“I literally had to walk in into YC knowing, that they don’t like solo founders, especially non-technical, code writing founders, and say in the first 30 seconds in the interview: ‘Hey, my co-founder decided to quit.’ “
Saturday morning in a cloudy San Francisco. I’m meeting Emmie Chang, CEO of FutureLeague (formely Camperoo) – educational startup organizing engineering and programming workshops for children aged 6 to 12. Emmie comes from Houston, TX. Soon after launching her startup, she and her co-founder decided, that Houston is too small – they have to move to Silicon Valley! The circumstances occurred to be pretty dramatic, but in only few weeks, Emmie landed on a safe ground with a very exciting future.
– What Camperoo is? 00:05
– The beginnings & founder drama 2:51
– Y Combinator 10:39
– Dating Ring 14:56
– Investors & legal 17:32
– Women in Silicon Valley 22:18
– Startup advice 26:32
– Future of Camperoo 31:06
Here is Emmie commenting on being a female founder in Silicon Valley
S.G: Hi Emmie, it’s so nice to have you here.
E.Ch: Hi, how are you, good to be here.
S.G: Can you tell us what Camperoo is?
E.Ch: Camperoo teaches kids engineering and programming, with a focus on 21st century skills – things like creativity, design thinking, and teamwork. So these are the things that we focus on, while using engineering and programming as a medium, for children 6 to 12 years old.
S.G: How intense are the programs?
E.Ch: I would say they are very intense, but light and casual. Sort of like the vibe of San Francisco. We are building new things and changing the world, but we are building it in casual way, and that’s how we approach it with kids. Because kids want to have fun, and we make it fun for them, to learn how to program or play with engineering tools and actually build things.
S.G: What’s the response, how parents are actually reacting to it and how many students do you have already?
E.Ch: We’re very early stage still, we are super beta and we have a huge demand. Every parent tells me: “Oh my gosh, I wish that I found about you earlier. ” Every person that I meet that is our age tells me, that: “I wish I had this when I was younger”. So it’s been a huge response and our biggest challenge was building enough classes and enough workshops to support all the demand out there, and that’s what we are doing right now.
“The earlier you can spark their [kids] interest, the more exciting they can become as adults. And the earlier you find out as a kid what you like, you can start focusing on this kind of things. For most people they don’t ever figure that out. A lot of people don’t do it till college, until they retire from their jobs.”
S.G: Where are your workshops taking place?
E.Ch: Right now we are around the Bay Area, in San Francisco, because we are based here, and San Jose, because that’s where all the kids are. We’ll start opening something in the East Bay and in the Peninsula, as we get more and more demand.
S.G: Are you planning to go national-wide later?
E.Ch: Absolutely, the goal is go national and global, because I think schools are not necessarily enough equipped to teach this right now. There are some schools that are doing it, but I think we can move much faster. But right now, just in the Bay Area alone, there is 100,000 kids eligible for the program.
S.G: How do you find the teachers?
E.Ch: That’s a challenge. There are two ways of finding teachers. You can find really awesome people, that want to learn the topic. So just like every parent wants their kids to learn programming and engineering, almost every young person between 20 and 30 wants to learn engineering and programming right now. So we sort of look at the way we train our teachers, as a way to say – This is a first step in learning about programming. So we have sort of this unlimited base of really cool people that we can draw from to teach kids.
S.G: Your journey with Camperoo started in Houston?
S.G: And you’ve had 12 years experience of working for specialty camps industry, right?
E.Ch: Yeah, so, what we started in Houston, and what we went through Y Combinator with, and what I am right now, is completely different.
S.G: Yes, tell us about the beginnings.
E.Ch: I started as technology camp, and America camps are these one week specialty programs – not necessarily sleeping away in the woods. We taught engineering and programming. And through that experience, I thought, wouldn’t it be great for parents to have a one stop shop to find all sorts of different camps? Because I knew, that my kids that were coming to tech camp, were going to soccer, and they were going to dance, or karate. So I wanted to make a platform to make this work. What happened, was that it was really, really great, and the challenge wasn’t in uniting all the different programs, but it was understanding your child. So that’s the trick, that we figured out, that most parents don’t know what’s best for their kids. Once you figured that out, we also realized it’s a huge seasonal business and we are always fighting seasonality. We’re always trying to do year-round program, after school program, but the big chunk of money was in the summer. So this summer I though about pivoting, and changing, and looking at the different opportunities available. What every parent wants for their kids, is to grow up and be really great in the workforce. What that means is 21st century skills in engineering and programming. Now we get to give parents something that they need, and we get to adapt to every single type of child there is.
