Build your IP — It is also essential to build your IP and differentiate yourself within the market to show why customers (parents) should invest in the learning opportunity for their child.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Tweedale, founder and CEO of EdTech startup Cypher, the coding school teaching kids from 6–12 years old how to code through creatively themed courses. Elizabeth founded Cypher in 2016 following her passion to get children to engage with tech from a young age. She’s a working mother, successfully published author, award winning entrepreneur and advocate for gender equality in education.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
At university, I was both captain of the cheerleading team and president of the computer science society. For me, it seemed natural to have both sports and tech interests, however for others these two very different interests did not typically come hand in hand. I wanted to help get other young girls interested in tech at a young age, and give them the understanding that tech is engaging, fun and accessible — and not mutually exclusive from other hobbies and interests.
Following my degree in Computer Science and a masters in Architecture, I worked at several leading architecture firms as a computational design specialist, working on Apple’s HQ project in California. While working in architecture using code, I realised that I had reached this point in my career quickly because I had learned the foundations of coding and that it is the base needed to elevate all careers.
This further cemented my belief that we should all be taught coding from an early age in a way that is engaging for both boys and girls. With this passion, I created Cypher to challenge the perception of coding. At Cypher, we do this through teaching children to code through creative themes and real-world examples, to give the next generation equal opportunity to be future ready.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In my first lesson teaching children to code, I taught 6 girls and 6 boys. I was fascinated by how differently they approached the lesson, and it was a pivotal moment in understanding the gendered differences in learning. This informed the rest of my thesis to teach creative themes suited to different genders to maximise learning potential. Now at Cypher, we tailor our creative themes to ensure that each child is getting the most out of the session for theirdevelopment.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Being a female in tech was never an easy path — one that I’m determined to keep pushing for future female entrepreneurs. Prior to Cypher, my husband and I partnered to create a business, GoSpace AI, where I was the CTO. While trying to raise investment, we went to a meeting with potential investors together. Although I was CTO, they did not believe that I was personally responsible for building the tech and refused us investment as a result.
While this was an incomprehensible and incredibly frustrating experience, I used this as an opportunity to eventually re-evaluate my mission and the values of Cypher. Initially, I made changes to my appearance to appear more ‘credible’, until I realised that I wanted to set an example for others and be a role model for other women in tech. I then refused to make any changes to my appearance and approach — if they won’t believe in who I am and what I stand for then I will find those who do. The pandemic has been particularly difficult for female entrepreneurs to navigate, and I am determined to continue my career and inspire other women to pursue their passion for tech, too.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
On a professional level, my ultimate inspiration is the ‘first computer programmer’, Ada Lovelace. Despite the fact that women interested in technology and mathematics was practically unheard of, she still pursued her passion for technology — an important message that should continue to be spoken about with girls in tech today.
On a more personal level, my grandmother helped me greatly achieve success through inspiring me with her dedication to education and empowerment of women. A nurse who gave up her career to look after her children herself, she was a huge advocate for women returning to work. Her commitment and passion towards consistent education is a further inspiration. I attended college classes with her as a young child and she taught me that it’s never too late to learn. She introduced me to feminism in an example-led way — showing me the importance of what matters in life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This was a quote from my grandmother: “do your best and let them say”. This relates to me personally as a woman in tech — some people may have doubted my ability but I have remained true to myself regardless of what others say. You are never going to please everyone, so as long as I can remain confident that I have done my best, then it doesn’t matter what other people say or think.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Cypher is transforming the education of computer science for children through its creative curriculum, getting children future ready. It turns a traditional process into relatable activities that children engage with. At Cypher, we aim to change the perception of coding and encourage girls to get into STEM industries, therefore combating the inequality in computer science, coding and the tech industry. Parents understand that education in coding is essential for their children to be future-ready, however education establishments aren’t preparing children at a young age. In a recent survey of young people and employers in nine countries, 60% said that new graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work and there were gaps in technical skills such as STEM subject degrees. Evidently there is a need for these skills. Traditionally, computer science is only taught at university level, so it’s important to begin teaching this at a younger level to make sure they are equipped for their future careers.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The below quotes are from parents of students taking the Cypher classes:
Parent of 8 year old: “The teacher was calm and patient. He was responsive and kind, and explained things well. He made my 8 year old daughter feel like she was capable, and she says, “this class was THE best!” This class is great for beginners who can navigate simple computer commands such as minimizing a window and drag and click. Coding experience isn’t necessary, but be prepared for a child who is excited about coding and will want to keep exploring the coding world!”
Parent of 6 year old: “Your class really helped my daughter get interested in programming. Her growth in the duration of the camp was shocking to us and exceeded our expectations by our wildest imagination. We are so happy that we took your class. Can you let us know if you are planning on teaching more classes in the near future? We’d love to take more classes with you.”
