Sukh Singh was a UC Santa Cruz student studying technology information management before leaving the program to start his own company. His interest in entrepreneurship started at an early age as a result of seeing his father run multiple family businesses. Singh founded his startup company Code Naturally (CITRIS Foundry, ’19 Cohort) after struggling in his first computer science course at UC Santa Cruz. He saw a niche in the market to educate young aspiring coders in the fundamentals of programming. Singh worked with his UC Santa Cruz professors to develop a curriculum and taught over 300 children how to code with Code Naturally.
What is Code Naturally?
Did you have programming experience prior to developing Code Naturally?
I didn’t even know what it was until I got to college. I was a technology information management major and it was required for my degree, but I avoided computer programming until the very end. The first time I took it, I completely failed. That experience was one of my inspirations for Code Naturally. More than half the students in that class ended up failing. I realized that the kids who failed had never seen coding before, and the kids who did really well had some kind of previous experience.
With Code Naturally, I first tried to teach middle school students how to program and that was really hard. At 12 or 13 years old, you’re scared and don’t want to embarrass yourself, so they weren’t the best audience to introduce programming. We realized kids between grades fourth and sixth are fearless. They’re really open to making mistakes. They don’t get uncomfortable when they fail and embody the growth mindset at that age. We made it one of our tenets to start with students in those grades because we noticed they were able to progress well beyond the levels we expected.
How did you develop the Code Naturally program?
I started contacting professors at the Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Cruz because they were involved with the development of the Common Core curriculum. We spent several months researching existing curricula and platforms to see how they work and what was causing them to fail. Last, we brought on a teacher to the Code Naturally team, and as we developed our program, I was also teaching students with early versions of our curriculum. Every day I would drive to three or four schools to teach. I would continue to iterate on the curriculum based on feedback I received from teachers and students until we had something that teachers could run with.
How is Code Naturally different from its competitors?
All of our sales have been through word of mouth. A teacher who loved teaching with Code Naturally told colleagues and those teachers contacted us. Teachers were having so much fun learning and creating with their students. Kids want to be able to make stuff and coding is just a conduit, like clay. The more kids can think of coding that way, the less intimidating it is.
Were you always interested in starting a company?
I was always entrepreneurial. For example, I sold candy to other kids when I was in middle school. I would save my lunch money for four weeks, which was $20. I went to Costco and bought a 36 pack of Snickers for $12. I sold them for $1 apiece and made $36.
I always liked math. I grew up relatively poor and was always working. My first job in the summer of sixth grade was at a liquor store. I saw how these businesses worked because that’s how my family survived. Being at the ground level really taught me that I didn’t want to work that hard. I would rather be the owner and not the person working at the liquor store.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered at the early stages of your startup?
Today we’re in a really good position. I’m really proud of the work Code Naturally does. But for those first three years, I was anxious and depressed because it was really hard. I did something really stupid and brought on a bunch of team members. We had a team of five on payroll, and I had to make the money to pay everybody. I realized that it was not going to be sustainable. We downsized and made the team much smaller which made it easier to manage things. But those first couple of years were anxiety-provoking and stressful because I took on too much too fast. If I had an advisor, they probably would have told me not to do that.
How has the CITRIS Foundry helped Code Naturally?
The CITRIS Foundry really helped us think about how to position Code Naturally to be able to grow globally. There were a couple of opportunities for us to be able to expand into Vietnam and that was possible thanks to some of the connections we made at the Foundry. In Africa, we donated software also because of the Foundry. They helped us to consider having a more global mindset.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you want to be an entrepreneur and you’re in college, start doing it your freshman or sophomore year. The younger you are, the less you have to lose. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” If you’re comfortable with the answer, you should go for it because you already know what can happen. As you get older, risks go up. UCs like Berkeley or Santa Cruz have centers for entrepreneurship. Go there and ask how you can start your business.
My last piece of advice would be to do it as cheaply as possible. People always think they have really good ideas, but you should always think about who that idea is for. Before you spend a lot of money, go ahead and try to find who you’re making your product for and ask them whether they actually need it. Make a really cheap mockup. If you’re trying to build an app, for example, draw the app on a piece of paper and ask your target audience to interact with it.
The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners.
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