When Liane Katz was looking for people to invest in her computer coding-for-children business, she found herself pitching her idea at an event in Shoreditch, East London, the tech start-up capital of Europe.
‘There were 60 people in a room and they were all men, every single one of them,’ says the 40-year-old mother-of-two. ‘Most of them were about 25 years old, too. I was mingling later, and quite a few said to me: “Is it really your business?” as if it couldn’t possibly be.’ She laughs, but not with amusement. This was barely a year ago.
‘That aspect of the tech world is dominated by men. I’ve found myself going into room after room and being the only woman there. It is off-putting . . . and can be soul-destroying when people don’t get your idea.’
Liane Katz, 40-year-old mother-of-two, says that young men were surprised she was running her coding business
With a 22 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of digital start-ups aimed at parents and schools, the British education tech sector is growing fast, but it’s not 25-year-old men who are using these services.
‘If businesses are aimed at mothers, it makes sense that mothers get to judge whether they’re any good,’ says Liane.
Her business, MAMA.codes, seeks to exploit that boom in educational tech and at the same time rectify the lack of diversity in Tech City — eventually.
MAMA.codes teaches children, aged three to eight, the principles of computer coding in workshops, school lessons and after-school clubs, using creative techniques that mimic the way they learn language.
MAMA.codes, her business, teaches children who are aged between three and eight how to code
She’s proud that more than 50 per cent of the children taught across ten MAMA.codes franchises are girls, and that her approach — based on the idea of play — is radically different to that of many other coding clubs. It was inspired by her six-year-old daughter.
‘I very much wanted Lily not to miss out on the next industrial revolution and I could tell that learning to code and being literate in the digital world was going to be vital, whatever she chose to do,’ says Liane.
But Lily was a tough customer, preferring to knit rather than muck around on an iPad. None of the existing coding apps interested her, so Liane — who has a background in digital marketing and journalism — started to design something that would, using songs, jokes and story-telling, to embed coding logic.
Soon, Lily’s four-year-old brother Louis was learning, too, and Liane’s living room in South East London was full of school-gate mums wanting their own children to join in.
The children are taught in after school lessons and after-school clubs, using creative techniques
‘I think it’s important to get to them before addictive, high-octane games take over their life. Not all screen time is negative.’
Lily is now nine and a coding pro who helps Liane design teaching materials. Yet the business has not always been compatible with family life in the way Liane first planned it.
‘I founded it with another two mums and at the start we wanted to prove that you could run a successful business only working in school hours. But that wasn’t realistic. We quickly found one of us was working at 4am or all through a weekend.
‘Launching a business is always tough, but when you’re juggling small children and not earning anything, it’s a struggle.’
Not all screen time is negative
The others have since left MAMA.codes, and though Liane works flexible hours, she still puts in ‘a six-day week’ with the help of an au pair at home. Occasionally, the workload and To Do lists are ‘overwhelming’. If you think you get too many emails, be grateful you don’t subscribe to a new business messaging platform called Slack — a sort of urgent email system, designed to solicit an immediate reply whatever the time of day or, indeed, night.
‘The start-up world lives on Slack,’ says Liane wearily. ‘It pings all the time.’
Clearly, technology can liberate the mumpreneur working at her kitchen table, rather than an office, but it can also be tyrannical, and insistent instant messaging sounds like another means by which the ‘start-up world’ actively puts off parents.
MAMA.codes is operated in predominantly middle-class London, but Liane has plans to expand into the Home Counties, and north to Scotland
Liane has come up with a concept she calls Minimum Viable Mummy, a fancy name for ‘showing your face’ at children’s events while taking the least possible time off work. Not that it always goes smoothly: take last week’s school sports day.
‘I went through the programme with Lily and worked out which races she really wanted me to be at, and I was there for those, though I was pretty exhausted and distracted. But I had to leave before the end and, of course, she was really upset with me. So I’ve decided that next year, I’ll just take the whole day off.
‘You can’t wrap yourself up in guilt about every little thing but you’ve got to recognise what’s important to them.’
She employs a ‘school-gate army’ of mums and dads who work flexibly for precisely those sports day moments.
‘The lifeblood of the business is flexibility. Work culture is changing — government jobs are increasingly flexible and even blue chip companies are offering more part-time jobs — but the key driver will be when men start asking for it, and it’s not stigmatised as something only mums do.’
At the moment, among her 14 staff members, she employs two dads, who both work part-time.
When her 41-year-old husband Alex was between jobs and temporarily took on the role of ‘lead parent’, Liane realised how ‘liberating’ it was not being in charge of the children’s diaries.
At first, MAMA.codes operated in predominantly middle-class London, but Liane has plans to expand into the Home Counties, and north to Scotland.
So did that big, but exclusively-male, event in East London ever produce any cash?
‘Yes, we did get an investment out of it,’ she says. ‘A few weeks later, I got to pitch to a female CEO and it was a breath of fresh air. She was mum to a seven-year-old. She just got it.’