S.G: You started with one problem, that you knew needs to be solved, with relation to your 12 years’ experience, and then you transitioned. Did you think, that the initial problem was not there anymore?
E.Ch: Absolutely not. I think, the problem is super big and parents are definitely having this pain. And it’s one that holds my heart because parents come to me and say “Are you not doing this anymore? I need you.” But on the other end of the spectrum, it’s understanding what race you want to run. As a founder, it’s a business opportunity, and it’s a life journey. For me it sounds very zen and California ask to say it’s a life journey, but it really compelled me to help kids find who they were and interest them in the young age. I think that the earlier you can spark their interest, the more exciting they can become as adults. And the earlier you find out as a kid what you like, you can start focusing on this kind of things. For most people they don’t ever figure that out. A lot of people don’t do it till college, until they retire from their jobs. And if you’re ten years old, and you have the world literally at your fingertips, with the cellphone you can do anything, and you have access to everything. With Camperoo now we can give kids that opportunity to get that spark, and to give them that freedom to express themselves and build something. Once I realized this, I realized that what I’m doing now is exactly where I wanted to go. It just took me a little while to get there.
S.G: I’m trying to imagine how actually kids can code? What are they actually doing there and what are they supposed to learn by the end of the course?
Couple of things. When you are six, your fingers are this small, so you actually can’t type. When you’re ten, you’re pretty good at typing, but you haven’t learned… I mean, let’s face it, most kids are doing this, they are not typing. So, from a program standpoint, we use a lot drag and drop programming, kind of like Scratch. There is system with Google’s Blockly, where we’re taking “if”, “loops”, and “functions”, and we’re grabbing it. The 12 years’ are old enough, they want to type, they want to feel like they are actually typing computer code, because it’s exciting. And what we’re teaching is not necessarily syntax, or algorithms, we’re teaching the sense of empowerment, of excitement that you can build something. Through technology you can build something right now, push it out, refresh your website and see it happen. That’s hugely impactful for a kid to get instant gratification like that, especially electronically.
S.G: Let’s go back to the early years of your startup. Tell us about the founders’ drama. I know there was something going on…
E.Ch: When I started this business in Houston, it was spring 2013 and it was a marketplace for kids and camps. I had that a business partner who had kids, and because of that it was good, that was an interactive viewpoint for children and our business, but it was negative because he had kids. So there is two pressures: there is money and family. I think also there was some breakdown in communication and differences in the way that we saw where the business wanted to go. I can also admit to myself, that I was probably not the best at being receptive and open to listening to other people’s communication. You have to be good at speaking and listening. If you want to read the medium article, that was two weeks of my life that were super exciting and all the change happened in two or three weeks. That was a major flection point in my life. Hopefully, as we move forward, we won’t have as many dramatic moments. But I think it was for the better and now I learned and grew from that experience to be more receptive, as a listener, and communicator, and ask questions.
“We started realizing this is the place [San Francisco] where we need to bring our startup. We need to be there to learn and grow and get the resources necessary. So we made this decision. And then we applied to Y Combinator, and then… he quit.”
S.G: Tell us about moving to San Francisco. You already decided to move when you had that co-founder, right?
E.Ch: Yes. During the summer of 2013 we started doing exploratory trips to San Francisco, which a lot of people do. They think about “Let me try to get into the startup scene. Let me see what it’s all about? Is it a fit for me?” In these trips that we made back and forth we started realizing this is the place where we need to bring our startup. We need to be there to learn and grow and get the resources necessary. So we made this decision. And then we applied to Y Combinator, and then… he quit.
“We have this joke that says: ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Great! Beautiful on the outside, a mess on the inside.’ “
S.G: Two weeks before you got a reply you got approved?
E.Ch: Actually, a day before I got an interview invitation. So literally, on Sunday night, I got an email from him, that said: “Parting ways”, and then on Monday night I get an invitation to interview with Y Combinator. So then the next 10 days was preparation for this interview, and I literally had to walk in into YC knowing, that they don’t like solo founders, especially non-technical, code writing founders, and say in the first 30 seconds in the interview: “Hey, my co-founder decided to quit.” Despite all that I think I was very fortunate they let me into the program, and it’s really one of the best thing has ever happened to me is to go into Y Combinator, have that support network, be able to have the opportunity to be with everybody and learn from the best and greatest startup founders – both our peers and our mentors and advisors.
S.G: How did you convince them, that it’s worth it, that it’s just you and it is all so dramatic now, but “Still, you should have me there.”
