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Your Start-Up Business: It Starts With a Tweet

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This week, I talked with Heather Payne, Co-Founder of Ladies Learning Code, a Toronto-based organization with the goal to empower women to learn how to program, and understand tech better.

It all started when Heather Payne, fresh off learning how to build her first personal website, wanted to learn a backend language. She couldn't find great resources, and found it hard to get started. Then, on a trip to L.A., she discovered a group called PyLadies, and she instantly saw the appeal of bringing this type of organization to Toronto.

In June, Ladies Learning Code celebrated its one-year anniversary. In that year, hundreds of women have taken classes, and the ladies have moved into their first "real" offices.

Recently, Heather and I discussed the journey her start-up has taken.

Karen: How did Ladies Learning Code go from an idea hatched on an airplane to the juggernaut it is today?

Heather: After I tweeted about the idea of (yet unnamed) group for women in Toronto who wanted to learn to code, I started getting emails from people who were interested in seeing the idea come to life. When I received a dozen or so, I decided to host a brainstorming session for people interested in the idea -- whether they wanted to learn, teach, or just support.

Over 80 people registered, and more probably would have joined in if I hadn't capped registration. It was an awesome session. I shared my ideas, and then everyone broke into groups to brainstorm ideas based on what aspect of the group they were interested in helping with. People shared their thoughts in two-minute presentations. You could really feel the energy and excitement.

At the end of that brainstorming session, I suggested to the group that we plan our first workshop, for exactly a month out. We didn't know what the topic would be, or where we'd host it, or who would lead it, but everyone agreed.

Later, we decided on JavaScript, convinced Pearl Chen to be our lead Instructor, and with a venue secured, we put tickets on sale for $30 each (which included catered lunch). The workshop sold out in a day. We started doing workshops once a month, and then twice a month, and now we have regular events in Toronto, Vancouver and, starting in November, Ottawa. With more chapters to come in 2013!

Karen: What was your goal in creating Ladies Learning Code?

Heather: The goal of Ladies Learning Code is to create an environment where women can come and learn beginner-friendly computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way. The most important features of our workshops are their hands-on project-based nature, and the small ratio of students to instructors (usually four to one). It's also important to note that, although we're called Ladies Learning Code, men are welcome to attend our workshops (and they do). What we've created, I think, is the best environment for any beginner to learn to code, and I'm really excited about that.

Karen: You've had experience working with start-ups. Did you approach building this start-up the same way?

Heather: My team and I definitely treat Ladies Learning Code like a startup. Because we're a totally grassroots movement, we had several challenges to overcome -- challenges that are not at all unlike those that all startups face. As an example, one of our first challenges was the fact that we were creating a brand from nothing. Luckily, Vivian and Frank from Studio Function attended that first brainstorming session, and offered to help us design a logo and our website. They did an amazing job -- the website they designed is still the one we use today. A beautiful, professional website was one of the things that made it easier for people to trust us with one of their Saturdays and come out to a workshop.

Karen: Did you bootstrap LLC yourself?

Heather: Ladies Learning Code is a non-profit, but because we've never received any grants we did bootstrap its growth ourselves (and with the support of companies who wanted to see Ladies Learning Code grow and thrive). Today, like when we started, we're almost entirely funded through workshop ticket sales. Pretty crazy when you consider that tickets are $50 and include breakfast and lunch.

Karen: How have the results stacked up against your hopes?

Heather: Ladies Learning Code's results in year one were way beyond my expectations. Over 1700 people participated in one of our workshops in Toronto, and over 400 professionals developers and designers volunteered their time to make our workshops more successful. We put together an infographic about our first year.

Karen: What's your biggest challenge right now?

Heather: Our current challenge is scaling. And, tied to that, becoming a truly self-sustaining non-profit. I want to ensure that Ladies Learning Code is around for as long as people value what it offers. That's one of my top priorities for the next year. So, I need to work with my team to get Ladies Learning Code to the point where talented people can be hired by Ladies Learning Code at a fair wage, in preparations for when someone from my team decides to move on. I can't see it happening anytime soon, but I know that it will inevitably happen one day, and I want to be prepared for that.

Karen: Would you seek outside investment to grow?

Heather: Currently, we're looking to bring on a few strategic partners/sponsors to help us fund our expansion this fall and in 2013. As a non-profit, it isn't an investment, so we have to seek alternative ways to make sponsorship win-win. There are lots of different ways we can do that. Our priority, though, is our community. We would never partner with someone who we felt wasn't aligned with what our community has come to expect from us.

Karen: What's next for Ladies Learning Code?

Heather: Ladies Learning Code just signed a lease on an 1100+ square foot space in downtown Toronto. It's not office space, though. We're creating a 50-person classroom, mini-makerspace and a computer lab. The space will also house the 12 laptops that were donated to us a few months ago, which will make it easier for us to run more programs for girls. The space will allow us to run more workshops and events, especially smaller, more specialized ones, which our community has been asking for.

We're currently in the middle of fundraising $10,000 to help us finish and furnish the space. It's been going really well, and it looks like we're going to hit our target. As part of the campaign, we're hosting a big fundraiser party on September 19th in Toronto. All of the details are on our Indiegogo page.