Elizabeth Tweedale tells us about how Cypher teaches children, aged 5-14, to learn to code through creative themes both in-person and online.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elizabeth Tweedale: My family around me really has been a blessing – I’ve had my three children at home throughout school closures. I’ve really enjoyed spending all our time together and discovering new parts of my children’s personalities that I perhaps might have missed if we were all still leading our busy lives.
The pandemic has definitely brought us closer emotionally as a family. Although the house has understandably become messier, as a result, we’ve learned to live together in a new way. My children have picked up life skills that adults pick up over time, from running a household to holding more conversations with adults. They’ve been able to really look at how we live and decide who they want to be when they’re older and what type of life they want to live. Sometimes taking a step back to breathe and look at your situation is all it takes to make big decisions.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Cypher.
Elizabeth Tweedale: I founded Cypher in 2016 to challenge the perception of coding and try to encourage girls into technology from a young age. Cypher is a leading EdTech scaleup dedicated to teaching children how to code through creative themes and real-world examples, engaging those with a wide range of hobbies and interests, not just tech, to prepare them for a better tomorrow.
At university, I was both the captain of the cheerleading team and the computer society president, straddling two worlds that rarely collide, which inspired the idea to help other girls into tech in a way that they can engage with it too. After achieving my Computer Science degree and my master’s in Architecture, I worked as a computational design specialist at several leading architecture firms, including being part of a coding team that worked on Apple’s HQ in California.
From when I was mentoring architecture professionals at the early stages of their careers at university, it was clear to me that without the fundamental knowledge of the basics of coding, they would be faced with hurdles in progressing in their careers. The importance of teaching coding alongside other subjects became clear to me, especially at the early stages of learning or careers. By making computing fun and immersive learning experience for all children at an early age, we inspire kids to develop coding and computational thinking skills to equip them for the future workplace.
How does Cypher innovate?
Elizabeth Tweedale: One of the most innovative aspects of Cypher is our fundamental approach to coding and the themes that we use to approach teaching computer science. Our goal is to make coding accessible to all children, regardless of whether they’re into sports, art, science or tech. We engage them through creative themes and real-world examples, looking at what they would encounter on a daily basis and can identify with. Our themes touch on their values and interests, such as looking at sustainability or conservation, where we show them how drones are used to find and collect plastics in the ocean, and then teach them to program their own drones to do the same.
As a business, we’re constantly looking to automate, systemize and put processes in place that will help us scale. From taking this approach at the outset, we can easily innovate in aspects from the user journey through to backend development and provide solutions that aren’t just ‘off the shelf.
Another key innovation point is our ability to provide a one-to-many teaching model (as opposed to 1:1 or private tuition). This is crucial from a scalability standpoint but also allows our students the ability to learn alongside their friends and hone key skills like collaboration and communication with their peers. We have a backend system that coordinates the tech and logistics behind this, which is second to none.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Elizabeth Tweedale: Prior to the pandemic, all of our courses were held in person. It was a real turning point for us when the first lockdown happened – it was just ahead of Easter, one of the busiest periods for us. When the lockdown was announced, we had to cancel the in-person camps and clubs, which could have potentially led to a loss of tens of thousands of pounds. Instead, we managed to pivot our business model and accelerated plans to go online.
We transitioned all of our existing customers into the new online offering of Live Online courses. These classes were all led by a Cypher-trained teacher present and interacting with the students personally to keep them learning and engaged at home. Within 48 hours of creating our new offering, all of our Easter camps sold out, which was a great result.
The financial implications could have been devastating for the business; however, thanks to our resilient business model and fantastic team, we were able to turn it around. As a business, we’ve had a consistent growth of 150% year-on-year prior to the pandemic. The transition to the new Live Online offering and the addition of the new product line accelerated our revenue growth, and we were able to surpass our revenue from the previous year this year as well!
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Elizabeth Tweedale: For most companies, the pandemic has definitely thrown a fair few spanners in the works, but at Cypher, we have been incredibly fortunate on how adaptable our team has been – I think this is down to them believing in our mission and being passionate about what we are trying to achieve as a company. That being said, we definitely had to make one of our toughest people decisions right at the beginning of the pandemic – we had two new starters who would both need to be virtually trained and integrated into the team. One team member was incredibly adaptable, had a growth mindset, and was willing to do what needed to be done to get the job done – something we heavily relied on upon with our team because we were all in survival mode.
However, with exactly the same training plan, which worked so well in that instance, another individual just didn’t fit in with our new virtual environment. They weren’t used to working without someone next to them, telling them exactly what to do all the time and the number of start-up technologies that we use to manage the day-to-day was too overwhelming for them. At that point, we didn’t have time to up-skill them. We had to make the tough decision to let them go, but it was the right decision for Cypher and for the team – sometimes you need to rip the plaster off sooner rather than later and make tough decisions in the interest of the team. Sometimes your gut instinct will help you in these situations; however, you always need to bear in mind that the other party is a person – be kind and supportive as they are also going through a turbulent time!
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Elizabeth Tweedale: Pivoting our business from in-person camps to delivering live online dramatically changed our customer interactions. Whilst we were always available on the phone for parents’ queries about camp, we also met them at drop-off and picked them up. Running our camps and clubs remotely required some smarter work. As many of us with children have discovered, teaching them from home at the same time as maintaining your usual work is not an easy task. We’ve all found it incredibly challenging and realized that parents needed extra support from us. Our Customer Success Manager absolutely excelled! Coordinating with the team, they were able to offer a multifaceted approach combining efficiencies in automation and processes, more customer contact opportunities, and the introduction of new parent consultation sessions. The services we offer to ensure great customer relationships include:
– Automated Emails
– Parent Camp Set-Up Calls
– Zoom Tech Help sessions
– Teacher Drop-in Sessions
– Follow Up Class Notes
– Compass: Parent Teacher Consultations Sessions + Reports
We’ve seen amazing engagement from our parents in terms of feedback from the courses our Cypher students have attended. Lockdown provided a window into the learning process the children encountered with Cypher as we were now within our parents’ & students’ homes. Parents were astonished at just how much their children were learning and how engaged they were – they’d missed out on seeing all of this while their kids were at our in-person camps!
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Elizabeth Tweedale: Yes, the Business Bounceback Loan was really helpful. It meant that we didn’t have to lay off any staff and allowed us to continue successfully developing the business and responding to the challenges of the pandemic without raising any additional investment.
Your final thoughts?
Elizabeth Tweedale: We’ve all had a challenging year; however, I try to focus on how fortunate we have been at Cypher to be in a position after the pandemic to scale the business. As society has embraced remote working and the digitization required to make those changes, this has given us the opportunity to scale and reach new audiences. I think there has been a significant change in mindset from parents towards education and tech, as well as an increase in the abilities and skills of younger children. Skills like navigating folder structures and typing that challenged many twelve-year-olds (and, let’s be honest, a few adults) have now become second nature to many of the six-year-olds we teach. Tech skills have genuinely accelerated over the last year. As they’ve taken advantage of the digital innovations we’ve seen, younger children are able to prepare themselves and be better equipped for their futures.
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