E.Ch: I think that has to do with when you want something and you have to do it. I really thought that my company was going to die. And when you feel like you’re faced with death, you do anything, that you need to do. So I was in there and I said: “You know, I already have a technical team lined up, that can handle my technical aspects. I understand this business better than most people out there. There are probably 4 or 5 other people who have small businesses that are better in this market than I am, and they are all in the Bay Area. I think that I’m the only one that wants to build a billion dollar business, or make the hugest impact out of all these people. Somehow I understand, that this small niche can become something great.” I think that being open and honest, and expressing my vulnerabilities, not hiding anything, they saw that, and they gave me the chance. They said OK. Literally, I walked out of the room, someone asked me how do you feel about it, and I sad I have no idea how I feel, they were really hard to me. We’ll just have to wait and see. And that evening I got a call and you can say the rest is history.
S.G: You mention that you were so happy to have had the opportunity to be at Y Combinator. What was so amazing there?
E.Ch: I think it’s definitely the people. It’s sort of like going through a university or some type of group where all of a sudden you are put into a group with 100 people that are similar to yourself, but completely different. Everybody looks different. I think in out batch there was maybe 30 countries, different ages, from 19 to 60 years old. Nobody looked the same from physical aspects. Our backgrounds were varied, we had people in biotech, in finance, like me with summer camp experience. But yet, we were all connected by this desire to change the world. Which is really, really rare and awesome. And I think, when you put these people together, magical things happen. They gave us some tips as well, obviously, to help us along the way.
S.G: So you were in winter batch 2014. That was the same batch as Dating Ring, that is being featured on season 2 in the StartUp podcast. So you know the girls?
E.Ch: Yeah, I know the girls really well, I really like them, a lot. There was a third girl that was not mentioned in the podcast, that was part of the company as well.
“It’s extremely brave for Lauren, a CEO of dating ring, to be so young, and be so courageous, to actually come out and say ‘This is my experience in doing this startup and this is where I want to take it next.’ She did mention a lot of really private things that a lot of people may not express.”
S.G: What do you think about their performance on the podcast. They revealed so many details, sometimes not that popular details, and I guess all of this was true, right? Because that was the point. What do you think about this, that they agreed on it, and they were so honestly telling about what was happening.
E.Ch: Number one, they are super brave. Every startup goes through ups and downs, and it’s not all this beautiful way of presenting it, in the way that we see it in press. And every startup is a mess. We have this joke that says: “How are you doing?” “Great! Beautiful on the outside, a mess on the inside.” So this is a common theme, that founders actually talk about to each other. I think it’s extremely brave for Lauren, a CEO of dating ring, to be so young, and be so courageous, to actually come out and say “This is my experience in doing this startup and this is where I want to take it next.” She did mention a lot of really private things that a lot of people may not express. For the company, they decided to go a different path with it, and I think that’s great, not every company has to become a unicorn, a billion dollar company. But I think that it’s great because just having more people speak out is important, and just to say: “I’m part of startup, and this is my story, cause every story is different.”
S.G: For sure, this is interesting to all of us, but what do you think about them themselves, is it going to be for better or worse for them?
E.Ch: I don’t know, because I never used their service. But I think it’s interesting, there is a lot of room in the dating space, because we are all on our phones, and we have online profiles. So I think that doing the in person matching is still an art, that they were able to scale that, that’s super interesting. They are definitely reaching a problem, and they are solving a problem. They are still doing it in New York, so well, power to them.
S.G: Let’s talk a little bit about the investment aspect. How did you find your first investor? That was before Y Combinator, right?
E.Ch: I was really lucky in that. In Houston, TX, there is a pretty strong and organized angel network. My ex University, which is Rice University, where I graduated from, organized investment forums. I was able to actually present at one of these forums in front of number of Houston investors. That’s where my first few hundred thousand dollar checks came from, from Houston. But prior to those Houston checks, and I mentioned it in my medium article, I actually met my first investor in Silicon Valley, at a Tech Crunch party. I didn’t know anything, so I went and networked. I went and said: “I have a goal talking to 40 people a day.” Me and my co-founder would go, and we would have just go grab business cards, because we had no idea what we were doing. Through that, somehow, we convinced someone to give us our first investment. And it was a pretty good investment. I am really grateful for that person to give us this investment, and really fuel the fire to move forward, have the confidence to raise more from Houston, to come to Y Combinator and then graduate from YC and raise more. It’s just the confidence and the experience.
