My son got to meet his heroes. Not sports players, astronauts, or Marvel comics characters. He met the people behind Youth Digital, his favorite source for online tech courses. We traveled to their headquarters in Chapel Hills, North Carolina. What they are all about is creating the next generation of creators, focused on kids ages 8 to 14. My son discovered their courses when he was 10 and he is devouring them as fast as he can, learning about Java programming, 3D graphics and animation, computer game design, and more – and frequently laughing in the process.
While at their office, we had the opportunity to talk with Justin Richards, the CEO and founder of Youth Digital, and Aaron Sharp, the head of Product Development.
The interview serves two purposes. We explore the product management aspects of the company and I expect product managers and innovators will find the topics useful. We also discuss another topic I love – preparing the next generation to be leaders in technology and innovation – which is something their products are all about. Most of us have kids in our lives, whether they be nephews and nieces, our own children, or other children we influence and because of this, I want you to know about the work Youth Digital is doing.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- Where did Youth Digital begin – with a business idea, a market focus, or a passion project? Justin got a job after college teaching at-risk kids in downtown St. Louis how to make websites. He wanted to make websites when he was a kid and was happy to teach other students how to make them as well. He moved to North Carolina and started tutoring kids as a way to help pay for graduate school tuition. He was able to teach kids how to make apps and video games; the kind of stuff he wanted to learn. He met Aaron, who also helped with the teaching. Soon they many kids who wanted to learn. They would put their laptops and bags in the back of their cars, drive to a student’s house, put their laptops out on the kitchen table, and start teaching. In this way it all began as a passion for teaching kids about web design and other technologies. After about six months of teaching in homes and classrooms they decided to make their first online course. They hoped to get 250 students on their online course in the first year. They had that many after the first month. They knew they were onto something.
- What was your first product and how was that chosen? The first online course was Game Design 1. It was the most popular topic in their after-school program. It was also the one they had been teaching the longest.
- How do you describe your market and what are the primary segments? What they’ve done up to this point has been mass-market, 8-14 year olds. That’s because it’s caught on so quickly without time to focus on more specific segments. If they can get their products in front of a parent or kid and engage with them longer than three seconds, they gain a customer. This is something the parents are excited about because of the computer science of coding elements and the fun kids have of making something, such as a Minecraft mod. Lately they have been more focused on segmenting customers based on the outcomes they’re looking for the product to fulfill, using the jobs-to-be-done framework (review episode 057 to learn about the framework).
- How do you decide the products to create – the topics for your courses? The main consideration is making sure that they’re teaching kids how to make something that they’re excited about making. For example, the Server Design course puts awesome technology in kids’ hands that allows them to instantly update Minecraft. It’s just contagious excitement.
- What actions have you taken to grow the sales of your courses? Early on they would to go to homeschool conferences. They’d talk with a lot of parents, have a full booth of interested customers, and sell a lot of courses. But, they needed larger audiences. The next step was to identify online websites that already had a large homeschool audience. If the people behind the websites evaluated a product and liked it, they would share it with their audience. Gaining access to those channels was so critical for them. They’re fortunate to find channels that supported them. They owe a lot of their success to channel partners.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
Listen Now to the Interview
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.