Compared with other K12 areas, programming isn’t widely recognized by Chinese parents, except for some top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But as the Chinese government has been emphasizing the need for developing programming education for children during the past few years, this sector becomes more and more dynamic.
Among numerous players in this field, Codemao (编程猫), a technology-driven startup founded in 2015, is rising above the others.
During 2015, the industry is still groping its way. Several companies like Alldream(傲梦) set up around that time mainly started from offline classes, but they faced many problems such as high operating costs of offline institutions, the doubt of parents and so on.
Codemao has chosen another way. It decided from the very beginning to develop its own programming language after recognizing the deficiencies of Scratch - the visual programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is until now the most commonly used language in programming education for children, though it is limited on PC.
Finally, Codemao released its visual programming application Nemo and visual programming language Kitten in May 2018. With these two powerful tools, programs can be written on mobile phones. Just in the same month, the company closed its Series C round of funding led by CMB International (招银国际), followed by the Beijing News (新京报), Landscape Venture Capital (山水创投), Green Pine Capital Partners (松禾资本) with an amount of CNY 300 million. According to Li Tianchi (李天驰), the founder of Codemao, these two achievements are truly “the future of programming education for children”.
Apart from Nemo and Kitten, Codemao has also constructed a comprehensive network of programming education. It has built an online community for children as well as one for teachers, employing the UGC (User-generated Content) to attach customers to its product. Also, the company has designed several games or game-like learning applications to make children practice in an interesting way.
Besides, Codemao started first its toB business rather than toC. It provides online courses and hardware services both to private programming training institutions and public schools. According to the company, it cooperates with more than 7000 institutions and schools at present. Private institutions constitute its major source of revenues while public schools can enjoy free services in exchange for data. With the huge amounts of data accumulated this way, Codemao can keep training its AI teacher, whose image is an old cat named Maolaozu (猫老祖), to a very high level. Thus, when Codemao entered the toC market, it could avoid a lot of expenses on the recruitment, payment, and management of teachers.
However, like all the other online education platforms, the high CAC remains the sword of Damocles over their heads. Even listed companies like New Oriental (新东方) have such worries as well. LI Tianchi said prudently that the company will probably attain the balance between revenue and expenses in 2019, and that their CAC is merely 30 - 40% of their competitors. Owing to its toB business, Codemao benefits from a widely acknowledged reputation and a relatively stable market share, which guarantees it a healthy expansion mode. As the company has announced, at the end of 2018, Codemao has 3 million domestic toB users and hundreds of thousands of toC users.
So far, Codemao has raised nearly CNY 600 million in 7 funding rounds. On January 25 of this year, it closed its strategic round of funding with an amount of at least CNY 100 million. As the only one who has arrived at the strategic funding round in this sector, the company aims high. Early in this year, Zhang Wei (张炜), the CFO of Codemao, has announced that their plan is to go public within 2 years.
For the time being, the industry of programming education for children isn’t mature enough. In the domestic market, platforms either adopt the learning standards of the US, either cooperate with overseas institutions and introducing their standards, leading to the disorder of the sector. Additionally, programming isn’t an inelastic demand until now, which results in difficulties in expanding.
Besides, teacher resources is a rather severe problem. Facing competitors like IT companies, programming education isn’t very attractive for talents, not to mention the necessity of teaching experience.
Now that leaders of K12 education like Xueersi (学而思) have also entered the industry, it will be vital for startups to preserve talents and technology advantage, otherwise, they could be easily devoured. Therefore, the exploration of Codemao on AI teacher training is a move with foresight.