Doug Tarr Cracks the Code on Teaching Computer Programming to Kids

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Doug teaching.jpgDoug Tarr (background) and young coders at work

Name: Doug Tarr

Business: MVCode

Location: Five code clubs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area

Founded: October 2013

Doug Tarr was a seasoned software developer who had spent many years working at startups and large companies, as well as co-founding a tech startup in Seattle called PayScale. After moving with his family to Mill Valley, CA, Doug was approached by some fellow parents who wondered if he’d be willing to teach their kids to code. Doug agreed, so he invited a dozen 4th graders to squeeze into his living room for a weekly coding session. Word spread about how much the kids were learning and how much they were enjoying it, too. Eventually, Doug decided to move his unofficial club into an official downtown location. Now MVCode had a name, an address and a mission: to create a sustainable, local community business that teaches 1st through 10th graders to master the basics -- and beyond -- of coding.  

Doug, what was the tipping point that inspired you to work for yourself?

When I was a kid, my dad ran a small business out of our garage, and I worked for him for many years. Working for myself was something I always wanted to do.

When I was asked if I’d teach coding to some 4th graders, I realized there were very few opportunities at the time for kids to learn a skill that would help them be prepared for the future. Coding is the new literacy, and software is reinventing the world. Computer programming gives kids knowledge and skills they can apply to problem-solving in general, as well as to math, physics, art and music. Coding teaches kids about creativity and collaboration, too.

What has been the most challenging thing about starting or running your own business?

I’ve worked at a lot of tech startups, and I was used to that super-fast pace. I discovered I had to temper my enthusiasm and be realistic about what we can accomplish with our limited resources. It was a hard lesson to learn.

Summer camps are an important part of your business model. How do you plan around your busy summer season?

We originally thought of summer camps as a way to fill the gap when school was out of session. Now summer camps are one of our biggest offerings. We’re always looking for products and services that complement the seasonal aspect of the business.

At our camps, we take a project-based approach to learning, so kids can choose their own path and explore at their own pace. We have a low camper/counselor ratio and include at least 90 minutes of outdoor play each day. We offer girls-only camps, too. MVCode runs camps in five different locations in the Bay Area.


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What is your most effective way to get new members and participants?

Keeping kids learning and motivated is the most important thing.  When parents are happy with what and how kids are learning, they recommend us to their friends. Word of mouth is very powerful.

What do you know now that you wish you known when you were starting out in business?

I wish I knew how long it would take to grow the business and to plan accordingly!  For me, the third year in business was very hard. We tried to grow much faster than we should have and had to re-assess everything.   

Tell us one highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far.

I really appreciate that the MVCode staff are such good friends and have built their own community. From the beginning, I’ve been so pleased to have attracted a team that cares deeply about the kids, our program and each other.    

Doug, what do you find particularly satisfying about running your own business?

I always enjoy seeing the coding projects, art and robots that our students create. They are amazing!

Looking back, I have been involved in building tech startups most of my professional life, with all its ups and downs. But teaching kids is a more challenging job. I have a lot of admiration for the teachers who devote all their energy to our kids each and every day.

Now it’s your turn!

QB Community members, what tips can you share about running a business that has a high and a low season? Which one is more challenging to plan and prepare for?

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