had been given about 10K in grants and had a Seed investment offer of 100k for 10%. So it was serious, but I decided that one of them needed my full time for it to be done right (I was doing two 8 hour days at that point and burning out). CoderDojo, I felt was having such impact and I might not get another chance to make such impact, so I turned down the investment in the other company and wound it down in order to work on CoderDojo full time (I was then sleeping on coaches and floors/homeless for a few months at that point and a few further, so the money was tempting).
Social enterprises are a slightly different ball game, instead of your bottom line being money, its impact, which is slightly tougher to quantify.
+ Having achieved so much at such a young age, what is the accomplishment or experience you are most proud of?
CoderDojo definitely is what I'm most proud of, the impact it has on so many young people. I am really proud of having built an initial team in the CoderDojo foundation, who would then go on to scale both CoderDojo and the foundation. I'm a big believer in making oneself redundant when possible and bringing in better people!
+ Do you have any advice for our student start-ups?
I think each student start up would be unique, but what I would recommend is to relish in the learning and use the time to get over the inevitable mistakes, don't stress over these too much. Don't get bogged down in vanity metrics, deliver real value and real impact!
+ What are you up to at the moment, and do you have any further career prospects for the future?
Currently I have several business across the middle east and exploring emerging markets. Building that platform for whatever I want to do next in life!