Blog   >   Small Business Saturday: Interview with John Tan from Saturday Kids

Posted on June 2017
Co-Founder of Saturday Kids, Collision 8 and Investor of more than a dozen Y Combinator startups, John Tan speaks to us about being a Dad and a Businessman this Father's Day. 

In this tech-savvy society, John expressed his perspective on why programming is a useful skill and why he feels kids these days should be equipped with it.

The father of four is also an active investor of companies like Chope, Ninja Van and Marcella just to name a few. Read on to get some insights from him.

 

Hey John, thanks for allowing us to feature you for Father's Day. Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do.

I run Saturday Kids, a digital literacy school for kids, and I’m a co-founder of Collision 8, a premium co-working space bringing collaborative innovators together. I invest in tech startups. I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and equipping young people with the skills to thrive in a tech-driven world.

I’m a yoga-loving Father of four whose music playlist alternates between jazz, old-school hip-hop and modern classical. On weekends there’s a good chance you’ll find me at The Projector. In a different life I’ll probably be a film critic. Or a music writer. Maybe a ski instructor.

John's 4 children

You have 4 beautiful children, 2 boys and 2 girls. Have you always wanted a big family growing up?

My Dad has 9 siblings. I have one. Evening the score here. 

What are you like as a Father?

My kids call me naughty Daddy. Guess I’m the fun parent?

What would you say is the most difficult thing about being a Dad?

There’s nothing inherently difficult about being a Dad. What’s difficult is juggling between running a business and spending quality time with the kids. As a business owner, you never switch off. There’s very little downtime. How do I be in the moment without thinking about work? That’s the biggest challenge for me.

John skiing with his kids

And what would you say is the most rewarding?

Being able to do stuff with my kids, like we are friends. That I think is tremendously rewarding. I remember the first time I skied with Camper, my eldest. Pure happiness.

I’m sure sometimes, things get chaotic. Can you share with us how you handle such situations at home?

I have 2 super helpers, a wonder woman wife, and 2 aunties who help with the kids. I try to stay out of the way.

What would you say is your ultimate fear for your children or for each of them?

I fear that they will grow up to be unhappy, yet at the same time I worry about them becoming pure hedonists who give nothing back to the world.

If you can give one advice to them, what would it be?

Find your purpose in life, and seek joy and happiness pursuing that purpose (but please have a bigger purpose than eat, drink and be merry).

For the soon-to-be or aspiring parents, do you have any tips for them on raising children?

Give your child a childhood. Let them play. Get out of the building. Explore the natural world. Don’t put pressure on them to excel at everything. Kids are naturally curious. Do what you can to help them stay curious.

     
Family Portraits of John's Lovely Family


You told us earlier that you run Saturday Kids which is a digital literacy school for children. What inspired you to start Saturday Kids in 2012?

I made my first few investments in tech startups around then (Chope was the first) and realised programming is a tremendously useful skill. I thought it will be a good idea for my kids to pick up programming as soon as they learn how to read, but there weren’t any coding schools for kids at that time. I started Saturday Kids for my kids.

What is the most challenging aspect of working with children?

Helping them to find the time to keep learning. Kids these days have such packed schedules, there’s hardly any time to learn anything new. Majority of the students we work with only come to us during the school holidays. A six months gap between classes is not a great way to learn anything, especially languages (what’s programming if not a language?)

What is the most rewarding?

Impacting young lives, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The personal stories are what tug the heartstrings. The kid who didn’t think he was good at anything until he discovered coding. Or the girl who became more positive and confident after attending the free coding classes we run with Google and 21C Girls through Code In The Community.

What would you say are key myths or misconceptions about kids, girls in particular, learning programming and how would you address them?

I’ll say the biggest misconception is that it’s not important unless it’s graded. That’s a fundamental flaw of the education system, and both parents and teachers need to take responsibility for the fact that schools are not doing a great job preparing kids for the future. The national obsession with grades is an epidemic. It is extremely naive to think that as long as kids score A's in school, they will be equipped to meet the demands of future jobs.

We need our children to learn how to learn. Programming is a tremendously useful skill to have right now, but it is not the only skill a child needs for 21st Century jobs. Learning never stops. 

John's Interview with Her World (March 2015)

You mentioned in the Her World, March 2015 interview that “there should be more women in tech’. It’s been 2 years since, do you see an improvement or change in the “bro-grammer culture” you pointed out?

There are certainly more women in tech, but some of the female founders who get the most attention seem to be famous for being famous. They bring glitz and glamour to entrepreneurship. Davos one weekend, Oscars another weekend. Running a tech startup is hard work. Making a tech startup successful is even harder. I’ll like to read about female entrepreneurs who are in the news because of the awesome product they built. Stop glamourising female founders. Let’s talk about the ones who are pulling 15-hour days instead.

Do you think parents play a part in changing such mindsets?

It all starts with the parents. It’s a real shame when kids believe their entire self-worth is based on what alphabet or number they get on an exam paper. That’s just ridiculous. Why are grades so important? Does rote memorisation do anything for our kids? Information is one Google search away. It’s worthless.

We need to get our kids into the mindset of applying knowledge. Using what they know to build things people want. To build product that solves some of the world’s biggest problems - hunger, poverty, climate change etc. 

In your experience, what are some fears or questions that parents have towards letting their kids learn to code or program?

That kids will spend too much time in front of the screen. There’s a difference between spending time playing games other people have created and spending time building something of their own (whether it’s an app, a game, a website, it doesn’t matter) and learning new skills through that process. Consumption versus creation.

       
Left: Camper with a headlamp he invented in the Saturday Kids littleBits Camp;
Right: Camper with a reindeer lego he programmed (using Scratch Programming) during the Christmas-themed Lego Robotics Class.

Are your own kids learning how to code? If yes, how has that been for them?

Of course! Camper has been attending Saturday Kids classes since he was 5. He loves it, or so he tells me. I guess it’s the hands-on nature of coding that makes it fun for him. He’s not sitting there listening to a teacher talk about coding. He’s on the computer, trying things out, exploring other people’s projects, remixing other people’s code. It’s project-based learning. It’s learning-by-doing.

Any funny stories or incidents to share about the children at Saturday Kids?

We have these three sisters who have attended practically every class we put out. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Last year we asked them to help out at Saturday Kids’ booth at Maker Faire. They ended up going around the fair interviewing folks at the different booths (with mic and all), pretending they are broadcast journalists, and doing a little rap to accompany their home-made turntable. It was awesome!

Thank you John for your candor and key insights. Are there any special events we can look forward to in the coming months?

Saturday Kids has one week camps starting every Monday from June  to Aug (for MOE students and international school students), as well as weekend workshops starting in July.

Use code 'SmallBusinessSaturday' to enjoy S$30 off all tickets on Saturday Kids. 

 


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Check out their socials to know more about how Saturday Kids can help yours learn a new skill this summer/June holiday break! 

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