By Emily Faracca – On
We spoke to the co-founder of Thimble about what it was like to get his education startup off the ground!
We got the chance to sit down with the co-founder of Thimble, Oscar Pedroso. We talked about how a business idea often morphs into something else entirely, how the archetype of an entrepreneur will inevitably vary, and the importance of learning STEM skills at a young age. The full interview is below!
Tell us all about Thimble.io.
Sure so my name is Oscar, and Thimble is an online academy that teaches kids robotics, programming and hardware. We do that through virtual courses, and then we deliver the physical projects for you to build. So it could be a project that we send to your house to build with your family, or projects that we send to a school so that technology teachers can build these projects from start to finish with their students.
That's such a great concept, how did you come up with that?
Well it took many many endless nights over beer to figure that one out.
As all great ideas do.
Yeah, my background is in education so when I was at University of Rochester, where I went to school, I worked in the admissions office part time. I started off as a tour guide, and then I got involved reading applications and recruiting students, and this was in the engineering school. Then I was part of building the campus makerspace from the ground up with a group of other students. We did a lot of work on campus with engineering students but we also did a lot of volunteer work with some of the inner city schools. We did work with schools that didn't really have access to a lot of the resources we have on campus. So you know, I met really really awesome kids who just aspired to be technologists and engineers that just didn't have the wherewithal to accomplish that. That was the first seed, and then in the back of my mind there was something here that I needed to solve, but I wasn't ready yet. But I did start getting the entrepreneurial edge, so I started a tutoring business and I was helping students study for the SATs. Then I later helped college students study for the GRE, and that turned into an application consulting business so I was helping students figure out a strategy when they were applying to school, and that was just me.
Eventually I just wanted something a little bigger than myself. I always envisioned working with a team and I also wanted to create a more greater impact. So I started my first startup which was Gradfly, which was like online project journals for engineers so they can show off their stuff. And that was a higher ed play which ended up failing. But it was the very beginnings of what Thimble would become.
Really, that's a cool story. Out of curiosity what was your major in college?
Math and economics major.
That's an awesome story. So who uses Thimble, what age group? All age groups? Kids?
Yeah I would say right around fourth, fifth grade. We also have high school, college students and adults using it as well. We've also had senior citizens in nursing home use our kit to keep their mind sharp.
But it originally launched as a as a product for homeschool families just to serve as a supplement for education not being taught in school particularly around coding and robotics. So you know, a lot of our parents want to get their kids into technology at a young age, but they don't know where to start. So we that we fill in that void there. Then that was when we launched out of the Kickstarter, we were primarily serving hobbyists and homeschool families, but then we later found out that a lot of our customers identified as parents and educators. So we've always had these different buckets of customers that spans anywhere from homeschool to people working on these projects at home to students working on these in bathroom.
Out of curiosity when you first started, what did you intend it to be? Like did you intend to like focus on one of those and like you discovered all these different like applications for it? Well you said home school right?
Yeah we didn't really put our finger on who our target customer was at the time, we only knew that we would be delivering a box every month and you would get a different project in the mail and all the instructions were video tutorials on our learning portal and that people would just love receiving stuff every month.
Yeah that's true.
I think we thought, yeah this would fit in nicely with teachers in schools, but we thought that was more down the line than happening right after the Kickstarter.
What's been the biggest hurdle with getting this off the ground?
Well I think one of the biggest challenges we had in the beginning was being in the subscription box world to begin with, because you are forced to come up with something new every month. Now in the world of subscription boxes, if you're delivering, I don't know, cigars candy, it's easy to put that in a box. But to put a robotics project with all the content you need to build it and hash that out every month, that's very challenging because it comes with, you know, you gotta account for the design process, testing, manufacturing, the lead times to come with that. And then just creating beginner friendly instructions that a two-year-old can understand. So you know that that was the probably one of the most challenging things. And we couldn't deliver every month because of that. So that was always a disappointing newsletter we'd send out, say, hey I'm ready to ship out. But we had people who supported it, I think the key there was just communicating what was happening. Some customers got upset, but you know, that's just one of the clutches of being a startup is you can't get everything right.
Not all the time at least, right? So what was it like getting into that market in the beginning? I mean is there anything else necessary directly like this?
Well there is for sure. You know there are there a lot of what you would consider toys, stem toys, to get kids interested in technology. But what we saw is that there really wasn't anything teaching you difficult technology skills to border on an electrical computer mechanical engineering pipe skills, and so everybody sort of tiptoes around it, but no one really addresses it because it's it's hard. And so we have this ambitious goal of teaching college-level material within three years or less, you know, we're not going to grant you an engineering degree by any means but I've got a lot of those concepts introduced in college can be taught in very easier concepts in the beginning. And so you know that's how that's how we've gone about it.
We probably understand this, but for anyone watching, why is it so important for the kids to be exposed to technology at that young age?
Yeah I would use myself as an example. I mean, I didn't really know what engineering was until my freshman year in college which is really sad because you know I took all the sciences in high school and a pretty good student. But then I went to college and my roommate was an optics engineer, I was like what what is that? Why don't I know about that? And so you know, I felt like growing up, my parents only talked about careers in medicine, business and law and there wasn't really anything outside of that. It was too late for me to decide to be an engineer, although it would have been great, I took some mechanical engineering courses but I didn't take enough classes to get a minor or major in it, but the cool thing was I was able to teach myself how to code just using my math skills just from being a math major.
I think it's important first for students to be able to know what all these different industries and careers can do and to be aware that there are kind of jobs out there that don't exist quite yet but will in the next few years and they start just understanding they should give themselves an option to even consider whether they want to go down that path. I didn't really have that choice until much later. I probably still could have figured it out but you know I had already made up my mind that I would be a math and econ major.
Clearly it worked right?
Yea it worked out for the long run. Yeah definitely I mean here I am trying to create an opportunity for kids at an early age to figure that out, which is great. I'm always impressed whenever I go to a show and I meet a kindergartner who can point out a component and its serial number by heart like how how do you know that?
I got a little cousin and he's smarter than me and he's like four. I'm like these people are gonna put me out of work.
Like it's incredible. So yeah I wish I had that skill set at four.
Cool, so what some what would be some advice that you give to any young entrepreneurs today or anybody looking to start their own company, whether or not in this space - just in general?
Well you know, starting a business is not for the faint. I think if you if you have an idea and you want to turn it into a business, great. What you start off with is not going to be what you end up with months down the line or even years down the line, so there's a lot of patience, resilience needed. You're gonna make a lot of mistakes and you just need to have a really strong mind and heart to deal with it, because it gets hard and frustrating and sometimes you want to give up but you know, for me it's not an option. I'm wired that way, you know, I think we're all wired differently, even entrepreneurs. I've seen type A and type B entrepreneurs, but I know the one thing we have in common is that we're in there to fight the good fight and we're learning constantly, talking to as many customers or potential customers as possible, because you know, that's definitely important too, is having the ideas for the innovation but making sure that you are staying informed with what the market has to say, because they're the ones ultimately that are going to decide whether they pay for your product or not.