Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee launched The Starter League in 2011, and the “coding bootcamp” as we know it was born. Five years later, The Starter League has become ingrained in Chicago’s tech ecosystem, and announced today that they’ll be fully acquired by New York-based Fullstack Academy! This marks the first expansion by Fullstack Academy outside of New York City, and the start of a really neat partnership. Neal and Fullstack Academy founders David Yang and Nimit Maru joined us to talk through what this acquisition means for brand, leadership, and 2016 plans. Plus, we dive into logistics for future applicants wondering about the admissions process, course offerings, and job placement services in Chicago and NYC.
Tell us the news!
Fullstack Academy is acquiring The Starter League! Part of the acquisition is that we’re expanding into Chicago, and it also means that we get to work closely with Neal.
First, let’s talk about Chicago. Why is Chicago an important market to expand to for a coding bootcamp?
David: Nimit and I are Midwest guys- we met 15 years ago at the University of Illinois.
Nimit: Chicago was my first love (New York is my second). When we decided to open Fullstack Academy, we actually considered Chicago, but we knew Neal was already there. About a year ago, I stopped by the 1871 space in Chicago, and I was blown away. It’s a joint collaboration between government, big companies, and coworking. Neal was actually involved in the early stages of 1871; The Starter League was the first tenant in 1871. That shows how much innovation The Starter League has been responsible for in the bootcamp space from the very beginning.
David: So Chicago was always high on our personal list, but also when we look at the metrics, Chicago is a great city. There’s a need for talent, and while there are a number of great schools there, we look at a lot of metrics for expansion. We look at the number of seats offered by current code schools, we look at Course Report data, as well as the number of new startups, and VC funding trends. Post-Groupon, Chicago is blowing up in terms of VC funding.
David and Nimit, why acquire a coding bootcamp instead of opening a new Fullstack Academy campus in Chicago?
David: Serendipitously, Neal reached out to us when we were looking at our plans for 2016. That was like a celebrity sighting for us- we’ve known and followed Neal’s work for a long time. After talking, we decided that acquiring The Starter League and working with Neal would be the best way for us to do Chicago right.
Nimit: We get to use his experience, the curriculum, courses, and software that they’ve built to expand into Chicago.
David: Fullstack Academy is so deeply ingrained into the New York ecosystem. You can’t just expand into a new city, because every city is different. The ecosystem that The Starter League has built, in terms of employers and alumni, is huge. Our alumni is such a huge part of what makes Fullstack successful now, so we knew that would be integral to expanding into a new city. There’s so much to be said for how innovative Neal and Mike were in creating this space that we’re all part of now, so getting to work with them is particularly special.
The Starter League was the first “bootcamp style” program in the US. Neal, how have you seen this industry change and grow over the last years?
Five years ago, my cofounder Mike and I decided to start a school and a company to teach tech skills. On one hand, the blossoming and growth of this space has been so humbling and mindblowing. On the other hand, it’s been crazy to see the saturation of this market- and not in a negative way. With so much opportunity, it’s natural that there will be an expansion and contraction of this space and resources. There are so many layers and flavors of this industry- we see a focus on veterans, a focus on women, etc; one of the biggest draws to work with Fullstack Academy is Grace Hopper Academy.
We have a beginner-focused program with an entrepreneurial bent; Fullstack Academy has an advanced, software engineer/CTO track. It feels like Tony Stark finally has the arc reactor in his Ironman suit and he can finally take off. The offering we’ll be able to provide by collaborating is going to create results that I don’t think the industry has seen yet.
We’ve seen incredible growth in this industry over the past five years, but I think what Fullstack Academy is about to bring to the table, with our help, is really going to blow people’s socks off. Chicago is going to be more awesome because of it, but Fullstack Academy also has plans for worldwide expansion. I wanted The Starter League to be a part of that, and for our legacy to be joining forces with a school that I really believe in. It was very clear, very quickly that David and Nimit understood The Starter League in a way nobody else did. I was super aggressive about working with them because of that energy.
Neal, what have you noticed about Employer trends since starting The Starter League?
I think I have a different perspective than most. When I had this idea, most people slammed their doors. Software firms didn’t buy it. I had a theory that people could learn how to do software development without a strong background in it and that with a basic set of skills, they could be employable as a junior developer or apprentice. There was a notion of this traditional path that developers needed to take in order to be qualified to be in their world. I was challenging their world view, so I got a lot of opposition.
Once we fought through that, it opened up the floodgates. It’s less important for me to claim credit for being the first bootcamp. We opened the floodgates to show all of these other schools that they could do it. And now, as an industry, we’re teaching tens of thousands of students how to make things with technology, work for great companies, live good lives, and get better careers. That’s magical.
We’ve seen the acquisition of a few bootcamps over the past couple years (Hack Reactor acquiring MakerSquare & Mobile Makers or Kaplan acquiring Dev Bootcamp), and every acquisition story sounds different. How will The Starter League and Fullstack Academy’s relationship look?
Neal: Fullstack Academy is doing a full acquisition of The Starter League and Starter School. The only thing that will remain is Lantern, which is our learning platform. Part of their plan is to expand their education offerings into different fields. We’re rolling in the curriculum, resources, and insights that we’ve gained into Fullstack Academy’s future planning. Classes will be available immediately.
