Bitsbox’s Co-Founder on the Importance of Passion in Building a Product and Life in the [Shark] Tank

Aidan Chopra, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Bitsbox, tackles one of the world’s biggest challenges — teaching kids how to code.

  The Bitsbox team on their annual retreat

The Bitsbox team on their annual retreat

  • Position: Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer

  • CompanyBitsbox (a learning system that creates new and engaging ways to teach kids aged 6–12 how to code)

  • Team: 10 full-time employees located in Boulder, Colorado

  • Founded: 2014 (after Kickstarter ended, mailed first-box in 2015)

I love what I do and I wouldn’t change anything. My “winging it” personality worked out now that I am an entrepreneur.

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In your own words, how would you describe Bitsbox?

As a product person, I like to frame Bitsbox as a potential solution to a bigger problem: there are not enough people who understand technology. Technology is changing at such a rapid pace, but for most people, it’s still just “magic”. The world needs more people who fundamentally understand computer science, coding, and programming. Bitsbox is trying to answer the question of “how do we get more people to learn this stuff?”

That’s a tough nut to crack. How does the product work?

It’s super easy: parents subscribe and each month, kids receive a box of fun app-building projects. Using the materials provided, kids build apps on our site and can change the code to make it their own. Our teaching method prepares kids to understand coding as a language — no different from, let’s say, learning Spanish.

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That’s how they taught French in school too.

Yes, teaching through example projects is an effective way of “learning by doing”. And at an early age, children have virtually no preconceptions of who they want to be or what they are interested in yet. They are not ruling out coding because they want to be a chef or astronaut — it’s just another language to them. We believe this is the best time to teach kids how to code.

That makes sense. I tried to learn the guitar in my 20s and it was very difficult.

Exactly. Coding, like cooking, music, sports, and languages is much easier to learn at a young age. Many people get started, but few follow through. Bitsbox wants to help “light the fire” and keep the fire going through motivation and encouragement.

You sound very passionate — what sparked this interest?

Growing up, I loved art. You know the kid that the teacher always asked to draw the poster for the spring musical? That was me. At Bitsbox, I am responsible for leading product, content, and branding, which is the intersection of art and technology that I deeply love and excel at.

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We’ll spend more time on this later, but as an ex-Googler and current entrepreneur, you must have been an A+ student.

You know, it’s funny you say that because it’s only half true. I did very well in elementary school. I would just listen in class and write the tests, and I would get good marks. I constantly dreamed about being a marine biologist because I was obsessed with whales. Then I wanted to become a veterinarian.

Whatever it was, it was always something in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, my natural ability to do well without much effort at a young age did not help me develop good study habits, so when I hit my senior years in high school, I struggled.

Did something change when you realized that?

I saw myself as a STEM person but I eventually took the advice of a calculus professor and went to art school in Halifax instead. That was fun for me, and I went on to take some design courses at a famous art school in Rhode Island. I ended up at Rice University in Houston and completed my Master of Architecture degree. My dad’s an architect, so I guess I should have known. I found my passion in figuring out how physical space aided in children’s learning and development.

And then you went to SketchUp?

After graduation, a classmate of mine introduced me to the group at SketchUp, a company building a 3D content creation tool, based out of Boulder, Colorado. I didn’t know anyone in Colorado but I took the job anyways because the team was great and the role allowed me to keep one foot on creative and one in practical. SketchUp let me stay connected to architecture while I learned about software and startups.

Google eventually bought SketchUp. What was that experience like? Let me guess…AMAZING?

Back in 2006 when Google bought us, they only had around 5,000 employees. Today, they have over 85,000! When we were acquired, Google had only a handful of products and made few acquisitions prior to us, so they didn’t have much of an acquisition and integration process. The entire SketchUp team didn’t know what was going to happen.

Post-acquisition, we became Google’s offices in Boulder, received some t-shirts, a login for the Google intranet, and that was it. I think today if a company is acquired by Google, the acquired company’s employees are sent to Mountain View for orientation. When we were acquired, there was no formal training. Some of us just sporadically went to the Google HQ, wandered aimlessly around and nobody knew who we were. That part was fun actually and I was able to walk around eating as much food as I could from all the various Google restaurants for free.

That’s a great inside look at being acquired by Google. What was the experience like?

