Here’s what it’s like to go from consumer to creator, from technically unskilled to a coding master, from employee to entrepreneur.
Like many entrepreneurs, Mike McGee started Starter League to address a problem he himself was facing: he wanted to start a web-based business, but he didn’t know how to code. After he and a business partner taught themselves the skill that they needed, they realized that the better business opportunity was not in following their original idea, but in meeting the need that they had experienced. In the process, Startup League has become not only a leading source of code training, but a crucial element of the startup ecosystem in Chicago.
I spoke with Mike to learn more about Starter League’s plan of action, its relationship with its startup community, being a for-profit startup in a world typically dominated by nonprofit organizations, and what they’re discovering about the future of education.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Della: Hi Mike. There’s a lot of folks out there nationally who are trying to do some kind of “Teach people to code.” There’s the “Girl Develop It” groups that are all over the country, and a variety of other kinds of platforms. It seems like you guys have been doing it a little differently, and with success. Tell me about Starter League.
Mike: The Starter League was born out of a frustration that my cofounder and I had back in 2011. We have always been consumers of tech. We used great products, whether it’s hardware or software. We, like many other people, had our own ideas. “How can we build the next startup?” or “How can we solve this problem?”
The problem was we didn’t know how to create the solutions. We didn’t know how to code and how to design. Instead of just being the idea people, we wanted to be the developers and designers of our own products. That forced us to learn.
We spent about a year (April 2010-March 2011), trying to do that. We were beginners in every sense of the word. We weren’t computer science majors. We weren’t math or science wizards. We were just two guys who were really passionate about making this happen.
It was a lot of trial and error. There weren’t any bootcamps out there – online or in person. We would use Google, a few online resources and a lot of old programming books. There was no direct path for us to figure this out.
After a year of stumbling around we had learned a lot, but we also learned that it’s extremely hard for a beginner to learn. That’s when we started to think, “Hey, it would be great if there were an in-person place for beginners to learn how to build web apps.” And we couldn’t find any.
In Chicago, and ultimately around the world, there was no short-term (about 3-6 months) program for beginners to learn how to build web apps. That’s when we decided, “Hey, instead of trying to build a singular web app, why don’t we actually try to solve the problem that we faced for the past year, which is trying to learn how to code?”
Hey, instead of trying to build a singular web app, why don’t we actually try to solve the problem that we faced for the past year, which is trying to learn how to code?
That was the seed of the idea, to build our own school. To design a school that we would’ve attended. We wanted to make this school the most effective and fun place for someone without any experience, to learn.
Della: You guys were really set up to work with the complete beginner?
Della: Who takes your classes? What types of people end up getting involved with Starter League?
Mike: It’s a very diverse group in terms of age, professional background, educational level, city, state, country, etc. The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.
The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.
They’ve worked in other industries and they’ve gone to school for another focus entirely, whether it’s history, education, law, retail, real estate. Every professional industry you can imagine. They’ve experienced problems in those areas and they’ve talked with their family and friends about them.
They often say things like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could solve this problem”, but it stops right there, because they don’t have the skills necessary to solve those problems with technology. It’s been festering and boiling inside of them. It’s like “If I could only do this…or if I only had these skills, I could build this app.”
That’s the thread that ties all of our students and graduates together, is that they are just sick of using someone else’s solution, or they’re sick of not having a problem solved. They want to take matters into their own hands and build a solution for it, or just to change their career.
Della: Walk me through the typical classes. What are the modules or the courses that you’re teaching? How long do people spend in the program? Give me a sense of what the typical experience is.
Mike: We have classes ranging from 3 to 9 months. Our three-month courses focus on one topic. There’s a three-month backend Web Development course, which is our flagship course. We also have part-time courses that focus on user experience, visual design, and front-end development (HTML & CSS). Our classes focus on the major components you need to build a website or a web application.
A good number of our alumni, probably 20 to 25 percent, have taken more than one class at the Starter League. They’ll start in one area – whether it’s a design and development class – and then go to the other side.
We just launched a new nine-month program called Starter School. That’s our full “Navy Seals” program for people who want to learn it all – from development to design to entrepreneurship. We’re in our second year of doing that program with 12 to 14 students. It’s a brand new way of doing in-person training for beginners.
Della: It sounds like in addition to teaching the technical skills needed to either launch your own thing or to maybe be more entrepreneurial within your industry, you’re also teaching skills on how to be an entrepreneur?
Mike: That’s what Starter School represents. To teach our students the process of shipping a real product. How that idea goes from just a thought in your head, to out on the Web and people are using it. Strangers are using the product.
That’s what Starter School represents. To teach our students the process of shipping a real product.
The goal of Starter School is not to just turn everybody into an entrepreneur immediately after the program, but to learn the process of how to build a product and start a company. Whether they do that or not is up to them.
Della: You’re focusing on the technical steps for, “I’ve built this thing. Now how do I get it to market?”
Mike: Yes. It’s one thing to build a web application, but that’s only one part. The students are also learning entrepreneurship, product development, and decision-making skills. They’re learning marketing and sales. They’re learning all the things they need to get an idea off the ground.
And Starter School instructors are people who are leading companies – CEOs, founders, executives, business owners, etc. They are the ones developing and designing real products, and they are giving practical education.
Della: People in some parts of the country, may not think of Chicago as a tech center of activity, but there’s so much that has been going on, especially coming out of the 1871 Accelerator, which is one of the big accelerators in the city, and lots of other resources. How does Starter League end up relating to the rest of the whole system of the tech startup world within Chicago?
