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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Community Coders: Failing to build a profitable business while in University

Kaito Cunningham
Kaito Cunningham
January 29, 2020
Category of startup
Country of startup
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Community Coders: Failing to build a profitable business while in University

Kaito Cunningham
Kaito Cunningham
January 29, 2020
Category of startup
Country of startup
Cause of failure of the startup
Bad Management

While in university, Kaito started Community Coders, a business that connected companies looking for web development and digital marketing services with high school students. However, as the months went over, it became difficult to close deals and the startup began to lose its course until they shut down.



Hi Kaito! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Hey! My name is Kaito, and I’m a 20-year-old university student, entrepreneur, and currently an assurance intern at Ernst and Young based in Vancouver, Canada. I’m in my third year getting my BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) and concentrating in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Simon Fraser University. Throughout my university years, I've realized the potential that youth have when it comes down to pursuing diversified experiences, failing (and learning) quickly, and being “risky” at such an opportune time of life.

I started my first company when I was 19 and it was called Community Coders, a platform that provided high school students meaningful work experience to develop local businesses’ online presence. Think of it as the “GenM” for highschool students in grades 11 and 12 here in Canada. I was the co-founder, and worked on the operations, marketing, and sales responsibilities for about two years, working both part and full time throughout.

Our business model was made through selling digital marketing & web development packages to small businesses and paying the high school students at contractors alongside keeping an intermediary/management fee. For example, we charged a business $1k for a website, paid the student $750 and kept $250 for management. Most of my insights will be coming from my perspective with my first business as a university student and youth founder.

Now that this chapter of my life is over, I decided to start working on a side project called Spred while I’m on my internship full time during the busy season of accounting. Spred is a workflow management tool that allows clothing resellers to upload, manage, analyze, and sell their clothes to all online marketplaces (like eBay and Etsy), and I’m super excited to have competed in a couple of entrepreneurship competitions for this project. 

I also wanted to give a quick shout to the Failory team for featuring me - when I’m answering these questions, I realized that it was an amazing way for myself to reflect and also provide an outlet for some of the mistakes I’ve made. 

Kaito at Queens Entrepreneurship Competition
A picture of me pitching Spred at the Queens Entrepreneurship Competition on Jan 16th-19th, 2020.

Kaito's pitch to Ryan Holmes
Pitching in front of Ryan Holmes, Founder of Hootsuite with my Co-Founder Noah!

Kaito with Jinny Sims
Standing beside Jinny Sims, Member of the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia, Canada.

What motivated you to start Community Coders?

To be honest with you, my motivation to build Community Coders could have been the first red flag - I initially had no idea of my own personal “why” of pursuing entrepreneurship. It was my first year at university and I just wanted to try something new. As a 19-year-old, I had no idea what starting a business was actually like, and was inspired by a lot of people on Instagram and LinkedIn who showed the glamorous side. I’d have to say I was a bit misinformed in terms of what starting and trying to build a business actually was like. As soon as I had this idea for Community Coders, I already envisioned having offices Canada-wide and being able to create an impact at the national level. I dreamed and loved the idea of being an owner of something that could be big one day.

In terms of my background, I didn’t really have any hard skills or a degree (other than my first-year business courses) that led to starting Community Coders. University helped me start my first business in the sense that it provided additional opportunities, funding and grants, co-op/internship credits and networking opportunities throughout my journey.

However, throughout my time building Community Coders, I found that one of the things that motivated me was providing an opportunity for young adults to recognize their own potential. When I was in high school, I worked in fast food for my summer gig, and if I look back at it, doing coding projects or managing social media accounts and getting paid would have been awesome as well - the flexibility, the pay, and the relevant experience for me to leverage on my resume were all solid selling points (not to discredit the skills I learned in fast food as well). I’d say this was the biggest motivator, and I’d like to think I was able to positively impact many students, whether they used our experiences to get gigs at other marketing agencies or get into their dream university programs.

I had no idea what the term “entrepreneurship” meant until my first year of university, but I guess I did have some entrepreneurial tendencies. I never stuck with it, but I tried making niche Instagram pages, re-sold streetwear and was always jotting down some ideas (at one point, I tried working on something similar to Mylo, an app that invests in your spare change this was at the end of my grade 12 years) but I had no idea what I was doing. Reflecting on this, I particularly love thinking of ideas and having the creative freedom to express and execute on my ideas. 

Noah and Kaito
Noah (left) and Kaito (right) at the League of Innovators Demo Day 

How did you build it?