It was net positive for sure. Google gave us the resources and reach to scale SketchUp from the 100,000 or so users we had before the acquisition to millions of users in a few short years. Personally, I benefited a lot just from the Google name. I even got to write the official “For Dummies” book about SketchUp! After that, I just gave myself the title of Product Evangelist and flew around to teach and present at various conferences. Life at Google was surreal.

What was the decision process to start Bitsbox?

My Co-Founder, Scott, and I met at SketchUp when it was part of Google.. Google ended up selling SketchUp to Trimble in 2012, and we both made the jump with the product. In early 2014, Scott created a Bitsbox prototype for his daughter and one day we decided to leave Trimble together to start a company based on his prototype. I was very lucky that my wife was supportive and had a great job to let me take this career risk.

This is the ultimate entrepreneur story: ex-Googler to entrepreneur to teach kids how to code. And it looks like the producers of Shark Tank agreed!

It was a long, stressful process that I’m not sure if I could do again. 8 million people saw the episode in February 2017 and in the next month or so, our business tripled. It was a pivotal point in Bitsbox history, essential to our business, but I still shudder when I think about how intense that experience was.

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What was the Shark Tank selection process like?

I think the statistics are something like out of 40,000 applications, only 180 go into the tank and a subset of that airs on television. To be honest, Scott and I were not excited to be on reality television but the rest of our team saw it as very important to the business, which it ended up being. It’s really important to hire people who are smarter than you.

On audition day way back in April 2016, I had my Bitsbox shirt on and a Bitsbox under my arm. A producer gave me a numbered bracelet which told me where I was in line. The producer liked our story and two weeks later, we were invited to submit a video that showed our personality and business. Scott and I filmed it around Boulder and had the video cut to seven minutes, submitted it, and passed the round.

Next, we received a monster contract from ABC. We knew that ABC would not change anything on the contract so we agonized over it with our lawyers. Eventually, we signed it. Then there were more auditions and contracts and meetings throughout the summer of 2016. Finally, we taped in September at the ABC studios. We crossed our fingers to get aired because even until that point, there was no promise of being featured on television.

Lucky for us, they liked us and we made it.

It looks like the stars aligned. How was it inside the *tank*?

It’s an odd dynamic. Scott and I watched the show before so we “knew” the Sharks. But they didn’t know us at all. The pitch was just under an hour but the producers cut it to the short clip you saw on TV. It was not necessarily fun and it was not representative of standing in front of real investors at all. It was reality TV — plain and simple.

What did we not see in the aired episode?

Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec are Canadians, and I am from Montreal, so we bonded over that a little bit. Also, the Sharks were kind and complementary and they asked good questions. The show gets edited to seem even more stressful than it really was.

Mark Cuban signed up for Bitsbox — as per his Twitter account

Do you keep in touch with any of the Sharks?

Nope! It’s another odd moment of Shark Tank. Scott and I walked into the tank and we met and talked to the Sharks. And then we walked out and never saw them again. Chris Sacca tweeted a bunch of nice things about us, and Mark Cuban signed up for his kids. Maybe one day we’ll meet them again under less bizarre circumstances.

Congratulations on Bitsbox, the amazing team and the growth of the company! Now that you are here, is there anything you would do differently?

Thanks! I love what I do and I wouldn’t change anything. My “winging it” personality worked out now that I am an entrepreneur. But if I really had to pick on something, I wish I developed better study habits or took programming more seriously. Maybe I could have become a marine biologist or an astronaut.

Aidan horsing around with his two boys

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Aside from building Bitsbox, what do you do for fun? What’s not on your LinkedIn profile?

I love photography. I have fancy equipment and use it to take thousands of pictures of my kids. Hmmm…LinkedIn. I haven’t updated it in four years.

I think this means that I have the most current profile of Aidan Chopra then! I’ll let you get back to teaching our next generation but first, answer these questions quickly. GO!

  • Favourite weekend hangout: anywhere outdoors in Colorado with my wife and two boys in our new 22 foot travel trailer

  • Favourite startup: Lyft for their innovations in self-driving cars

  • Favourite subscription: HBO

  • Favourite Netflix show: The Toys That Made Us

  • Favourite Spotify playlist: Top 40 Pop

  • iPhone or Android: iPhone

  • Favourite app: New York Times

  • Favourite place to travel: Japan