From CoderDojo to online travel, with a lot of couch-surfing in between
While James Whelton says he misses CoderDojo, he finds it a lot less stressful working for someone else
James Whelton: “ I was never recognised as being high-achieving or academic at school. It was frustrating as I was really good at programming but getting my ass kicked by my pass maths teacher.” Photograph: The Guardian
When James Whelton was 18, he turned down €100,000 for a 10 per cent stake in his company Social Force in order to develop CoderDojo. While it was a huge decision at the time, Whelton knew he wouldn’t get the chance to properly work on CoderDojo if he accepted the money, and the coding club was just taking off.
“I was 18 and that much money was a big deal for me. I had the term sheet in front of me. Thankfully, the investor and the legal firm were really understanding when I declined. I wanted to work on CoderDojo.”
CoderDojo now has a reach of 525 clubs around the world teaching 25,000 children how to code on a weekly basis. The organisation wants to expand the movement to 100,000 children over the next 18 months. But Whelton, now 22, has put the global coding club behind him in order to work for online travel platform Safarna in the Middle East.
“I met [Safarna co-founder and chief executive] Paul Kenny in Silicon Valley and we got on really well. I’d known him for less than 72 hours when I got on a plane with him to Dubai. I spent a week with him, looking at the company. By the end of the week I was offered the role of CTO and I took it.
“You can achieve in one year there what might take two or three years elsewhere,” he adds. “Cash was king there until recently. A lot of people were not comfortable with online payments. I felt there was so much to learn out there, that it would make me a stronger person.”
Whelton says he realised last year that he didn’t have the skills to execute the vision he had for CoderDojo. “It took a year to find the right candidate. I spoke to a lot of people around the world. Mary Moloney worked at Accenture and had a lot of experience. She also knew about CoderDojo as her kids went to the club.”
Whelton became the entrepreneur in residence at Polaris Ventures late last year before joining Safarna this year. “I went straight into CoderDojo out of secondary school,” he says. “I wanted to learn about management. I also didn’t know much about traditional working structures.”
Whelton started CoderDojo in 2011 after he received some publicity for being the first person to hack the iPod Nano. As a result, some younger students expressed an interest in learning how to code and he set up a computer club in his school (PBC Cork).
Later that year, he met web entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Liao who was interested in developing the project into something bigger.
“I never considered doing coding clubs outside of schools. It was Bill that said we should. I was never recognised as being high-achieving or academic at school. It was frustrating as I was really good at programming but getting my ass kicked by my pass maths teacher.”
Whelton then left home in Cork and moved to Dublin to develop CoderDojo.
“I lived on [Web Summit founder] Paddy Cosgrave’s couch for a while and then [Datahug co-founder] Connor Murphy’s couch. I also slept in someone’s utility room for a while. That was pretty difficult when the washing machine was on.
“I walked down to Dogpatch Labs on the first night it opened and got in. At 10pm I suddenly realised I had nowhere to sleep for the night. I told Logentries co-founder Trevor Parsons I had nowhere to sleep for the night and basically pleaded with him to give me somewhere to stay. Luckily he said yes.”
Whelton says money was a huge issue for him back then. While he did the odd programming job here and there, for the most part he survived on noodles.
“At the start I was so restricted by funds I felt that being a charity sucked. I would get really distressed by the lack of resources we had. However, I knew commercialising CoderDojo would be its death. I’d take meetings at lunchtime and pray the person I was meeting would offer to pay. I used to reach for my wallet and pretend I was about to pay my share, but hope it never got that far, as I didn’t have any money in the wallet.”
Despite these difficulties, he has no regrets about not accepting the €100,000 for a stake in Social Force, which he says was almost ahead of its time. It was a media analytics company, which could track information across lots of sites.
He says the potential of CoderDojo crept up on the team, which never had a master plan to go global. “My first trip to America ever was for the CoderDojo opening in San Francisco. I was in disbelief that something that started in Cork could go all the way to California. I knew then that it would be big.”
He says the decision to encourage children to be mentors and teachers at the coding clubs came about after he sat in on some computer science lectures in UCC. “Things were being said that I couldn’t relate to or understand. That was the thinking behind having young teachers at CoderDojo. I felt a young person might be able to explain it to another young person better.”
While he misses CoderDojo, he says it is a lot less stressful working for someone else. “You are still passionate but able to be more objective. It’s definitely easier to manage your mental state. I’d be sick to the stomach over issues with CoderDojo. I cared too much. I put my blood, sweat and tears into it. Dogpatch Labs banned me from sleeping there, it was getting so bad. I was working 24/7. I’d really feel it when there was problems and not be able to sleep.”
As for the future, Whelton says there is definitely a few more companies in him.
“I realised I had a skills gap which I needed to close,” he says. “I am getting those skills now. I want to achieve everything I want to do by the time I’m 40. That gives me 18 years. I didn’t sleep a lot for the last 3½ years. I’m catching up now though. I’m up to six hours a night which is loads for me.”