S.G: So it means that going to those networking events is really worth it?
E.Ch: I don’t know. For me it worked out. For one. And you only need the first one. The best way is obviously through introductions, because they have a higher percentage of close. But when you don’t know anyone? Who are you going to ask for an introduction? I think there is a balance of doing everything it takes, going through every intro that you know, and then going out and talking to massive amounts of people. Because by the time you talk to a 50th person, you’ll get better, hopefully. When I did actually end up my fundraising, I looked at some of my stats. I did a party, what they call “party angel round” after YC. I ended up talking to about 85 people. 85 meetings in a 6 week period, which is a lot. Those were real meetings, with intros, and I was able to close 17 of those, which was a 20% rate. But it doesn’t matter what your rate is, because it just matters you have 17 and the money is in the bank. It doesn’t matter if it’s one for one, or one for one million. You just need the money. So my answer is, yes, it is valuable, and my answer is no, it is not valuable. It depends, and YES is the answer – do everything you need to do and people will pick up on that.
As a female, it’s just something that’s new. When people have new things, it’s just unknown. I’m friends with all the other female solo founders, there is quite a lot of them, and we experience a lot of the same things as the boys do. It’s not necessarily a female vs. male thing. But there are definitely biased things of being a woman in Silicon Valley.
S.G: How are you finding investors right now?
S.G: How about the legal things? Do you have the legal office that is helping you?
E.Ch: Yeah, absolutely. I actually started in Texas, I retained a firm in Austin. That was a smaller firm, that could give me more personal attention for my legal issues at that time. Because my co-founder left, we got to Y Combinator, there was a little bit of legal. Right now we don’t have that many legal aspects, but I think that’s important to have someone that you’ve been referred to. In case something like this happens, they get all your paperwork clean. In that situation that was the best that could have happened to me.
S.G: Are you still using them, or someone here?
E.Ch: I’m still using them, but we don’t have that much legal.
S.G: You’re a solo founder. And you are a female solo founder. Do you think this is a unique thing here in Silicon Valley? Do you feel pretty exceptional? Or not at all?
E.Ch: Well, I feel like am the same as everyone else. We all like to think we are exceptional, wonderful people. But I think that being a female solo founder is no different than being a male solo founder, or a female non solo founder. I think that there is two things. Number one, being a solo founder is difficult. This is a fact. Even, I was talking to someone and they actually said: “For your company to be investible, you actually have to be 10x better, than a non solo team.” Because if you are putting bets on the table, you’re gonna bet on the team, vs. the individual. In that respect, yes, I have to work harder. As a female, it’s just something that’s new. When people have new things, it’s just unknown. I’m friends with all the other female solo founders, there is quite a lot of them, and we experience a lot of the same things as the boys do. It’s not necessarily a female vs. male thing. But there are definitely biased things of being a woman in Silicon Valley.
S.G: Do you think it is harder or easier to gain investment?
E.Ch: I think it’s always hard to get investment, and nobody likes it, male or female. From a standpoint of investment, it’s really aligning yourself with the people, that are comfortable and used to seeing women founders, and successful women. Because, this is something new. So if you have new things, you are not comfortable with them. It’s about being around with people who are somewhat comfortable about them, and we are still paving the way. There’s a lot of people, that are just not used to it. They are not being biased against you on purpose, they just don’t know.
“Previously, in the last 10 years, women were investors’ girlfriends, secretaries, and wives. If you’re used to seeing women in these roles, all of a sudden you have a woman as a CEO of a company, and this is just extremely abnormal. And then you have all these industries, that are new (…) I think that luckily we move really fast here, so I think that’s going to change over time.”
S.G: So you still have less choice of investors, that would…
E.Ch: I would definitely say so. I think that everyone says that they are equally opportunistic between male and female, but when you look at the statistics… Number one, maybe there is less percentage of women, going out for this investments. But that means that the percentage of funded should be the same amount of companies, that are women founded which is not true. And then the second factor is… Previously, in the last 10 years, women were investors’ girlfriends, secretaries, and wives. And this is true, this is just a fact. If you’re used to seeing women in these roles, all of a sudden you have a woman as a CEO of a company, and this is just extremely abnormal. And then you have all these industries, that are new. So now you have a influx of unlimited companies, which are also different, than what people are used to. And then you add a female on top of that. So there is just a lot of new things. I think that luckily we move really fast here, so I think that’s going to change over time. But definitely navigating it is challenging.
S.G: What is your main advice for startup founders?
