There is more to a startup than a brick-walled office space, bean bags and a ping pong table. A startup needs a product and a story. Last week Evgeny Shadchev, CEO and co-founder of Makers Academy, told us how much pain it was, to find the beautiful office in which I’ve been learning how to code for three weeks now.
Little more than two years ago, on February 18th in 2013 the first cohort started . Evgeny’s story starts a couple of years earlier though. He had been working as a software developer for different companies. As tech co-founder he had built a price comparison browser plugin called „InvisibleHand“ (which was later sold to Skimlinks by the remaining founder). And he had co-founded „Forward Labs“ in 2012, an incubator that was merged with Forward Venture Partners and branded Forward Partners. This is where he eventually met his co-founder Rob Johnson.
Two founders share a need
The following conversation between Rob and Evgeny was going to give birth to Makers Academy one year later. „I complained about how difficult it is to find talented developers“, tells Evgeny. „Seniors are like unicorns. They basically don’t exist. And juniors usually don’t have the skills to hit the ground on day one. And once they have experience they tend to go somewhere else.“
Rob Johnson on the other side shared his experience of how difficult it had been to teach himself how to code. „He had started with „Objective C“ (bloody difficult, bad idea). Than shifted over to „C“ reasoning that if Obj-C is based on C, he should learn that first (worse since C is even more difficult than Obj-C)“, Evgeny tells. Even though Rob finally managed to finish Apps that were sold in Apple’s app store, it was a perfect match: „Maybe we should start teaching people how to code.“
The first coding schools in the United States had started. It was the beginning of the entire „learning-how-to-code-movement“ and it seemed like an interesting business, Evgeny says.
Around Christmas in 2012 they decided to do it and Evgeny quit the incubator. They had a product: They knew how to code and wanted to teach people how to do it. But „we had no Curriculum, no team, no nothing. We didn’t even know if there would be a demand“, Evgeny looks back. They put up a simple landing page: „Hey, we will teach you how to code. It will cost you 3000 GBP. We have no idea what we are doing, because we have never done it before. But if you are interested – please apply.“ And much to the founders‘ surprise, around 15 people applied of which they finally accepted nine students.
Far away from breaking even
They started looking for an office space four weeks before the course was meant to start and luckily got the keys one week before. „We got furniture delivered on Friday. On Saturday, two days before the start, Rob and I went to Ikea and bought a few sofas, plants, coffee mugs and cutlery. We assembled everything over the weekend…
— Evgeny Shadchnev (@shadchnev) February 16, 2015
and on Monday the course started. We began with building Rails Applications in week one. Probably the worst idea ever.“ Nowadays the „Ruby on Rails“ framework is postponed to weeks eight and nine of the 12-weeks-course.
Evgeny treports on a constant struggle in the first seven month figuring out, what to teach, how to teach and at the same time hiring teachers, raising money and promoting the course in order to receive applications. They planned to extract their business out of the incubator that had financed the startup. And in the middle of all that trouble Evgeny wanted to prepare his wedding scheduled for summer („A very good idea to marry. But on the other hand, leaving the office was absolutely out of the question. I was probably half of the coaching team and half of the everything-else-team. Additionally, in the first year of your startup, whatever money you have, has to go into the company.“) They cancelled the wedding and instead of getting married in the end of June they married the day the May-cohort started. „I was getting married on Monday. I had my honeymoon on Tuesday. But I was back teaching on Wednesday“, Evgeny says.
„Excel is cruel“
In July and August of 2013 Makers-story was close to it’s end. Evgeny and Rob had seen no way around raising the tuition fee to 5000 GBP. The demand went down and on top of that they didn’t have enough staff to run the July course, which had to be cancelled. An office in central London and a full-time team is too expensive to maintain when the cash flow goes down. „But for some reason the demand went up again. We didn’t know why. But it did; and in August we had a group of 19 students – the biggest cohort so far. We had finally a better idea of what and how to teach and it was an amazing cohort.“
In September they had 23 students. Everything seemed to be fine. But „Excel is cruel: we were still loosing money.“ At 5K they figured, they would never break even. It looked like a lose-lose-situation: Either they raised the price again to 8000 GBP, accepting the risk of shrinking demand. Or they kept losing money. They took the risk. Demand went down – but later up again. In November, nine month after founding, Makers Academy broke even. („Short time before our accounts were empty.“)
„If you ever have to choose between fundraising and finding an office space in London…“
After this first roller-coaster-like year 2013, Rob stepped down as CEO in March 2014 and went to Germany. Evgeny had to run the company now, leaving the teaching to his team. In 2014 the sea calmed down a bit. But it didn’t get boring. „We worked a lot on improving our curriculum. And we built a placing team that helps our students to get jobs as junior developers after graduation„, Evgeny says.
His major worry in 2014 was that the office contract was about to end. Evgeny had to find out: „Finding a new media office space in London today is harder than raising money. If you have the choice – try raising money. It will be easier!“ He realized there is less space available than one might think, seeing to-let-signs on the street. But if you narrowed it down on your needs and your desired location there was little left – most probably the most expensive ones only.
Birthday party and exciting final projects
Evgeny doesn’t say how he managed to find those brick walls for his business, nor how much he pays for them. But now that they have moved, he and his colleagues can focus on new projects again: In February they started the online coding course „Ronin“. Eight students mostly from the UK are connected all day long via Google Hangouts, GitHub, Skype, Slack and so on. „I would really like to offer the Makers Academy course ten times cheaper. A great number of people cannot afford 8000 pounds plus living costs“, Evgeny says. „Ronin“ is a major step to a cheaper coding course. But they are also talking to the government and other organizations to find sponsors for the in-presence program.
There will be a birthday party on March 6th. It will be the day my senior fellows of December cohort will graduate. I’m really excited to see them starting their final projects. There is a drone flying around here and what I see on the whiteboards seems promising. In one of my next posts I will tell you what they are up to.