This week brought some interesting news to the Chicago tech community. 37signals made their first investment in another company. Yes, that’s right. Their first. The Starter League, a Chicago web development education start-up that has been in existence for less than a year, reached an agreement to sell a non-voting share of their company to the web app development company, 37signals.
That is the news, but there’s more to this story.
The Back Story
Education is a hot topic in the tech world right now and actually has been for some time. There are lots of startups and established institutions trying to figure out better ways to educate. A portion of this space that is especially interesting (at least to us at The Industry) is learning to code and design via non-traditional means. There are an abundance of resources available to us, but there still seems to be some disconnect between people wanting to learn and the information.
Online platforms like Treehouse and Code School are doing what they can to bridge that gap with professional tutorials and gaming metrics and things of that nature to try to aid in the learning process. This has definitely been a huge help to many people, but I can speak from experience, and I’m guessing a lot of you can as well, that those services can only take you so far. The need for actual project work and real-world type help begins to be a necessity to get past that initial step of learning new things in this arena.
About a year ago a couple of guys from Chicago, Neal Sales-Griffen and Mike McGee, were trying to teach themselves Ruby on Rails along with some front-end type coding. You see, they had the entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to begin to actually build out some of their ideas. Chicago is a Rails city so that was the natural platform for their exploration. Off they went into the world of online tutorials and books and articles and videos trying to learn the basics so they could prototype their ideas.
The next portion of this story is common. They felt like they were learning, but still getting held back by a few things that they were struggling to get past. Progress slowed down. Little things probably to most season developers, but not to them. To them they were roadblocks. Some people (actually a lot of people) throw in the towel at this point and move on to something else. Neal and Mike are not “some people.” They saw an opportunity. They were having these problems and as they began to ask around, they quickly realized they weren’t alone.
Rather than give up, they thought this problem warranted a solution so they created an in-person school of sorts to help teach people the basics of Ruby on Rails. It was called Code Academy and the goal was not to churn out expert programmers, but rather to take someone from zero knowledge to a point where they were capable to take off themselves. Get them past the dumb little hurdles that plague so many beginners and get them off learning how to do things the right way. A jumpstart down a career in web application development.
Things sort of began to just fall into place. They brought on Jeff Cohen, who is known as one of the best Rails instructors around via a Tweet. Jeff lives in a nearby suburb, saw what these two guys were trying to do and wanted to be involved. They posted a basic website explaining the concept and included an application page. Before they knew it they had more students than they had room for from all over the world willing to throw in the $6,000 tuition to learn the basics of Rails from Cohen over an intense 11-week period.
Now that they had students, they quickly assembled the equipment and space needed, built a curriculum and crossed their fingers (yes, that’s right, all of that stuff came after they had the students signed up). That first class was a big success and already gaining substantial support from the Chicago tech community. People were noticing what they were doing and realized it’s potential. In fact, David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and partner at 37signals, made a guest appearance to chat with that inaugural class.
They were off to a great start and with the support of the community (mentors are a huge part of the program) they expanded to offering more Rails classes as well as a more specific front-end design track as well.
What Happened This Week?
My Twitter feed lit up on Tuesday morning talking about The Starter League. It turned out Code Academy had rebranded themselves as “The Starter League” and expanded to offer even more classes. Cool, sounds good, I thought. They had run into issues being confused with the web app called Codecademy (another one of those online services that help teach you to code), so that made complete sense to me. As I got caught up in my feed I saw a Tweet from Jason Fried saying that they had purchased a stake in The Starter League (formerly Code Academy).
37signals, as you’re most likely aware, is known nationally (maybe even internationally) for the way they run their software development business and for their overall success in do so. They do a lot of things differently and have had a lot of success in the process. The fact that they’ve chosen to make an investment is no small gesture. It’s completely obvious they see some serious value in what The Starter League is doing and where they’re going.
The dollar amount isn’t specified, but it really doesn’t matter. The partnership is as important as any monetary investment. In fact, 37signals is actually hosting one of the next quarter’s classes at their office. Having a company like that intimately involved is a huge asset to all parties.
The Starter League was built to help people get started with Ruby on Rails. 37signals has a history of fostering a self-taught community of passionate developers. From the way it looks this partnership will be beneficial for The Starter League, 37signals and even the larger tech community.
Something interesting to note is that The Starter League has been completely bootstrapped up until this point and was actually turning a profit almost immediately. Both parties have made it public that they have no intention for any sort of exit. They are both in it for the long haul because they view the mission as very important. I don’t disagree one bit, and applaud that mindset.
On a Personal Note
I participated in a Starter League (then Code Academy) User Experience Design course earlier this Spring. I’ve see what is happening with this group first-hand and I’ll agree with the consensus, it is pretty exciting.
The User Experience Course was an expansion from the beginning vision of The Starter League as a Rails school. And I should note that the course selection has expanded even further into other areas and even now some more advanced topics.
When I attended, the staff was still trying to figure out curriculum. The instructors were solid, that was clear, but they tried something new with my group that they hadn’t done the previous two quarters. We were to group up with the Rails students and as a team build an app that we would present to the community at the end of our 11 weeks.
I hopped in with a group of Rails development students and along with a project leader supplied by the staff we worked with our little software development team for a bit more than a month on a single project. We got a real feel for what it was like to work as part of a software development team. Granted this was on the very basic level, but a lot of the team interaction and tools we used are the same as you’ll see at most development shops. It was a very rewarding experience and one that I just don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.
Another large part of the program at The Starter League is their connection with mentors in the community. As I mentioned the Chicago tech community has embraced the whole idea whole-heartedly and all sorts of mentors from all sorts of different companies and backgrounds have and continue to volunteer their time to help the students learn. It’s an amazing community.
Now mind you, I was involved in only the third group to pass through and the experience was wonderful. What’s quite cool about learning in an environment like this is the flexibility of the system. In fact, there is no system. It’s one big group. Everyone is there for the same reason and that collection of students and instructors and mentors is a killer recipe for learning.
The genesis for this article has been stewing in my head for a while, but I just haven’t taken the time to write put pen to paper. Truth is, as a result of my experience with The Starter League I found a home with a start-up myself and just haven’t had much time to spare. The news this week was a good catalyst for me to write about this group and the overall experience.
This partnership with 37Signals and The Starter League is an exciting one and one you should keep your eyes on. This non-traditional school built around teaching web app development technology is one that has already gained some serious traction in the community and we can only look for that to grow even stronger with this new 37signals partnership.