Before Li Tianchi, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of one of China’s biggest coding course providers, was to sit down for an interview with Nikkei, it was mentioned that he should feel free not to wear anything formal. He showed up in a red Doraemon sweatshirt.
Li owns several different-colored shirts featuring the popular Japanese cartoon character and often wears one while giving speeches to his Shenzhen Dianmao Technology employees.
Doraemon, a robotic cat who travels from the future to help a young boy, is part of Dianmao’s origin story.
“I want to help children grow through programming, just like Doraemon helps Nobita,” Li said, referring to Doraemon’s young friend. The company’s Codemao course uses the character for “cat” in its name, based on the Chinese rendering of the robotic feline, a favorite of Li’s since he was a child.
Codemao was introduced in 2015. In addition to operating the online course for 4- to 16-year-olds, Dianmao materials are used in about 600 classrooms throughout China. The program has taught more than 37 million students, and the company works with more than 19,000 schools in China to provide coding education materials. It is one of China’s largest education startups.
Kitten, a programming language the company developed that is easy for children to learn, can take credit for much of Dianmao’s rapid growth. Using a computer or smartphone app, students make games by following instructions from artificial intelligence-powered characters and instructors. As they make their games, they are also learning to code.
Instead of entering complicated lines of code, students can make the game characters move and include various effects by combining “blocks” that have designated functions. Taking an AI-taught course costs RMB 2,580 (USD 400) per year. Each class lasts 20 minutes, and students can take up to 50 classes.
The games they create are published on a website called Community, where anyone can play them. Contests among the games are held periodically to further motivate students.
Li first encountered programming as a second-grader. Programming was a rare subject at the time, but it was taught at his school. Li also loved the historical simulation Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Koei (now Koei Tecmo Holdings), and other games. He became obsessed with learning to program to “improve” the game.
He majored in software engineering at university. After graduating, he went to Europe to further his studies. In 2014, he visited CoderDojo, a programming school for children in Dublin, Ireland. “In Europe, many children have opportunities to be exposed to programming,” he thought at the time. “I should be able to go back to China and make the same thing happen.”
Li belongs to China’s post-90s generation, a label for those born during the 1990s, many of whom benefited from the economic growth that came with the reform and opening-up policies that began in 1978.
Many post-90s generation Chinese had access to the internet and smartphones from a young age. But “[w]e didn’t have internet access at home,” Li said, “so I picked up a lot of my programming know-how from technical magazines.”
It was also common among denizens of the post-90s generation to study abroad, return to China and start internet companies.
Most of Dianmao’s 7,000 employees come from this generation. And what they care most about, Li said, “is not how much they get paid but whether they find satisfaction in their work.”
When the company was founded in 2015, there was little competition, and “there was no answer as to how we should teach, so we just kept searching.”
A swell of interest to learn to code picked up in China around 2017, and about 200 related companies have sprung up to fill the niche. Codemao gained name recognition by aggressively advertising and taking other steps. It also improved its app, worked to record students’ learning curves and reflect them in lessons.
The company, which makes 99% of its sales in China, is now expanding overseas. It is in more than 20 countries and is working to create teaching materials in local languages. This year, Dianmao plans to focus on developing markets in Europe—where Li was initially inspired to create the business—and Southeast Asia, including France, Italy, and Indonesia.
The company has not entered Japan, but in March Li received an enthusiastic email from a child living in Japan who had been learning with the Chinese version of Codemao. “I’d be very happy if I could use Codemao in Japanese,” it read.
Dianmao has been in contact with Japanese authorities and is considering whether to enter the market around 2022.
“Programming is a tool, just like English,” Li said. “For example, learning programming may help you become a doctor or banker who is good at data analysis.”
Li believes programming can support children’s future, just as it led him to become an entrepreneur.