A PhD student shares the 3 biggest things she learned from starting her computer science program.

By Sarah Esper (Co-Founder & CTO, ThoughtSTEM)

Being a PhD student and trying to start a company is not an easy feat. ThoughtSTEM was started by myself, a fourth year Computer Science PhD student studying Computer Science Education, Stephen Foster, who is also studying Computer Science, and Lindsey Handley, a fourth year Biochemistry PhD student. We teach youth ages 8-18 to program through a project-based curriculum.

All of our time has been devoted to either academic research or to our own company research and development. Luckily, the two align nicely and are fun for us but we have definitely learned a lot trying to enter the startup world, something we were not previously savvy to. Here are the three biggest things we have learned so far.

Trust your instincts

There are always trade-offs for choosing one way of doing something instead of another. While it’s important to think through the trade-offs, it is also important to trust that the decisions you are making will keep you moving forward.

I had been teaching a group of 4th-6th graders how to program for a few months when Stephen started to become inspired by the projects the students were coming up with. Using this inspiration, we began developing curriculum that would allow us to teach even more students how to program with the hopes of expanding to other STEM disciplines in the future.

In the beginning, we weren’t sure if our curriculum would work for a broader range of students. In fact, we changed it multiple times, but we never would have been able to deliver this curriculum to over 200 students in the San Diego area (and growing!) had it not been for us trying in the first place. Even when something didn’t work out, we still gained value in what we learned from that experience, allowing us to make the next decision a more successful one.


One of the hardest things to do, especially for us, was to narrow our focus. Not only did we have tons of ideas for how to expand our curriculum, our company and our product list, but we also had a lot of collaborators who had tons of ideas. Soon, we were beginning to spread ourselves thin, resulting in us having to step back and refocus on what was most important. This applies to both large and small (day-to-day) company decisions. I still remember the day we “discussed” if we should buy actual dice for one of our projects, or have a digital die; turns out, this was not an important thing to focus on. Once we determined what the single most important next step was, everything else began to fall in to place: Small decisions were just made and big ones always aligned with our primary goal.

Don’t be afraid to ask

We constantly asked for advice. We asked veteran entrepreneurs, our customers, even our friends, and learned something every time from their varying perspectives. They either provided validation that our instincts had been right, or let us know about something we had completely missed. We learned a lot from our customers about what they wanted and expected from us, and we were even able to find incredible partners during our help seeking. If it weren’t for those first few parents who were willing to brainstorm with us, and tell their friends about us, we would have never expanded so quickly or successfully. Asking is not just about getting information; it is about bringing others into the conversation to establish stronger connections in the communities that you want to be a part of.

In short, we are grateful for those who were there to answer our questions, help us focus, and test our instincts. This adventure has been hard, and sometimes scary, but man has it been fun!

What other tips do you have for first-time founders?


 About the guest blogger: Sarah Esper (@sesperuis Co-Founder and CTO of ThoughtSTEM, a company that designs curriculum and technologies for K12 Computer Science Education. She is also a fourth year PhD student at UCSD studying Computer Engineering with an emphasis on Computer Science Education. Sarah has been teaching computer science and has helped developed curriculum for computing courses and learning technologies for K16 students and is an active member of the computer science education research community.