So initially, we came up with this idea in a hackathon/entrepreneurship competition in a weekend and won the top prize (which came with reduced lawyers fees, advisor connections, etc). A couple of months later, we (a team of three originally) decided to start working on our idea once a week. Next thing you know it became every day after our classes, where we would juggle Community Coders and our schoolwork. As a team of three, we all met through university and were originally friends, and it was an interesting experience balancing both the friendship and business aspect of trying to build a company.

Our first iteration to building Community Coders was when we shared our first pilot project through our personal social media channels, put up a website, sent some cold emails to some schools and had a Facebook ad - in which we hosted a two-week summer coding/work experience bootcamp exclusively for highschool students in the month of August 2018. We bootstrapped pretty hard, not paying any room fees as we just used some school classrooms, rented out some laptops from our local library, and we all learned code together, including the founders and the students. Our bootcamp students learned HTML and CSS and a bit of Javascript in the first week, and in week 2, they got real work experience developing a local business website in the real estate, law, and construction industry. 

We planned this pilot project for about 2 months and then had the summer camp at the end of August. We made about ~$3k by charging the businesses and a small fee for the students. Although this might not seem like a lot, it was a pretty eye-opening experience seeing the opportunity that you as a founder can do to start creating income and opportunity, pretty much from nothing. 

From this pilot project, the biggest mistake that I reflect back on now was not treating it as a proper experiment, with hypotheses, KPIs, and knowing what data points to collect (I would suggest reading “The Lean Startup” and “Running Lean” to look into this concept). After the summer project was all done, our team only had qualitative data points and not quantitative. I believe that this led to a huge mistake, as I believed (without any data) from our observations that we had to pivot towards a freelancing platform where you could learn and work all in one because A) everybody would be able to do it, and B) businesses could get talent for an affordable price. Looking back at it, it’s really funny to see the incredible “pivot” that Community Coders made, and I can see that this was a big red flag. To touch upon “pivoting” in general, I think although they should be done quickly, they need to be treated as a calculated risk.

Reflecting on the pilot project, I loved the process of getting started - recruiting students, getting businesses to pay us, simply going out there and making our own money. As an early entrepreneur, we made a ton of mistakes, whether it was our sales/marketing/operational strategies, but the one thing that I can’t fault was our effort. We put in tons of time, traveled from city to city walking door to door, was creative with the resources we were given, and these are some of my fondest, and earliest entrepreneurial experiences.

Here’s a picture of our pilot project with some of our students!

Community Coders students

Here’s a picture of our first poster to advertise to businesses:

Community Coders' poster

Here’s a picture of our first landing page. We changed it to two weeks:

Community Coder's landing page

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Marketing definitely was a big challenge because we had not taken into account the branding of our company when we got started. Our logo was portrayed to be more in the education space than we were as a platform and our name (Community Coders) didn’t particularly help when we explained to businesses that we did more than just help them with their website, such as having students build their social media following.

We knew of this challenge pretty early on when we started cold calling and going door to door to learn and start pitching some local businesses for our earlier pilot project that we were launching. Therefore one of the biggest issues of when we tried to do marketing was that our message was a bit confusing, especially to local businesses. Most of the time, the instant question that was raised was “How the hell does coding apply to me?”. When we understood that this was a challenge, we did try to make a conscious to re-brand (such as a name like Community Digital), but I believe that one of the mistakes I made was being so stuck with the brand, and hesitant to change because of the identity that we already developed (even though it wasn’t that big or well known).

When it came down to marketing on the student side, there were several strategies that were extremely effective, but I cannot stress the importance of developing unique, one on one relationships with each person that could potentially be of value to your business. The one strategy that stood out to me most was events and offline connections. More in the later stage of Community Coders, we were able to partner and work with organizations such as the League of Innovators, SFU Venture Connections and Canada’s best coding bootcamps. We hosted events for motivated high school students providing workshops or panels. This helped us get a ton of students (about 20% of students joined our facebook group), and turned out to be an amazing way to meet highschool students who were motivated to get real work experience. 

Another marketing tactic that worked was posting on our own personal social, (especially LinkedIn) to drive awareness. I understood the importance and also the advantages both from a student learning perspective, and that documenting my own journey - from ideation to execution is something I would suggest for all aspiring entrepreneurs. It builds traction, credibility, and also undiscovered, potential referrals!

