This month we're speaking with Jill Hodges, founder of Fire Tech, a tech education company for 7 to 17 year olds. I met Jill back in 2016 and was instantly drawn to her passion and enthusiasm for what she was building. Fire Tech recently underwent a rebranding and are currently in the process of launching in Paris.
Tell us about Fire Tech. What were you doing prior to starting Fire Tech and what made you decide to start it?
Fire Tech is the UK's leading provider of extracurricular tech education to 7-17 year olds. We launched in April 2013 and we have delivered over 7,000 learning experiences in our 20+ courses.
Before founding Fire Tech I was raising capital for hedge funds and entrepreneurs, but I was ready for a change following the financial crisis. My kids were 9 and 11 at the time and I volunteered to go into their tech class one day and found them learning Microsoft Word instead of any kind of computational training. That got me looking for tech camps for my kids. I couldn't find any in the UK, so I started Fire Tech!
What were the biggest initial hurdles you faced while building Fire Tech and how did you overcome them?
Initially the biggest hurdle was finding the right people to develop the curricula. I had some very specific ideas about how I wanted things taught - I wanted everything to be focused around the students developing original projects as I think that changes their motivation and makes them problem solvers, and that embeds important skills like problem-solving, resilience and creativity. I found someone great - Genevieve Smith Nunes - and we still work together on special projects. She's a great combination of Art and Computing and really brought the ethos I wanted into those original courses. I think building the team continues to be the biggest challenge. It's hard to find and attract the right people to work in a startup, and it's hard to keep the roles evolving as you grow. Then there's that issue that hiring another person is a major cost when you're a small business, and so a big commitment.
What has been your biggest success?
Well I think the most rewarding thing is seeing how some kids' lives really change on the back of this course. We now have instructors who were once campers! Just the other week we had one in our instructor training session and they said they never would have studied Computer Science at uni if they hadn't discovered a real love of coding at Fire Tech. So stories like that feel like our biggest successes.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
"There is no Plan B." I think the only way to survive as an entrepreneur is to know that this is THE path that you are going to pursue and that it has to work. It takes a lot of steely determination and commitment, especially in the beginning. If there were other "paths of least resistance" they would be very tempting when you have a set back. You have to be 1000% committed and hang on to your optimism.
As you expand geographically, how do you create a positive work environment and effectively manage a remote team?
Very timely question as we are just hiring our first remote full timers. We use Slack a lot - even in the office - and so people who are working remotely can actually keep up with a lot of the chat and banter on Slack. I think you have to think of it as almost "remote first" so that you don't forget they are out there. I try to be sure to recognise achievements and special efforts from employees that can push us forward. And we do an off-site that brings everyone together once a year, and we do the occasional drinks or lunches to make sure we all lift our heads from time to time to take a moment to see how far we've come!
What do you know today that you wish you would have known before starting your first company?
There are a bunch of job roles that I'd never seen before in my old companies, as I was working in consulting and financial services. So I wish I'd had a better idea about organisational designs and what those roles look like, and what the right kind of candidates would be for those jobs. It's taken a lot more time than I would have expected.
What inspires you to keep going?
I really really love what we do. It's a huge amount of work, but I'm very proud of what we do and how we serve our clients. I love building something where there was nothing. I love our employees and the work they do. There are occasional tough days, but there is nothing else I'd rather be doing right now.
What three books do you recommend every entrepreneur read?
Oh gosh, I don't read a lot of books except on computing, tinkering, micro:bit, creative learning, etc. I do like to keep up with the startup and tech scenes but that's more through the papers and magazines. There is a good book on hiring that I recommend: Who - The A Method for Hiring, by Geoff Smart. He talks a lot about how to find the right people for roles and how to interview them do that you really get to see what they can do and not just what they can talk about.