I am beyond thrilled and honored to share the journey of my friend Katy Lynch Ulliot on the Begin Anyway blog today!
Katy began her life in Chicago over a decade ago with a job working for a large chain retailer. She quickly realized that this career path was not for her. With nothing more than the passion to find professional fulfillment, she entered the world of digital/social marketing when that arena was just beginning to explode. From there, Katy leveraged her connections and knowledge into a successful career as a social and tech entrepreneur.
Today, Katy and her husband, Craig, are the visionaries behind a major technological revolution. Their company, Codeverse, teaches children between the ages of 6-13 to code; exposing them to technology that will undoubtedly play a major role in their world when they enter the work force. Katy and Craig envision astronomical growth for their company and the software platform they have developed to support it. In the next 5 years, they intend to have a Codeverse studio in every major metropolitan area in the US. Their company mission statement is to teach a billion kids to code.
How do you prepare yourself for each day? Is there a certain mindset that helps you work more effectively? I’ve found that the life of an entrepreneur means preparing for the unexpected. What are your daily practices?
This is such a great question. Every entrepreneur develops a gameplan that works for them. What I love to do is set goals for the week and complete tasks one-by-one. That allows me to stay focused; otherwise I’m running around like a headless chicken!
Seriously though, life as an entrepreneur is stressful. There are constant bumps in the road, and sometimes you can get overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do. And, even when you think you have completed your workload, there’s always more to do. So, setting weekly, manageable goals helps immensely! I’d be absolutely lost without Google Calendar and Slack.
Also, it’s really important to take care of yourself. I’m not saying you have to eat a salad and walk 10 miles every day, but you do have to rest your mind. Exercise is a great stress reliever – and it can be super fun. I highly recommend Soulcycle. My husband, Craig, and I go three times a week and we love it!
Tell us about your early days in the professional world. When you moved to Chicago, you worked at Where I’ve Been, Facebook’s largest travel application. How did that opportunity come about? Was that your mini-introduction into the world of tech and social networking?
When I first moved to Chicago in 2007, I managed a chain retail store for a little while and realized that it wasn’t for me. I felt like a “cog in a machine” and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I decided that I wanted to work for a startup where I could make an impact – whether that was small or big.
I remember typing “Startup Jobs in Chicago” into Google, and ‘Where I’ve Been’ (a travel startup, founded by my now husband, Craig Ulliott) popped-up. They were hiring a ‘Head of Social Media’. Truth be told, I had absolutely no freaking clue what the role entailed, but it sounded intriguing based on the description, and so I applied for the job.
I was immediately hired and I spent over two years single handedly managing all of the marketing efforts for the company – including all of their social media channels. It was such a fun job that really challenged me, and I learned so much about myself, startup life, marketing, sales, and PR. I really think that everyone should work at a startup at some point in their lifetime.
As my role grew within the company, I got more involved with the tech community. I started sitting on panels at events, and I’d give marketing and sales advice to entrepreneurs that I met at these events. In a very short amount of time, I had developed a reputation for being the “social media gal of Chicago”. In my spare time, I did some consulting.
When ‘Where I’ve Been’ sold to TripAdvisor in 2010, I spun out and started SocialKaty. There was big demand for social media marketing services at that time, and I knew that I was the right person (with the right experience!) to be able to start a company that specialized in those services.
I think that’s outstanding advice for getting started as an entrepreneur. Just start! As you did, plug some job search terms into Google, find a few companies or people that sound interesting, and throw your hat in the ring – even if you aren’t qualified on paper. From there it’s all about hard work and a willingness to learn.
Professionally, you made your first significant impact with “SocialKaty.” What was your focus with that brand? How did you work to create and expand it?
While I was working at ‘Where I’ve Been’, I did a ton of research, and one thing I learned was that there were so many PR firms and advertising agencies out there that offered social media services as an “add-on” service, but not a core competency. Back in 2009/2010, companies were frantically searching for agencies to run their social media, but many of them fell short (due to lack of knowledge and experience in that space.)
And so, this is exactly why I started SocialKaty. My focus was to create the best social media marketing agency in Chicago — and beyond!
What was the growth of ‘SocialKaty’ from inception to the day you sold the business? Are there any major professional lessons you learned in those early days that have carried through to today?