Here’s a couple pictures of one of our events:

Community Coders' events
Kaito at Community Coders' events

And this was our logo:

Community Coders' logo

Most of the marketing strategies that didn’t work all had to do when we are trying to get local businesses. Here’s a list of what didn’t work for us (this doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work for you): 

  • Cold Calling: It was just way too saturated. Funny enough, digital marketers call local businesses all the time and we didn’t have a unique value proposition. In fact, when we said that highschool students who want work experience are going to craft your online presence, it put us at a disadvantage. Our name didn’t help either when we tried introducing ourselves.
  • Door to Door: We started off trying to sell door to door (funny enough, we actually got one), but our conversion rates were extremely low and also didn’t provide an enjoyable customer experience for potential buyers. Imagine a university student walking in, pitching you on a website package with no portfolio during a time you were working 😂.
  • Facebook Ads: To do Facebook Ads properly, I think you have to be pretty well versed in both the analytics/design/copywriting aspect, and it was pretty hard for us to get meaningful results as we were not experienced in this section.
  • SEO & Website: Funny enough, we were never successful in getting leads online. We had no SEO (if you search up coding there’s so much other stuff), tried blog writing (but there the local/small business internet advice niche is pretty saturated), and was pretty unsuccessful for Google Ads as well. We also kept making new websites and designs and should have put more emphasis on our website. 

Simply put, we always struggled with getting businesses to hire us for projects. Branding was also difficult because whenever we introduced our company, businesses were confused as coding had no relevance to them. Personally, I believe that although the company name doesn’t matter, it can’t be misleading.

Which were the causes of Community Coders’ failure?

Great question. Honestly, I think there was a combination of reasons of why Community Coders failed. 

The first reason was that we didn’t have a product-market fit. We didn’t provide anything of differentiated, unique value to the local businesses that we made money from. Our sales cycle was unsustainable and we were never able to find a good way to get clients in and outs. Referrals turned out to be our best way of getting clients but if you can’t get enough clients in the first place, you can’t get any referrals, kind of like the chicken and egg problem. A lot of this was my fault because I was so attached to providing students real work experience that I thought it had to be a part of our business model, but when it comes down to it, businesses care about the quality of the project itself (whether it’s the website or content creation) and how it brings bottom-line results, and not necessarily the high school student. In short, we did not have enough supply of businesses and too much demand from highschool students. We also wanted to pay high school students fairly so we couldn’t compete on price.

The second cause was the fact that I was not the right person to lead the team. Although I think it’s never too early to start a business, I think it takes many tries, lessons, and some failures to eventually build a successful business. With Community Coders, this turned out to be my first real attempt and I had trouble keeping pace with the amount I had to learn, but then also building Community Coders. For example, I had no idea how to properly run projects, so although I would learn agile as I go, there were many mistakes made and workflows interrupted because I hadn’t had any experience before. I think reflecting on the skills that I initially didn’t have before I went into building a company and then realizing the skills I got out of it (front end web languages, agile project management, basic copywriting and social media skills, etc) shows that although it was productive, I wasn’t equipped to build a business. I’m not trying to say that you have to know everything before you start a business, but I didn’t know anything - and that turned out to be a steep learning curve.

I realized that we were going to fail when there was just a degree of stagnation that had occurred over the last couple of months. I felt like we were going nowhere, barely scraping by with minimal leads, projects not being completed to the best of my ability, and just an apparent drop in team morale and passion for what we were working towards. This particularly occurred when we were full time on this venture. Going full time on this venture, and putting 100% into Community Coders was important because it showed that with all the resources we had, we couldn’t make this business successful. What finally provoked the shutdown of Community Coders, was a mutually shared feeling within our team of wanting to move on. Personally, I believe that I learned the most that I could out of this experience and that although moving on might be tough, it would not serve the best of my time to ensure both positive personal and career development. 

When we officially pulled the plug, I was happy because I could finally let go and consider, and label this business a failure. The stagnation was killing me and it took a toll on my life mentally. Throughout the past months, I felt like I lost my purpose and my stress and anxiety had risen quite a bit. I became a lot more negative and was really not proud of who I was at that time now that I look back at it.

A side note: Another thing that really bothered me was being labeled a failure. As a university student, people would often ask how my business was going and the answers throughout my time building Community Coders was relatively the same: “Oh it’s going well, we’re just working on ___”, and now responding with “Oh, it didn’t work out” is kinda tough to say. If you’ve ever heard of the imposter syndrome, there were so many times that hit me so hard, as I questioned myself, constantly thinking about what others thought of me, in comparison to who I was in real life. If you look at my LinkedIn or my personal website, there’s a certain image being portrayed, but I can’t tell you how guilty I’ve felt at certain times when people were inspired by the stuff I do. I think that’s a cause that I’m really trying to advocate for now, which is the fact that I have no idea what I want to do, and that I’m comfortable with that.

