Business Owner Voices: Matt Highland, Hackingtons Code School for Kids

Business Owner Voices: Matt Highland, Hackingtons Code School for Kids

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Hackingtons Code School for Kids is an affordable afterschool program in the San Francisco Bay Area for children in grades 3 through 8. Owner Matt Highland is a former teacher and web developer who saw a need for a coding program that provides kids with a teacher’s supervision alongside motivation and camaraderie from peers. Highland said, “My teaching background has been a good advantage for the business, because I understand kids, schools, and curriculum design. Most people in this business come from a coding background. They understand the coding, but they don’t get the kids.”

Starting Out

Why did you start your business?

I started out as a schoolteacher. I went into the business world to be able to afford a house in the Bay Area. I had gotten into web development in the business world, but I really wanted to get back to teaching.

I had noticed there weren’t any programs for kids in computers. What got me thinking was when the school principal announced the kids were going to be typing for their state exams. I asked, “Do you guys have a typing program?” They said, “Not really, you can do that online.” I thought, “Not only do they offer no computer classes, but they have standards to meet. This is a perfect opportunity.” So, I launched a little prototype school. People signed up for it, so it seemed like a good idea.

How did you get the funds to get going?

I personally bought a bunch of used MacBooks from a dealer and rented out a room. I’ve tried to grow the business organically from there. As I’ve gotten more customers, I’ve opened up more sections.

Have you heard of business credit?

Yes. I’ve been using personal credit, but I’m really hoping to take a step into using business credit, because I don’t like the naked feeling that comes from not having credit for my business.

Managing the Business

What’s most challenging about running your business?

Making money. It’s really easy to spend money, but it’s hard to make money. It’s tempting for me to say, “Oh, wow! I got 10 new students, I should go get some new computers!” Then I go and buy a couple new MacBooks, and there goes my profits. It’s also too easy to spend advertising in the wrong direction. I can spend a couple hundred on YouTube ads in 30 seconds!

How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?

I’ve had to learn the patterns of when kids join programs. My biggest enemy has been baseball season, because it requires two-days-a-week practice and games. That pretty much wipes out any type of schedule a kid could have. The same goes for swimming. Swimming is every day. I’ve had to rework my finances for those types of things. I have to assume I’m going to lose three-quarters of my boy customers during baseball season. But, January 1, everybody wants to learn something new, so we get a big flood of interest. We also get a big flood when kids go back to school. The biggest financial hurdle for me has been understanding that flow.

Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?

I don’t have any suppliers, per se, because I buy my computers using cash. I do use a credit card from Best Buy for some things, because they don’t charge any interest rates on purchases.

What’s the biggest mistake you made early on?

I used to run 8-week classes that you had to join on a certain day. If a kid wanted to bring his friend on the second week, he couldn’t join. Once the classes were in the system, I couldn’t add people. That was a huge problem. I created flexibility so kids could join at any point. Learning to be flexible has been my biggest improvement this year.

I’ve also learned to make my menu kind of like In-N-Out Burger, where I only offer certain classes like HTML5, which includes JavaScript. Rather than focus on every single language, every technology, and video games, I decided to only do web development. Since I focused it like that, it’s been much easier to add students, because everyone is talking the same language. A lot of my competitors try to offer everything to make everyone happy. That becomes a scheduling nightmare.

What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?

I made it real. The activities the kids do are real. On Day 1 of their first lesson, the kids launch a real website that possibly thousands of people are going to see. All the other programs like this send the kids home with a disc so they can show their website to their parents. Nobody wants that. Everybody wants to be a hacker and make their mark. If you visit the Showcase on our website, you can check out the projects the kids make.

What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?

In my industry, technology is always changing, and there’s always some new software I’m wanting to try out for teaching. Even this week, I’m rolling out new technologies that I’m able to integrate instantly. If this were somebody else’s business, or even a corporation, I would have to clear something like that by a board above me. But with my own business, I don’t have to. If something’s new and I think it’s the best way, I can just roll it out.

Future Plans

What does the future look like for your business?

I would love to put a Hackingtons in every city in America. The problem is, the schools won’t let me advertise because I’m not a non-profit. That is limiting my growth. And it’s hard to find teachers. It’s easy to find coders, but it’s not easy to find coders who have experience with kids.

Another idea I’ve had is to put our classes online. But, I’ve found that parents don’t want their kids on their computers at home. They want them to go to an activity and learn something with other kids.

What advice do you have for someone starting a business?

Keep your day job as long as possible. I got to the point where I couldn’t handle my day job and teaching and writing the curriculum. Looking back, I was so anxious to grow, but I should have waited another year, continued my day job, gotten my curriculum in order, and then launched. I tried to launch three locations at the same time. I became understaffed. I didn’t have enough customers. I had to rewrite my curriculum. I really pushed myself to the edge, worked too hard, and I wasn’t seeing the profits. Whereas, when I was smaller and doing this as a side gig, I was highly profitable.

I know everyone wants to quit their job to follow their dreams. But, the stress that comes from following your dreams and having that as a main source of income is much more detrimental than any sort of stress that your regular job is putting on you while you’re trying to establish your side business.

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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing (http://www.fireworkwritingonline.com/), located in San Jose, California.

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