Why British entrepreneurs must escape the quicksand of perfectionism

Are you wary of rushing in? Do you want to prepare for every possible problem you might face before starting? If your answer is ‘yes’, then consider changing your mindset. That’s the message from Elizabeth Tweedale, the American-born founder and CEO of Cypher. The London-based serial entrepreneur has just rolled out a year-long plan in less than a week thanks to Covid-19, and it’s transformed her business. 

Her turbocharged pivot from offering physical educational camps to providing online tuition aligns perfectly with her business philosophy. She says: “Always focus on the positives, keep your eyes on the prize and go for it. Don’t let the idea of failure hold you back. In my experience, and I’m speaking generally, British entrepreneurs and investors tend to look at problems first. They focus on trying to solve every potential issue before going live. In the US, we do the opposite. We ignore problems and wade straight in. There needs to be a balance between the two approaches, of course, but you need momentum and speed to win. So, don’t let perfectionism hold you back.” 

Her message is especially relevant now. Indeed, Elizabeth believes Covid-19 gives British entrepreneurs an even bigger reason to be positive, agile – gung-ho even. Quite simply, we have no choice. She says: “Covid creates a situation where many of us need to bypass the culture of caution. We can’t afford to wait. Speed and decisiveness are key at the moment. So, my advice is to solve problems in real-time; don’t predict them all before you start. That can be like stepping into quicksand.”

Elizabeth’s company, Cypher, teaches computer coding to kids. However, her background is in architecture – she has a master’s degree in it, as well as a BA in Computer Science. While working for Foster & Partners’ Specialist Modelling Group in 2013, she spotted the educational potential of coding. She explains: “My team used computer coding to design buildings, including the Apple Campus and the Gherkin. I saw many colleagues teaching themselves how to code and hitting stumbling blocks. That’s because they didn’t have a basic understanding of computational thinking and had never learned how easily code fits together.”

Her experience sparked a question. Shouldn’t we be teaching our young children how to code? After all, it’s central to the digital revolution, leads to logical thinking and can only grow in importance.

So, Elizabeth began to plan how to teach youngsters to code and she found the perfect starting place in Scratch – a programming language that allows beginners to code in ‘blocks’. “Imagine code put inside virtual Lego blocks,” she says. “That’s Scratch. Children learn to stack the blocks, which gets the code to work. It’s a great starting point that soon leads to more complex languages like Javascript.”

Planning done, Elizabeth launched Cypher in 2016, specialising in teaching coding and ‘computational thinking’ to young children. The founder explains: “Computational thinking is at the heart of coding and provides a foundation for efficient problem-solving. If you give children the tools to think computationally, it allows them to see a real-world problem, break it down and figure out how to fix it. It’s an over-arching skill that they can apply to all subjects. It’s far broader than simple memorisation.”

Cypher began to put on educational camps in the holidays for children aged five to 12+, teaching a curriculum that was not available in schools. Demand rose quickly, fuelled by the innovative course content. “We teach using creative themes,” says Elizabeth. “It’s all very well catering for super-techy kids who want to build video games – I fully understand them because that was me! – but that’s only a small percentage of children. So, we also come up with broader themes such as ‘conservation’ and ‘animal planet’. In one recent project called ‘How Does a Bee See?’ students learned about pollination but also coded an art project to replicate the way a bee sees.”

Since starting out in 2016 with two teachers, Cypher now works with more than 30 teachers and has taught over 1,500 children. It has raised £590,000 and will soon embark on another funding round; this time aiming for £1m. 

However, the business has recently taken a new direction. In March, Elizabeth and Cypher were forced to move their lessons online. Rather than waiting, procrastinating, planning, and trying to iron out every crease before going live, they made the transition super-fast. In doing so, they caught the wave. And they’re still riding it, surfing towards a bright new future.

“When Covid arrived, we immediately cancelled our April and May camps and put everything online,” says Elizabeth. “We really went for it. Our team, working remotely, got themselves up to speed in less than a week. We then listed our first set of online courses and sold out in 48 hours. Because of lockdown, the demand was high – but we had to be quick to catch it. And now we’ve got the momentum. We ran three weeks camps for 270 kids in April, which led to £50,000 of extra revenue. The new business model this has opened up is extremely exciting.”

By resisting the fear of getting it wrong and reacting instantly to catching the wave – by fighting the drag of perfectionism, you might say – Cypher has discovered a new way. Yes, there have been problems during the pivot, but the team has come together to solve them on the fly, without expending additional time and energy worrying about how they might solve them before they arise.

Now this new business model – simpler to enact, more profitable and more scalable than physical camps – looks set to become the mainstay of Elizabeth’s business. By acting fast and instinctively at a pivotal moment, she’s uncovered a new and exciting future. The lesson? See opportunities not problems and don’t let anything stand in your way…