Aidan ChopraCo-Founder and Creative Director, Bitsbox
About Aidan Chopra and Bitsbox
For your profile, we’re interested in learning about your path to entrepreneurship and specifically to Bitsbox. From reading your LinkedIn page, it seems that your education and work experience provided a solid foundation for, almost a progression to, starting your company in 2014. Was this a plan? Or did it unfold over time?
In hindsight, it looks quite planned but it wasn’t. My mother is a retired educator and my father’s an architect. It probably was inevitable that I would wind up teaching in some capacity and dealing with technical information in some way.
In school, I wanted to be a scientist, but I ran into a wall with calculus. My teacher, who knew I liked to draw, told me “You can be a scientist, but you’ll be one of the worst. Or you can go to art school and be a scientific artist.” I liked the sound of that.
I ended up concentrating on jewelry and metalsmithing as an undergrad. That was the first time I realized that I was really obsessed with making stuff for kids. I made a series of wearable toys.
At Rice for architecture, my thesis was about the intersection of play and learning as it related to designing an elementary school. That was a big part of my realizing I could define my own problem and solve it. I also met my wife, Sandra Winstead, at Rice and we now have two sons.
After grad school, I was recruited to work at SketchUp, a 30-person startup that made 3D modeling software. We were acquired by Google in 2006, about two years after I joined. Soon after, I was approached by Wiley to write Google SketchUp For Dummies. They had read some of my newsletters and said my writing was “appropriate for the Dummies brand.” I took it as a compliment.
In 2014, after 10 years with SketchUp, I felt like I was burned out and blocking progress, and I realized it was time for something new. So I was ready when my co-founder Scott Lininger took me aside one day in 2014 and said, “I’ve built this prototype that teaches kids to code, and I’m going to quit. I think you should quit, too, and we should go and start this company.”
While I didn’t know that Scott well, I had tremendous respect for him. I realized we would be making stuff for kids that’s legitimately important, coding. Nobody really knew the best way to do that.
Still, I thought about it for a couple of months: “We’re going down to one income. Most startups fail. That’s sort of terrifying.” Also, I grew up with a Dad who felt he had to work all the time to provide for his family. With that role model, I thought I would automatically be sacrificing any kind of family if I were an entrepreneur and I held myself back for a long time.
Luckily, my wife was (and still is) gainfully employed at SketchUp as a senior product manager. Sandra said, “You should totally do this. Scott’s amazing and you’ll get to make stuff for kids.” So I did, while she supported the family for a year and a half. I am so grateful.
My role as Explainer in Chief is to be the one who doesn’t understand and runs all the technical information through a filter: “How would you explain a variable to someone who doesn’t even know algebra because they’re six years old?”
So, the journey was not inevitable at all, but I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up. It’s exactly the right thing for me.
What factors do you think have contributed most to Bitsbox’s success, such as being selected as an Amazon Deal of the Day twice in 2019?
We’ve had a series of good luck opportunities, starting with being accepted into Boomtown, a startup accelerator in Boulder, Colorado. One of our mentors was Alex Bogusky, one of the top advertising creatives in the world. Making boxes—instead of magazines—and mailing them to kids was his idea.
Around that time, Scott ran into someone from Kickstarter at a bookstore and we were invited to Brooklyn to visit their HQ. The campaign we put together was going well enough, then Kickstarter featured us in a weekly email sent to millions of people. We ended up doing a quarter of a million dollars in pre-sales to over 3,000 customers.
In 2016, we were picked to be on Shark Tank, one of 120 companies out of 140,000 applicants. The episode aired in February 2017 and our business tripled in the next two weeks. Though we didn’t take the crummy deal we were offered, we benefitted from what was effectively a ten-minute Bitsbox commercial that 8 million people voluntarily watched.
In 2019, a mutual investor introduced us to STEMscopes, a Houston-based K-12 STEM curriculum company that, interestingly, spun out of Rice about six years ago. They have no computer science content and we’ve started talking to them about collaborating on some exciting stuff.
We’ve applied ourselves and worked to get Bitsbox started but then we’ve also gotten lucky. Things have succeeded where there was no guarantee that they would.
For Rice students interested in entrepreneurship, what advice can you give?
We always advise potential entrepreneurs to get a co-founder. That is the single biggest thing you can do for your success and your mental health. Find a person to walk the plank with you.
If you listen to podcasts like “How I Built This,” the number of successful businesses where the co-founders met in either undergraduate or graduate school is hugely disproportionate. Look around and find the person you could ask to do it with you. That’s what I would have done if I had known that back then.