Well, back in 2010, it was just me and my laptop. I spent most of my days cold-calling businesses to gauge their interest in social media marketing services. After one month, I was managing four paying clients. After two months, I had almost ten paying clients. It was a very exciting time, to say the least! I quickly realized that in order to scale the business, I needed to hire talented people to help me build the company. So, that is what I did. I hired several social media consultants that I personally knew, and brought on a co-founder.
SocialKaty specialized in one thing (social media marketing for small businesses!) and I believe, to this day, that this is the reason why we succeeded. We developed a fantastic reputation amongst the Chicago tech community as being the leaders in our space. Our goal was always to sell SocialKaty to a large digital agency, because we knew that the companies we served would want much, much more than just social media services as they grew. By 2014, SocialKaty had 65 clients in our portfolio. We decided (based on trends and our client’s needs) that it was a great time to sell the business.
I could write a book about all of the lessons I learned at SocialKaty. One thing I will say, though, is that starting a business is extremely hard. The media glamorizes entrepreneurship, and makes it look so easy. It’s not. It’s life-changing, and full of up’s and down’s. Think long and hard about why you want to start a business before you do. Also, make sure that your company is actually generating revenue before you quit your job and venture out on your own. Otherwise, it is just a hobby, not a business!
After SocialKaty, you had a brief tenure as CEO of Techweek. You had past experience there as a presenter and attendee; coupled with your background with SocialKaty, it seems like a logical progression. What did you learn during the transition into the responsibilities of that position – including taking on a new team and managing an unfamiliar business?
Starting SocialKaty was very different than running Techweek for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, my business partner and I hired and trained everyone at SocialKaty. The mission and vision, our marketing services, and the team were all built by us.
After SocialKaty was acquired, I was extremely excited to move on to become the CEO of Techweek because I already knew many of the team members there, and I believed in their mission.
The biggest difference, though, is that Techweek was an established company when I came on, and I inherited a team. It was actually really awesome for me to experience this – to learn from every employee, and to learn about what it meant to run a national events/media company.
During the transition from SocialKaty to Techweek, I learned just how important it was to really get to know the team – to sit down with every employee and understand how every department operates (what works well, what doesn’t, what needs to improve, what hires we need to make, etc.) This is not really unique to me, though. Every entrepreneur should have a great understanding of what’s happening in every area of their business before making any big decisions.
You and I are both strong believers that people have a misconception of failure and see it as always a bad thing. I read an interview where you paraphrased Winston Churchill who believed that ‘success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.’ How have you benefited from perceived failure or rejection in your career?
Simply put, as adults, we’re terrified of failing. And, the fear of failure stifles growth and creativity. In my opinion, we need to embrace failure. When you start a business, you fail constantly. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster. It’s scary, but it’s also incredibly rewarding – especially if you have the right attitude.
That Winston Churchill quote has always resonated with me for that very reason. Making mistakes is OK. The important takeaway from making mistakes is learning from them, picking yourself up, and quickly moving on.
Tell us about your latest venture. You’ve created a business that’s targeted to children between 6-13 with a focus on exposing them to the world of coding or ‘writing script.’ You and your husband/business partner are also developing ‘KidScript’ which you see as a massive game changer for coding education. Tell us about the world of coding – what does it mean and what drew you to this focus in technology?
Codeverse is a vertically integrated education technology platform and coding school for kids aged 6-13 years old. Our flagship studio is in Lincoln Park, Chicago. It’s a 3,600 sq ft state of the art, interactive facility where kids learn to build apps and games, as well as program cutting-edge technology with a special language we designed, called KidScript. Kids can control everything from lights, speakers, drones, 3D printers, laser cutters, and robotic arms. It’s awesome!
In the next 5 years, there will be a Codeverse studio in every major metropolitan area in the US. Our mission statement is to teach a billion kids to code, which we realize could take 30 years, so SaaS and online learning is a huge part of that mission.
Steve Jobs once said, “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think”. We believe that in this digital day and age, every kid should learn to code because technology impacts every aspect of their lives. Coding teaches skills outside of just programming. It teaches kids critical thinking, collaboration, independence, creativity, and problem solving. Plus, having the skill of coding will be an asset as these young kids grow up and apply for jobs in the future.
