“We want to teach kids about computer science in a very caring and personal environment,” says Adam Learing, co-founder of Learn.Create.Build Academy. “We like being a small company. We are very adamant that we want to do things that don’t scale – like giving extremely personal attention to our students and their parents.”
Learing is one of just two full-time employees at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based, award-winning educational company. With co-founder Shane Thomas, Adam Learing started Learn.Create.Build two years ago, teaching computer science classes to children. Although the company has 20 part-time employees – mostly instructors for its summer day camps and online courses – the two co-founders are determined to keep the company small. It’s an intrinsic part of their vision. “Our vision is to inspire the next generation of creators and innovators. Not only to put their hands on technology, but to take it to the next level,” said Learing.
As the foundation for its classes, Learn.Create.Build Academy uses one of the world’s most popular computer games: Minecraft. Minecraft is what is called a “sandbox game,” a virtual space with no set rules or ways to “win.” Instead, users create their own worlds and experiences, using tools and resources discovered on the site to learn design, robotics, and animation.
A Personal Approach to Online Classes
Learn.Create.Build began piloting its virtual computer camps in August 2016, and has completed three full online sessions to date. Each session lasts eight weeks, with eight children per class. Each class lasts for just 1.5 hours a week, but the children are expected to do homework to advance the objectives of the class from week to week.
There are differences between the two formats, Learing says. “With our physical camps, the course lasts 35 hours, the kids are sitting by each other, and there are admittedly distractions. We have to plan activities and give the kids the opportunity to get some physical activity.” In the virtual course, kids can talk and interact online, but because they have financially committed to extra learning, they are a little more serious about their passion for programming, Adam says.
Learn.Create.Build’s approach to the online classes is a deeply personal one. “I want parents to call me up personally and say, ‘Connor had an issue today in class,’” says Learing. This personal touch is why Learn.Create.Build has a 50% student return rate. “We have a one-hour email response guarantee. Those things don’t scale, and they do make a difference when a parent gets an answer right away,” says Learing. “We do personal emailing, and post via social media. One of our core values is to be personal. If I get an email saying, ‘my kid is having trouble with the software,’ we jump in to help immediately. Our very personal customer service differentiates us from the larger companies.”
Learing and Thomas don’t believe in prerecorded video, which also differentiates them from larger competitors. “We believe that if a student has a question, he or she should get an immediate answer. Otherwise, they might give up out of frustration. The nice thing is that online classes are almost pure revenue. “There’s virtually no cost other than the cost of the teacher,” says Learing.
Technology Is Key to This Business’ Success
Technology is critical to the success of Learn.Create.Build. It recently won $5,000 through business competition Launch Pad powered by CenturyLink, for its innovative use of technology. The event was a collaborative event between The Bakery, a collaborative workspace and entrepreneur community, and CenturyLink, a Fortune 500 technology company.
Learing and Thomas’ core business is to offer weekend and summer technology camps that teach computer programming, engineering, and design. Recently, the firm has leveraged web-conferencing and online collaboration tools to add a roster of online classes. Learn.Create.Build expects those classes to contribute an increasing share of the company’s revenues – from just 1% now to 25% within two years.
“Innovation keeps us on our toes,” says Learing. “Technology is ever-evolving, so when a new technology becomes available, we try to embrace it early in our process – whether that’s a new web-conferencing service or a different module in Minecraft.” For example, the two co-founders jumped on 3D printing as a way for kids in their engineering camps to get a physical rendition of something they had designed. In their robotics camps, there’s continuous innovation due to rapid changes in the industry.
Technology is critical for day-to-day tasks, such as setting up rosters for camps and enabling online registration. “Answering parents’ questions takes a lot of time, so we try and automate everything else as much as possible.” This is why, as a company, Learn.Create.Build is an eager proponent of cloud computing. This means “renting” or subscribing to applications that live in the cloud as services, rather than buying software and having to install and maintain it themselves.
“Virtually all our applications are software-as-a-service (SaaS),” says Learing.
Technology helped Learn.Create.Build with the biggest business challenge it has faced thus far; figuring out how big they wanted to be. “Initially we hired a staff to help with logistics, for registration and setting up the camps. It almost sunk the company,” says Learing. “We were spending too much on wages and not getting the right output, so we decided to automate all the processes we could. Now everything is much more cost effective.”
In fact, he says cloud technology is a major differentiator between small and large businesses. The ability for smaller firms to quickly implement new technology is a major competitive advantage.
“Cloud technology is cheap. You only pay per person per month, and can stop at any time. You only use what you need,” he says. “It’s the perfect technology for small businesses.”
Where will Learn.Create.Build be in five years? “It really depends on where the kids will be,” says Learing. “Kids are programming earlier and earlier. It will change the way computer engineers are born. We hope to help them take that next step, wherever they happen to be.”
As with most computer science activities across the industry, participation of girls lags behind those of boys. Currently, approximately 20% of camp and online class attendees are girls. “We would love to see it go higher. One of the reasons we chose Minecraft is that it is a gender-neutral video game,” says Learing. To encourage more girls, Learn.Create.Build is partnering with local community organizations, such as schools and nonprofits focused on women’s needs. “We think if we can start getting girls interested earlier – say six years old – the stigma will be much less,” he says.
As Learn.Create.Build formulates its future plans, it is, of course, taking its competitors into account. The two biggest competitors – ID Tech and Digital Media Academy – operate on the west and east coasts, “so there’s not a lot of competition in the markets we’ve chosen in the middle of the country.”
But although Learing might argue that Learn.Create.Build doesn’t have “big” plans, the vision of the two young founders is actually quite huge – nothing less than opening up children’s minds to science and igniting a lifelong passion for learning. What could be bigger than that?