Miriam Marini Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Samantha John is the founder of the app "Hopscotch." As Mirian Marini reports, "Hopscotch simplifies coding by allowing users to drag and drop blocks of coding to build scripts that then translate into games that children can share with others on the app or online."
As she eyed the long list of majors up for her choosing, the Columbia University freshman scoffed at the computer science program — it was obviously not for her, she thought at the time.
Little did metro Detroit native Samantha John know that years later, she would be the co-founder of the foremost running children’s coding educational tool, Hopscotch. Aimed at young and beginner coders, Hopscotch simplifies coding by allowing users to drag and drop blocks of coding to build scripts that then translate into games that children can share with others on the app or online.
It would be a long path before John cornered the children’s coding market, and even before finding that computer programming was fun and an avenue to express her creativity. Born in Dearborn and raised in Detroit's Woodbridge, John later moved to New York after completing her degree in Applied Mathematics at Columbia University.
“I don't know exactly what I thought it was, I think I thought it was something that people did in the basement with black screens and green letters, and it felt so inaccessible and so uninteresting to me,” John, 34, said. “I found out the secret of programming is really fun. And no one knows. So, how can I tell all the other little Samanthas in the world that there's this really awesome thing that they could totally do, that they just don’t know about.”
And so, John and her co-founder, Jocelyn Leavitt, went to work.
For more than a year, the two worked full time on creating the app — taking on consulting gigs in the meantime to pay rent — which was the first program of its kind to allow users to code on touch screen devices without a keyboard, thereby eliminating the need to learn the minute ins and outs of coding.
“Programming language is similar to a human language in that it’s a set of instructions to tell a computer what to do. But because computers are not as smart as humans, you have to write the instructions very, very specifically,” John said. “And if you get anything wrong — especially with a lot of the programming languages that are out there right now — if you mess up one little thing nothing works at all.”
When coding, a single incorrect symbol can obstruct the computer’s ability to read the script and perform the desired action. Learning programming languages can be a similar process to learning a foreign language, including its unique syntax.
“Part of what we did was take away some of those barriers that prevent people from learning to code because they get so frustrated and making something that has orders of magnitude less frustrating and easier to use,” John said. “Because we kind of take care of making sure that all the instructions can be understood by the computer and making it so that you don't have to worry about these kind of trivial mistakes that can totally throw you off.”
Hopscotch launched in 2012 for free and was downloaded 20,000 times in its first week. From there, it took off earning them an average of 200,000 active users a month and even more fans — particularly one in a high place that is currently helping the app reach greater heights.
In April 2020, John received a message from a casting producer with Shark Tank, an NBC show wherein entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of investors for the chance of scoring an investment in exchange for equity, encouraging her to submit an audition. Fast forward to September, and John is face-to-face with the sharks including Lori Greiner, Kevin O’Leary and Mark Cuban.
In the deep end John begins her pitch with having each shark grab the iPad set before them. On the device is a Hopscotch-created game called Kaleidocosmos, a drawing game that repeats drawings eight times to create a kaleidoscopic image, that has received 2.4 million plays in the five years since it was created.
“You talk to kids about how they are the entrepreneurs of the future, here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is,” John says to the sharks, explaining that along with coding experience, the app equips children with skills in game design, graphics, and animation.
John’s goal was $400,000 for 4% equity in the business. After the app’s initial launch, John implemented a subscription model in 2015 to access exclusive features and currently has more than 6,000 subscribers. The app also has an internal currency model that users can buy through the app store and use to unlock items and other users’ games.
“You guys were on top of the world, you guys were dominating for kids’ programming language,” Cuban says to John, adding that his own daughters use the app. “When it comes to kids in school, there are some alternatives, but Hopscotch is the go-to name.”
Following her demonstration, which included a demo of how to create a game using Hopscotch’s coding model, the sharks bowed out one by one citing either unfamiliarity with sector or, for O’Leary, a promise to never return to the children’s gaming industry.
Subscriptions run for either $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year, which keeps the business running but doesn’t leave the five-person team with extra revenue, John said. She’s seeking to eliminate the paywall and instead rely on the app’s internal currency model, and in the future allow users to cash out the currency they’ve accumulated from other players — a move that was questioned by investors.
“What I see here is you are a tremendously brave young woman,” said Barbara Corcoran before taking herself out of the negotiation. John was then left with Cuban, whose net worth is estimated to be about $4.3 billion by Forbes.
“I’ve been a Hopscotch fan for forever and just talking to you, I look up to you for what you’ve been able to accomplish and what you’ve been able to do for my daughters (and) for my son,” Cuban said.
After firing offers back and forth, John and Cuban finally agreed to $550,000 for 11% equity, valuing the company at $5 million, and plans to create a coding camp for disadvantaged kids.
Hopping into the future In the eight years since Hopscotch’s founding, its users have grown with the app, and John wants the app to continue to suit their interests and education.
One user, John said, reached out to the team to say that thanks to Hopscotch, he was starting at MIT to study computer science. And he’s far from alone, Hopscotch’s userbase is fiercely loyal and often sends emails to the company to express their gratitude.
“I'm excited to help them take the next step with us, and actually be able to make something that they can sell and that other kids will want to buy and have those kids be an inspiration to show the younger kids what they're capable of and what they can achieve if they put their heart into it,” John said, “and to really have that path be open for people because I think as a kid, a lot of the time, you don't get to do things that are real, like you just get the kid version of things.
“Being able to make real programs that you can really sell. I think makes it feel so much more worthwhile because you can see the path from learning the skill to actually creating a career out of it or being able to make something that is in value and like really participate in the real world and control economy.”