Mike: We started our school right in the renaissance period of the Chicago startup scene back in 2011. That was right when we were starting to get more energy in the startup environment ecosystem. We wouldn’t have been as successful as we were without the rise of the Chicago startup scene.
We came up with our idea right around the same time of the 1871 project. Back then it didn’t even have a name! We were a part of those decisions, and because of that connection we were the first startup to announce that we were moving into the space.
Della: You’re pretty deeply embedded in that whole environment and you’re a startup yourself. Are you structured as a nonprofit, or a for-profit?
Della: You’re essentially providing a service to the entrepreneurial community, but you’re entrepreneurs yourself. How are you able to scale upwards? How did you navigate things like charging? What revenue streams you were able to draw on to get to the point where you could start with an 1871 accelerator, and get out on your own?
Mike: When we started, the 1871 idea was developing, but it didn’t have a space yet. We had to wait for construction on 1871 to reach a point where we could move into our classrooms. We bounced around for the first six months. We actually started in Groupon. Then we moved to downtown to the John Hancock Center. They weren’t ideal environments, but they were a place we could hold classes.
We started off wanting to be a non-profit, but from the beginning we wanted to charge for tuition. We didn’t want to be a nonprofit that had to rely on grants or foundation money. We believed that students should put some skin in the game, and if they paid tuition, it showed they were serious about taking the program.
Originally our name was Code Academy, and it was CodeAcademy.org, not to be confused with Codecademy, the online thing, which was a fun story for us for the first year.
We bootstrapped the Starter League with tuition from the inaugural students. We were trying to get venture capital money, but the timing didn’t work out so we had to make a decision. It turned out to be a great decision because we didn’t have to worry about dealing with other people in the decision-making process. Neal or I would say, “Hey, you wanna do this? Ok, let’s do it.” That’s the exact amount of time it took to move forward. For the past three and a half years, our revenues have been from students’ tuition.
We bootstrapped the Starter League with tuition from the inaugural students.
It goes to show that the emphasis is on the product. If you do a great job delivering exceptional experiences, students will keep coming, and our graduates will say good things about us. We stay in business. It’s great to have it that way.
Della: One of the things that you must encounter is that good quality education is expensive. How do you keep it affordable? The flip side of that is do you have any strategy for dealing with somebody who would be a great addition to the larger ecosystem, but they can’t afford it out of pocket?
Mike: That’s a great question. What we’ve been doing, is to get more financial aid options available for potential students, who don’t have the funds up front. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to go to college, without financial aids and loans. We’re trying to create the same thing here. Instead of just making the classes so cheap that we can’t run the program effectively, we ask, “How can we use a partner or third-party companies to give students financing options, instead of just credit card, or check, or bonds with their family members and friends, to try to get the money?”
It’s becoming more successful; the ecosystem of loans and financial aid has grown. We’ve started a lot of positive conversations over the past year. We have a financial aid partner right now, Climb Credit. Students can apply for financing after they get accepted.
Della: What are you going to tell folks at Collide? Are you going to be focusing on just telling the story of the Starter League, or are you focusing on a particular issue there?
Mike: The primary event that I’m doing is a panel about technology and education. As always with these panels, it will focus on the future.
Traditionally, we think of learning in that if you’re lucky it stops at college. And then you switch to the professional world and you learn some new things. You are in your job, but it’s not learning. You’ve done training, but solely for your specific job.
Our focus at Starter League is to promote long-term learning. The most successful progressive skill you can have is learning, and to continue learning. The rate of change is so fast that if you just think that you can be an expert at some current web framework or current web technology, then you’re making a risky move.
There are alumni that I run into 3-9 months after and I am like, “How were they able to do that?” They’re building iOS and Android Apps, and we don’t teach mobile development here. When they came to the Starter League, they knew nothing!
That’s what we embody with the Starter League. We believe the “Start” part, is the hardest thing. Once you get your “Start,” once you get that network, you can do pretty cool stuff.
Once you get your “Start,” once you get that network, you can do pretty cool stuff.
Della: I moderated a panel discussion for the University of Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. It was on workforce, and the future of workforce. The session was focused on educators – superintendents, principals, and administrators in public and private school districts. A huge amount of the conversation ended up falling around, “How do you teach people to be able to learn, and to be able to learn on an ongoing basis?”
Mike: [Laughs] Yeah. Education, at least formal education, is a slow moving boat there. The way that you learn in K-12, even in college, the focus is not truly learning the subject but it’s getting the grade.
There are so many ways that I was able to get an A in class and not know what I was doing. [More laughs]. Sometimes I liked a subject. If I didn’t, I just found a way to try to get the good grade and move on.
That’s not learning. A lot of education is learning things that are not going to help you move forward. I didn’t realize that until we started Starter League.
I hope that the small things that we’re doing have already impacted formal education. We’ve taught at Northwestern, University of Chicago, MBA students, undergraduate students, even computer science students. Hopefully, the trend keeps going in a positive direction. These types of classes are offered to five-year-olds in some schools today. You don’t have to be in high school, or in college, or an adult to learn.
That’s the hope, in the next 20 years – that a kindergartner or first grader will be building their first website instead of building it when they’re 30 or 35. That’s the vision.
Della: Anything else you want to tell folks to be thinking about?
Mike: Even though we run a beginner-focused school, you wouldn’t believe how many times people would email us, or call, or apply to our program, and say, “Hey, I don’t know anything. Will I be able to get into the course?” I’m like, “You’re the perfect person! That’s what beginner means.”