What about the focus on working with kids? Did you have past experience there? Coding will be an immensely necessary aspect of the future job market. As technology evolves, we need to give kids the tools to support themselves in future economies. Does that focus play a role in your work with youth?
Although this is our first business in the edtech space, one of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned as entrepreneurs is to surround ourselves with the very best people. From its conception, we’ve worked with edtech consultants, parents, teachers, and advisors from edtech companies to ensure that Codeverse would be a success. Before Codeverse opened its doors, we introduced KidScript to over 350 kids in Chicago.
Working with kids is so much fun. They are tech-savvy, bright, inquisitive, and unabashedly themselves. These are some of the reasons why it’s great to teach kids coding when they are young. Kids absorb information like a sponge, and have no problem making mistakes.
I do believe that, in the future, having the skill of coding will be viewed as an asset by all companies. I mean, many of the jobs that will available in the future, do not even exist yet.
What you’re doing at Codeverse currently goes beyond what is being taught in schools. It supplements and enhances those teachings, correct? Do you eventually intend to be involved directly with schools through your programs?
What we’re doing at Codeverse goes way, way beyond what is being taught at schools. We have built a beautiful, engaging, interactive studio where kids can program concert-hall lights, speakers, 3D printers, laser cutters, robotic arms, and drones using our own software, KidScript. Kids can also build unique apps and games, within our studio, which can be shared to their friends and family.
Right now, we’re just in Chicago. We plan on building these studios across the nation and internationally. And eventually, our software KidScript will be available in schools, in libraries, and at home!
You are also very passionate about the role of women in Tech. You’ve mentioned a documentary, ‘CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap’ that really resonated with you. Tell us about this focus. Why is it so important to engage young girls with coding and tech? Is female advocacy something you are passionate about more broadly?
Yeah, the idea to Codeverse came from that very documentary. It explores the reasons why there is a lack of women and minorities in STEM fields. The sad truth is that young girls lose an interest in STEM when they are in middle school. Stereotypes (“girls are terrible at math”, “coding is for geeks”) play a huge role in why girls pursue other interests. This is sad to me because I am a woman in tech, and I can tell you that working in STEM is totally awesome! It’s such an exciting time to be alive, and technology is disrupting every industry. By choosing to enter into the STEM fields, you have a real opportunity to change the world and positively impact the lives of billions of people.
Young girls are exposed to and surrounded by technology in a way that I never was when I was little, and I think it’s so important to teach them how technology actually works in this digital day and age. And when those young girls grow up, they will be applying for jobs where having the skill of coding will be an asset – whether they become software engineers or the next Rihanna!
Your success and visibility has rightly given you a platform as a mentor. I am certain that you are a role model to many. How have you embraced this role? Tell us a bit about the importance of mentorship for your career growth and how you hope to contribute as a mentor to the next generation.
It’s funny. I’ve never really thought of myself a mentor or role model, even though people tell me I’m a good one to kids and aspiring entrepreneurs. People say this because I’m (brutally) honest and I “tell it how it is”. Not to mention I’ve started, grown, and sold businesses. I think that people find my approach refreshing because they are hearing what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. Ha!
I look back on the last 10 years of my career and I’ve never had a mentor. Instead, I’ve formed great friendships with other entrepreneurs. In many ways, these friends become my “mentors”. I can text them, email them, or meet them at any time to talk about business and life. Plus, other seasoned entrepreneurs understand me and what I’m going through (with my business) so they offer the best advice, in my opinion.
What is one thing that you wish someone had told 25-year-old Katy – or, what would you tell yourself if you could go back to those early days?
Life is way too short to hold grudges and get upset over silly, frivolous things.
Amen to that! Last question: I love a great cocktail. Who is one person that you would like to have a drink with, get to know, and gain inspiration from? And, equally important, what are you drinking?
Would love to have a drink with Thom Yorke from Radiohead. They are my favorite band, and that latest album (A Moon Shaped Pool) is magical. I love, love, loooove a good Pimm’s Cup. It’s refreshing, fruity, and reminds me of the U.K.
Thank you so much to Katy Lynch for her time, inspiring story, and wonderful insight! Be sure to check out Codeverse for more information on their programming as well as new locations coming soon.