The effect that Cypher courses have on children’s development and learning is the key standout point. Hearing feedback from parents, such as in the quotes above, that their child is now ‘excited about coding’ and ‘will want to keep exploring the coding world’ ultimately meets our goals. Feedback on the growth of their children’s interest in education and tech during the camp shows that Cypher is helping to develop the coders and technologists of the future. The only reason that such growth is possible is due to the creative themes, linking coding to concepts and popular culture that children are truly interested in and can engage with easily.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are launching a subscription model, which will allow more parents and children to become involved in Cypher. This subscription will lower the entry cost to Cypher, in a month-by-month instalment-based model, in turn providing accessibility to more children who would have otherwise not been able to access the courses. We predict we will see repeat customers returning to Cypher courses with this model, furthering their development. The decision to move in this direction comes from our incredibly strong repeat customers that we already have within Cypher. With ⅓ of our children already attending 3 or more classes — this is a natural next step for us and our customers.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
The number of women in tech is increasing, but it is still an extremely low percentage. At just 31% according to a report by ONS, it is evident that this is still seen as a male dominated profession. In order to change the status quo, I believe that early education is key, including coding and applying this to the real world (52% of our Cypher students are girls), but also increasing the understanding of what a tech role is to women. There are many jobs that women do and fail to realise that it is tech. Social media roles, for example, are tech-focused but are sometimes overlooked as being within the tech sector. To remove this stigma, education, learning and developing skills all while embracing tech is key. To be more inclusive, we need to focus on collaboration and play to the strengths that both women and men bring to the table working in tandem.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think the biggest challenge faced by women in tech is not being taken seriously and treated as an equal in the profession. Not enough credit is awarded to women for their abilities in the industry. On many occasions, I have been mistaken for a secretary when attending meetings with my male co-founder — something perhaps wouldn’t happen in reverse.
In order to address this, you can only approach the situation confidently, being assertive in your own ability.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
As a founder, I am always looking at the next step for the business. A key learning from the pandemic is that you cannot be afraid to start over and over again. Each time you do start again, you are not doing so from the beginning, but building on what you have already created, so it will never be as hard as the first time. In this instance, pre-covid, Cypher offered physical in-person camps yet the pandemic meant we had to implement a complete restructure of the business to a digital-only model. This was a simple enough process as the team already had all the necessary experience to take their learnings and apply this to the new business with enthusiasm.
When you’re running a business and find yourself stuck in a rut, it’s crucial that you consistently take on new challenges and always find new focuses to aim towards.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
In response to the pandemic, we pivoted our business to a complete online model, selling out many of our camps within 48 hours. Pre-pandemic, we found that parents would drop parents off at camp with little interaction with teachers. Yet, as we made the move to an online model, we have seen a drastic increase in parent interaction and involvement. They have more visibility and access to what the children are learning and have been impressed with their children’s development. This in turn has led to a direct correlation with friend referrals, creating the network effect. Parents are now recommending the camps to other parents as they see their children become excited and engaged, creating a customer acquisition strategy of a referral network of parents.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
At Cypher, our two main focal points are our students and parents. It is essential to make sure students enjoy their learning experience, can engage with classmates and that they are excited and enthusiastic on the Zoom screen. It is also vital that we understand what parents are going through and think from a parent’s perspective. We aim to reduce the barriers and make their experience as smooth as possible. Through Cypher and its constantly evolving creative themes, we are guaranteeing that parents know Cypher is the industry expert and can be confident that they are giving their child the right education.
It is also important to make sure that the technological process is as streamlined and easy to use as possible and understand that parents and children will have different levels of technology proficiency. Dealing with technology remotely can be overwhelming so it is vital to make the checkout and set up process straightforward and simple to appeal to all.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Customer retention can be achieved through the network effect — creating a network within customers, telling friends about Cypher, resulting in further memberships. Children refer and come with their friends, and they make friends within the course, continually returning to see these friends they made. We have seen this at Cypher as last year, we had over 2500 students from 21 different countries attend yet we didn’t advertise to these countries. This demonstrates the network and referral effect. It is also important to create an avenue to facilitate this network effect, whether that be through a referral discount or another incentive.
More generally, it is vital to provide amazing customer service, really understanding our parents as well as making sure our students have a great experience. It is vital to build a great product in the lessons that we teach, and essential that we make it easy for parents to see a return on their investment in their child.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Team — Teamwork is invaluable and it is vital that everyone plays to each other’s strengths and acts collaboratively. We did this at Cypher when we pivoted our model, allowing us to change to a digital model quickly and efficiently.
- Build your IP — It is also essential to build your IP and differentiate yourself within the market to show why customers (parents) should invest in the learning opportunity for their child.
- Product roadmap — You must have a ‘go to market strategy’ and ensure that the vision is aligned with development.
- Financial plan & fundraising — It is crucial to have a strategy when fundraising to manage cash flow accordingly.
- Passion — Above all, a clear vision and passion will keep the business going and feed into all of the above.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would create a world where children can move freely and confidently armed with the most powerful tools, with the language of code. I would like them to have the ability to harness the technology around them to use positively and make the world a better place.
We can get all children future-ready if we focus on a unified goal of educating the next generation for the technological future. Through engaging content, we know children will love what they learn and be empowered to be creators of the future world. Access to technology doesn’t have to be an issue if we share the responsibility across populations and tech resources on the planet.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Kate Middleton. As an influential mother passionate about the future of education, Kate’s insights and collaboration would be invaluable to share our mutual vision of preparing the next generation for their future. I’d love to discuss how we could work together to achieve this goal.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!