E.Ch: Number one, have confidence, because it’s extremely important to be extremely your number one cheerleader. You have to be believing in it 100x more than everybody else. The second thing is be open to ask for help, and know the right questions to ask for help. There is a fine line between looking for help, and seeming needy. That is the balance that I think about a lot, is instead of saying: “Omg, I don’t know what to do, everything is going to hell.” – that is not the right way to ask a question. By saying something like: “Well, this is what I tried, this is what happened, numbers are not what I need to be, what is your recommendation, or how do you feel about some ways that I can change what I did previously.” You can ask his question to 50 people, and then you have to be able to filter, which of those people are giving you the right advice. Because, just because they are the authority doesn’t mean, they are giving you the right advice. Right people who use real life stories to answer, because with a story there is no real or right answer, it’s just a case study. I like reading case studies, I like looking at things like that, and asking questions in that respect.
See also: “Always ask for stuff. You never know until you ask.” | From brothers’ idea, through 500 Startups, TV Show rollercoaster, $120K yearly revenue and growing. How Roost – Airbnb for space – is making its way.
S.G: Looking at your startup right now, is there anything you would do differently?
E.Ch: I mean, everyday! You make mistakes, all the time, to the point where you are like: “Well, 90% of what I do is going to be bad anyway, so we’re just keeping on doing a 100% until we get 10% that’s good.” So, all the time. I look back and think, “Oh wow we made that mistake. Oh wow, we made that mistake.” The important thing about doing that is not to dwell on them, and say: “Ok, moving forward, let’s reevaluate this project.” Projects and initiatives that don’t go well, you can’t plan for them to go well. But there might be some signs early on, that next time you do it you can look out for those signs. One example would be… [see video – 29:00].
S.G: So you lost money and time.
E.Ch: Exactly. And time is the most important thing.
S.G: Especially in the early stage.
E.Ch: Absolutely. And also this was waste of time of emotions!
S.G: I’ve been through the same situation. When we outsourced something, and week by week, we were waiting for results, it was not there. It was supposed to be the next week, and the next week. That’s when I lost a lot of my health! And I can imagine it was the same for you.
E.Ch: Exactly. That was one example, but there were countless examples. Every startup founder wishes we could back in time, and make this perfect line, to go up and to the right. But instead, it’s like this. Hopefully, we get out of this.
“They are 10 months old, they have this device, and they know how to navigate to YouTube. And it’s just for us to figure out, how do we teach this? How do we harness this curiosity, and how do we not make it so it’s negative.”
S.G: What is your goal for Camperoo right now? What are you mostly working on to achieve? What’s the next step?
E.Ch: I think now it’s just to get more members. Number one is getting more kids as members, treating engineering and programming as an extra curriculum activity, that they identify with. A lot of kids have been at dance for 5 years, karate for 5 years. I want them to be with Camperoo for 5 years. This is the step that I’m going for. And then, I also think what’s interesting for this year, is to start thinking about ways, that we can educate things online. That is still widely unknown. As we all know, what 8 year old will sit at his computer and do a Coursera course. 28 year olds can’t even do this! (laugh) I think there is some interest in technology and education, because kids love devices. They love watching YouTube. Ever since they are 8 months old.
S.G: I even have a friends’ daughter. She is 10 months old. When she sees my Apple Watch, she is already all into it, and the phone, as well. She is 10 months!
E.Ch: 10 months old, yes. They can’t walk, but they are playing with these devices. So I think there is something unique in being able to educate this generation, who grew up with literally the world at their fingertips. They are 10 months old, they have this device, and they know how to navigate to YouTube. And it’s just for us to figure out, how do we teach this? How do we harness this curiosity, and how do we not make it so it’s negative. A lot of these parents are saying: “Hey, I’m not going to give you screen time, until you are a certain age.” But why would you restrict screen time, it’s like saying: “Hey, let’s not use the refrigerator, to cool our food. Let’s only buy things that don’t go bad.” It is silly, when we think about this. It’s just about: “How do we turn this into a learning experience.” And so, I have to study this. This is so cool. This is my personal path of saying: “I can figure this out.” This year we’ll try to do some type of interactive, online-offline blend of figuring out what is that first step for 8 or 9 year olds, to keep them engaged online. I do realize that, in person is number one, and that is what we are focused on. But not everybody can get to us in person, so if you can’t get to us, what is that online, global denominator, that we can have for everybody?
S.G: Thank you so much! It’s so great speaking to you today and having you here. We encourage everyone to check out your website, that’s www.camperoo.com.
E.Ch: Cool, thank you for having me!
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