Which were your biggest mistakes and challenges you had to overcome?

One of the biggest mistakes that I made was not finding the right “balance” of planning and doing. I think as entrepreneurs, this is a challenge that you’ll consistently face. Although everybody might tell you to be executing every day, if you’re executing towards an overall plan that is not sustainable, your “execution” is pretty irrelevant. One particular example was when I thought I had to learn Javascript and more advanced languages when I was pivoting towards a freelancing platform. The learning curve for me to learn these languages was very difficult. I wasted about 2 weeks “executing” towards something that I thought had meaningful value. 

Another challenge was a competitor, particularly GenM. We were different than GenM in the sense that we paid our students and apprentices, however, what I really respect about GenM is that they were able to prioritize their revenue stream and incentivize business owners/entrepreneurs to provide a healthy, economic supply and demand marketplace from my perspective. By also charging a small price to business owners (compared to where we charged approximately market value), GenM was able to differentiate themselves on price and have a niche market of bootstrapping business owners, while we didn’t necessarily have a niche.

Another challenge was that our team was not software developers, and we were working towards a SaaS platform at one point to connect students and businesses. However, we again had to learn languages like C++ to try to attempt and build a platform of this complicated structure and we were not the right personnel for this. 

A combination of these mistakes was a waste of most of the time and the lack of prioritization. If I could go back, instead of learning software development languages, I would put more effort into finding more profitable revenue streams to tackle local businesses and use no-code stacks (Webflow, Zapier, Parabola, Bubble) to develop my MVP. I had no idea about visual programming during this state, and could definitely see how this would save a ton of time and money during this period.

Which were your expenses? Did you achieve some revenue? In the end, how much money did you lose?

Don’t have the exact numbers, but here are my approximations: 

  • Expenses: $35,000
  • Revenue: $20,000
  • Money Lost: $15,000

Time Spent: I don’t really have an accurate number but maybe around 2K hours. I’d say I worked on this for about 1 year full time and 1 year part-time which I think might be more accurate.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I don’t think I would start over and do it differently, although this it sounds a bit cliche. Community Coders was an absolutely amazing experience, and the fact is, I learned a ton.

I believe that a lot of people glorify the failure of their businesses, and instead, what I think should be emphasized is learning. Failing sucks. Throughout my time building Community Coders, I was able to learn a combination of learning hard and soft skills that I believe will be translatable to the workplace, my projects, and my personal life.

If I had to have three key, summarized points to tell myself, here’s what I would say:

  • Find a profitable, consistent, customer acquisition method as early as possible (this is harder said than done) for your MVP/pilot project.
  • Document your journey, whether it’s through videos, blogs, tweets, etc. At a stage where nobody knows your venture, you are the best form of marketing for your early-stage business. What I might suggest is, instead of trying to start your company’s social media accounts, start trying to grow yours and connect with people in your target market.
  • Understand that when you step into building a business, it can be a long 5+ year journey. This is something that I didn’t take into account when I started out.

Which are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?

My favorite personal productivity tool is Notion (If you’re a student, it’s free!).

As for books, I've really enjoyed Running Lean by Ash Maurya. I found this book to be extremely useful when you're working on getting your startup up, (from ideation to execution).

I'd also recommend to read Getting Real by 37 Signals: This was the most valuable resource I've read in recent memory, primarily because Jason talked about what worked for their team with "keep-it-simple insights". Some quotes that made me enjoy this book that had all to do with smarter, faster and easier ways to build a successful web application include…

  • "Beta passes the buck to your customers. If you’re not confident enough about your release then how can you expect the public to be? Private betas are fine, public betas are bullshit. If it’s not good enough for public consumption don’t give it to the public to consume"
  • "Be as open, honest, and transparent as possible. Don’t keep secrets or hide behind spin. An informed customer is your best customer."
  • "Here’s an easy way to launch on time and on budget: keep them fixed. Never throw more time or money at a problem, just scale back the scope"

I also use Twitter (5 reasons you need to be on Twitter) and Product Hunt, which I find as a fun past time to see other like-minded makers, and enjoy some of the apps that are available on this platform. Finally, I'd recommend you to check out NuCode: As a “non” technical entrepreneur (not the biggest fan of the term), communities like this can spark your passion and help you understand that you can build a lot of stuff (without code)!.

Where can we go to learn more?

Here’s my personal website and this is my new project. You can also find me on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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