Nimit: Right now, we’ll keep The Starter League brand alive. The Starter League has built an incredible and beloved brand in Chicago and in the US. But right away, Fullstack Academy’s Software Engineering Immersive and Summer of Code courses will be offered in Chicago. We’re still actively working on a lot of details.
The Starter League’s curriculum (for their web development program) is Ruby on Rails. Will that remain the focus or switch to MEAN Stack?
Nimit: We’re definitely using parts of their immersive course, but in general, we’re bringing our Fullstack Academy MEAN Stack immersive course from New York to Chicago.
David: The Starter League has always meant two things: first, they’ve been able to take students from across a spectrum of backgrounds with a passion for code. Second is their focus on entrepreneurship. We’ll incorporate both of those into our offerings in Chicago.
Even though the brand will remain intact, how will leadership change at The Starter League?
Neal: I’ll be helping out with Fullstack Academy to primarily facilitate a strong transition. I’ll be hands on, getting operations off the ground, and infusing Fullstack Academy with the energy that we’ve built over the last five years. Mike, my cofounder, is also helping, but in a different way. He’s also catching his breath after sprinting for five years. Fullstack Academy has a lot of plans to build up Chicago by hiring new people and bringing over New York staff.
David: We are sending Fullstack Academy employees to Chicago, as well as hiring in the city. Zeke Nierenberg, one of our best instructors, will be in Chicago to set up the first class.
Will The Starter League campus be in 1871?
Neal: Although we were originally based in 1871, we grew out of the initial space. They have now grown significantly, so we’ll be moving back in!
When will we see the impact of this acquisition?
June 6th is the first cohort in Chicago, but the 4-week remote Foundations pre-work will start in May. Applications open on Wednesday, March 16th.
For applicants who are considering joining either Fullstack Academy or The Starter League, is the culture at each school starkly different? Would a certain type of student perform better at one school over the other?
The culture will be different at each school, because the cities are different. But what we won’t compromise on is admissions standards. We aren’t thinking about these schools as existing in two different tiers.
If an applicant is accepted to Fullstack Academy, are they now also accepted to The Starter League and vice versa?
David: Yes, they’ll be one and the same. Applicants apply to Grace Hopper Academy, The Starter League, and Fullstack Academy, and decide which is the best fit. We want to work with all students we believe in and can drive outcomes for.
Neal: I also strongly believe that there’s a large part of The Starter League community that can now re-up. We have so many repeat alumni, and with this Fullstack Academy enhancement, they’ll take people to the next level. We’ve exposed so many beginners to UX, Front-End, BackEnd, etc, and with over 1500 alumni, a lot of those students may find Fullstack Academy tracks really attractive. I anticipate a lot of repeat students going even further as developers now.
Will alumni have access to job placement services in both NY and Chicago?
Nimit: Yes, absolutely. That’s a natural benefit from expanding to multiple cities.
David: I’m always excited when Fullstack Academy graduates hire each other. I’ll be so excited to see a Fullstack Academy grad hire a Starter League alum, and vice versa.
Neal: We’re at a place where there are businesses and entrepreneurs who are hiring coding bootcamp alumni from their schools; it’s an alumni connection, just like I went to Northwestern and have an affinity for Northwestern alumni. With this merger of brands, communities, and identities, it’s going to blow up that alumni network.
This sounds like a solid plan, but what’s been the biggest lesson learned in merging two bootcamps?
Neal: From my perspective, it’s obviously a challenge to get a deal done when we’re in different cities and both trying to build and grow our own businesses. The other challenge is getting certified to operate in new cities. Dealing with the licensure and operation processes was an important part of this acquisition, which any bootcamp founder will have to resolve when they expand. On top of that, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is making sure that values are aligned. You’ll find that the details are just the same as any other business deal, but making sure you have a culture and value fit is crucial; we can’t just hand off The Starter League in a hollow deal. This is a real partnership, so making sure that stays intact was a huge lesson, and I couldn’t be more excited to work with David and Nimit. This is not just another acquisition. The offering we’ll be able to provide through this partnership is unlike anything we’ve seen.
David: Another lesson we learned was that a lot of coding bootcamps look similar from the outside, but internally, they’re very different machines. Every time we talk to another founder, it’s clear that there are different innovations happening within each school.
Are you revealing the terms of the deal?
Nope, we’re not disclosing specifics, but we’re all happy.
I remember when Kaplan reached out to us (to be clear, there were initial calls but never a hard offer on the table), but I chose not to continue that conversation because we still had to figure out what The Starter League’s identity should become in Chicago. We stuck to our values and our mission, and now we get to partner with a team of people who truly get us.
Any major changes to either school that we’re missing as part of this news?
David: We’re just so excited to expand outside of NYC. We look at how other schools scale in this space, and we know we have to get it right. I don’t think there are bad players out there, but it’s easy to take a wrong turn, and we think this is a great move for us and for the industry. From an industry perspective, we’re in a stage of consolidation of strong players. That’s a good thing for this space, because it’s becoming clearer who the high quality players are.