Female Founder to Watch Skillcrush’s Adda Birnir


Who inspires you?

My dad! He’s a math professor, and I remember him spending hours in the living room, mumbling to himself about the latest math problem he was trying to solve. He instilled in me the importance of doing work where you have something to show for your efforts (and a big car/big house/private airplane is NOT what he was talking about).


Adda Birnir

He taught me that you have to contribute to something. Make the world a better place. Figure out a big problem. Write a little poetry! Be engaged in what makes us so intrinsically and uniquely human: creation!

What lessons did you learn during your childhood that you’ve carried into your career?

I was born in Iceland, a Protestant country. Although most Icelandic people aren’t religious, principles of Lutheranism do seep into many aspects of the culture. In particular, Martin Luther believed that to work is holy and that working hard is a religious act. In other words, I learned about the religion of work and still embrace it today!

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I am an entrepreneur first and foremost because I can’t be anything else.

I need to be constantly working, strategizing and figuring out the next move/step/partner. That kind of excitement is just what gets me up in the morning! That and coffee.

What was a defining moment in your career?

In 2009 I got laid off from my digital agency job and realized that they weren’t laying off any of the technical employees. That was an amazing light bulb moment for me.

Someone, I wish I could remember who, told me only to spend an hour each day sending out resumes and fill the rest of my time learning something new. So that’s just what I did. I spent an hour a day responding to job postings and the rest of the time learning to code. Even though it was just something to do so I wouldn’t go into an unemployment tailspin, it absolutely changed everything.

What led you to develop Skillcrush?

One of my personal goals is to bring more women into tech. The technology skills I have learned have not only allowed me to build amazing things but are really fun! I wanted to create a way for tech skills to be accessible, easy and fun. People have so many misconceptions about what working in tech is like—I am here to bust all those silly myths!

What is it about Skillcrush that differentiates it from basic coding courses?

Skillcrush has so many benefits and resources to make sure you are really learning—from one-on-one office hours with the instructors, to a community forum for all students where you can ask questions and help each other, we’ve really thought through what people need to successfully learn.

Also, instead of doing “exercises,” on Skillcrush, we focus on building a project that matters – your own online portfolio. You get to walk away from class with a beautiful project that you can add to your resume! And we make sure that you always know why what you’re learning is useful and exactly HOW to put it to use.

Why do you think women should learn how to code?

Why shouldn’t women learn to code?

Think about it like this: Say that its 1455 and people keep talking about this thing called “the book.” Maybe you’ve even seen a book. And it seems really cool, and everyone is saying great things about it, and you are like, YEAH this book thing looks great, it’s pretty, the pages are nice and I like the pictures.

And then imagine that someone taught you how to read, and you were able to unlock all of the magic and possibility that is contained inside the book. I really truly believe that that is what it’s like to learn to code. I know you know that the Internet is awesome, but the level of awesome that you are able to access when you know how to read and write code is literally indescribable. And I want as many women as possible to experience that.

How did you finance your business when it was at the early stage? (Self-funded, crowd-funded, Angel Investor, VC)

We were really lucky to have received a little bit of seed funding from an awesome incubator called Brooklyn Beta and an equally amazing VC fund called the Collaborative Fund. Those two organizations were critical to getting Skillcrush off the ground, and for that I will be eternally thankful.

That said, I am a bootstrapper to the bone – Skillcrush is currently self-funded and proud of it (or, in other words, we have given up other comforts until we make it work!).

What’s the worst mistake a founder can make?

Giving up too soon.

I read an essay recently by the CEO of Sonar about the process of closing his company. In it he had this quote that really stuck with me:

“Startups don’t die when they run out of money, they die when their founders let go.”

This statement is so true. I have had plenty of times in my career as an entrepreneur where we were staring down an empty bank account. That’s really no reason to do anything except go out and hustle for some more benjamins.

There are plenty of completely legitimate reasons to stop working on a company, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s terrible to do so. But I do think that we are in a moment where there is this pervasive mythology that you should hit on something big right away and if you don’t you should scrap what you are doing. As long as you are still building something and trying to make it work, there is still hope.

Plus, I am pretty sure that if there is one lesson to learn from the history of humanity, it truly is that the things worth having almost never come quickly.

What should startups be focusing on in 2013?

Sustainability! I am sick of startups I love going under. Enough of that!

Describe a time you failed. What did you learn from that experience?

I have failed so many times! The road to success (I hope!) is paved with failures because I am sure racking them up. Entrepreneurship is all about thousands of micro-failures and thousands of course corrections. If I think about all the lessons I have learned, they distill down to this: as long as you are still trying there is still the possibility of success.

Keep going.

Any words of advice for entrepreneurs who are trying to get their ventures launched?

Start now! I’m not kidding. Stop reading this article, and start immediately!

Raine Dalton is WIM’s editorial and community innovation intern. Raine is passionate about finding creative ways to empower women globally through tech. In addition to WIM, Raine has written, tweeted, and posted for the Global Banking Alliance for Women, WITNESS, and 90.7 WFUV News. You can find her work at her website  or get in touch with her through Twitter.

Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Women Innovate Mobile

Women Innovate Mobile (WIM) is the first startup accelerator focused exclusively on launching and accelerating the growth of women-founded companies in mobile technology. Through its network of mobile experts, mentors and investors, WIM provides women entrepreneurs with the tools, feedback and connections needed to launch and scale their mobile ventures.

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