4% of bootcampers learn to code in order to start their own business, and that includes Adam Kornfield– the CTO and co-founder of Baron Fig, a notebook company for thinkers. He chose to attend TurnToTech’s mobile development bootcamp in NYC, where he spent 3.5 days a week for 4.5 months learning the tech skills needed to build a mobile app for Baron Fig. Adam has a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering, yet his professional career was all about finances on Wall Street, so we chat about how he made the transition, the flexibility of TurnToTech, and how he’s using his new mobile development skills!
Tell us how your career in finance led to founding a company before TurnToTech.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to start a company, but I never knew what or how. I started making websites for local companies in high school, selling baseball cards, all sorts of things.
In college, I studied Business and Computer Science/Computer Engineering, which was interesting to me. Then I got a Master's in Computer Engineering. When I graduated, I didn't really want to work in a technical job. I wanted to go to Wall Street, so I took that track and worked as an analyst for a hedge fund. It worked out well because I had knowledge in both engineering and business, and both of those fields have their own mindsets and points of view. I worked in finance for seven years and really liked it because it was very intellectually stimulating, very interesting, and the pay was good.
What led you to get out of finance and into entrepreneurship?
I didn't feel like I was actually making anything. There were no tangible results of my efforts other than numbers on a screen.
During that time, I was very involved in Toastmasters, an international public speaking organization. I was the president of my local chapter for a year and one of the guys in the club invited me to a weekly startup entrepreneur meetup. I met Joey Cofone at the meetup, who is a friend of a friend (and now my business partner), when he was a freshman at the School of Visual Arts. We worked together on some small projects, and then he had an idea. He observed at Art School that everyone uses the same MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, but there was no standard in paper notebooks. There was an opportunity to make something better.
So we spent about six months in 2013 planning out our Confidant Hardcover Notebook for our company, Baron Fig. We raised over $160,000 in a 30-day Kickstarter campaign, which was a good start. In early 2014, we launched the full business, I left my job, and since then we've been very busy making new stationery products and new tools for thinkers.
So how did TurnToTech fit in that story? Since Baron Fig is a company selling physical products, why did you feel you needed to learn additional tech skills?
Good question. Thinkers don't just think in the paper notebook; they also want something digital. So we came out with two apps – a note taking app and a creative inspiration app – to complement our physical products.
I was really hacking my way through development (and not in a good way) to come up with new features. Everything I did was such a struggle and so difficult to learn. I looked at other apps for help because I really had no idea how they were doing it. I didn't have a good foundational knowledge of iOS development.
We tried to hire outside developers, but no one cared as much about our product and our apps as we did. After six months, it became clear that an intensive coding bootcamp would be a good idea. Joey is a very talented graphic designer, and product designer, and if I could actually build the digital products, then between the two of us, we could get a lot done.
What stood out about TurnToTech that convinced you to choose their bootcamp?
I was looking around on Course Report and Google for a mobile, specifically iOS, bootcamp. I found there were surprisingly few mobile iOS bootcamps around the country. Our studio is in New York, so I knew that staying in New York would make things substantially easier. I talked to half a dozen camps including Flatiron, General Assembly, and TurnToTech.
I really wanted to do most of my education in Swift – it had struck Joey and me that Swift was the way of the future. My goal was to probably spend 70-80% of my time building Swift projects, and then the remaining 20% or so on Objective-C, because I knew I had to be relatively proficient in it.
The other important factor to me was the time schedule. Most coding bootcamps are full-time, Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm. I couldn't commit to a full-time program because we had to run our business. TurnToTech is a self-directed program, which for me was fabulous. I absolutely loved it. I explained up front to Teddy and Oren, and the staff there, that I couldn’t be here every day.
I was very impressed with TurnToTech’s flexibility in how I could learn. I was one of their first full-time Swift students, and they were very interested in working with me. I liked their attitude, their style, and their message that they were excited to see students learn and grow.
Most coding bootcampers get jobs as junior developers when they graduate. Were you upfront with TurnToTech about starting a business?
Yeah. The minute I walked in the door, I showed them Baron Fig notebooks and told them about our plans for making note taking apps. I was upfront and asked, “are you guys interested in having me as a student?” I realized I wasn’t the traditional student, the person who just quit their job to do a career change, but I had my own needs and they got it. I felt comfortable right away, like we were on the same page.
What was the application and interview process like for you? Was there a coding challenge? Do you have any tips for our readers interested in TurnToTech?
It was pretty straightforward. I had already released one very basic app in the App Store. So I showed them that, discussed my experience, told them about some challenges I had with the code, what was good and bad, and that was basically my coding challenge. They make sure students are there for the right reasons, and that you are willing to work hard.
Do you feel like your learning experience at TurnToTech was tailored to your goals, even though you’re different than the typical student?
Yeah, absolutely. Choosing to learn mostly Swift was certainly no problem. It was all accepted out of the gate. So in the sense of learning the Swift, yes.
Also, Baron Fig as a company is very graphically intensive – our company, our brand – you can see that from our website and products. So I wanted to spend additional time on the way things looked and felt. I would spend a lot of time on “how can I add custom fonts? How can I round the corners? How can I work on animation? How can I draw?” And TurnToTech was very open to it.
There were some projects that I could tell would be more useful for me, so I’d spend more time asking the TurnToTech team more questions. I give them credit for dealing with all my questions- because I had a lot.
Tell us about the curriculum and teaching structure of TurnToTech.
Their curriculum is a series of projects that you primarily work through individually. The biggest difference I've seen between their curriculum and other coding bootcamps I've heard about, is its self-directed nature. At first, I was thrown off. Why would I want to go and sit by myself and work through projects? Why can't I just do that at home? But instead of sitting in lecture all day and then going home and doing homework, you basically do your homework and your projects during the day, with instructors and TAs there to help you.
I found a balance between going to an instructor too often when you get stuck, but also not waiting too long. You really want to challenge yourself, and push hard. Sometimes you're just not going to get a concept, and that's the time to say, "Hey, what do I not understand here? What's not working?" That’s when the answers are that much more valuable.
There are a good amount of lectures mixed into the program. They encourage you to go to a lot of meetups. New York is obviously a fantastic place for meeting other developers and learning as I really liked the curriculum. And the days that I was doing something else, where Baron Fig had meetings and I wasn't there, it didn't put me at a disadvantage.
What did you think of the TurnToTech teaching style- it sounds a bit different!
As I spent some time thinking about it, I realized that this is a significantly better way of learning because that's what will happen once I graduate – I’ll be working on projects by myself. I need to learn how to become resourceful, how to look things up, how to get answers, how to interpret instructions, and how to work hard at it.
I was very impressed with the curriculum. It didn't take a lot to understand how it fits together. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time on C programming. I did two weeks or so of Objective-C, and then got into actual projects. There is a lot of reading, whether it's Apple documentation or other sites. I remember thinking, “why am I paying to read Apple documentation?” But now I'm doing things on my own, I’ve realized how important that was; Apple documentation is a do or die.
What about your cohort? Did you have interactions with your cohort?
It's not necessarily a cohort. People start when they're ready to start since it's more of a self-directed basis. But it's actually a good thing because there are more experienced students ahead of you, and then once you're there for a while there are people who are newer than you. The people that are ahead can answer your questions. But conversely, you can also be a mentor or teacher yourself to the people who are newer and have questions. Having to formulate your answers forces you to think harder about it and actually helps teach yourself and clarify your own understanding.
Did you feel like you asked for help more from your classmates or from instructors?
I probably used the instructors more because if I had a problem, an instructor would get to the heart of the problem as quickly as possible. The instructor with a lot of experience is going to help you get there faster. Occasionally I'd ask other students.
One of best things about TurnToTech was the diversity of approaches to problems. I was curious, and sometimes I did things the wrong way, so I'd ask other students if I could look over their shoulder at what they're doing.
What was the general student:teacher ratio?
There were three instructors, and 3-5 TAs, depending on the day and the time. I think there were between 25 to 30 students in the classroom.
Were you able to work on Baron Fig projects, or did you have to work on TurnToTech projects?
No, I worked on TurnToTech projects. One instructor told me, "Don't go wandering off on your own path just because you want to do your own thing. We set up the curriculum in a certain way." I definitely took that to heart, and I would not recommend trying to work on your own project while you're doing the curriculum. The curriculum slowly introduces you to a lot of concepts one at a time and it's well thought out. You're paying to learn curriculum that TurnToTech has thought through over three years, so focus on that.
One of the first actual iOS projects is like a digital leash. You have a child and a parent leash, and you have to detect the location with GPS and then communicate with the server to find out where the child is. You learn about third party integration with Google Maps and how to connect with Facebook.
Now that you’ve graduated, can you see that what you learned at TurnToTech has improved the Baron Fig product?
I did spend more time on aspects of projects that I knew would be important for the future of Baron Fig. For example, setting up a server using Swift on the back end and setting up Amazon Web Server instance and deploying it.
My favorite project at TurnToTech was also probably the most difficult. It is a Goliath of a project called Nav Control that uses all of the fundamental building blocks of iOS – table views, segues between view controllers, buttons, and using different states.
Was it fun? No. But when I started working on an app for Baron Fig, it was shocking how many similarities there were between that project and actually putting a real app live in the App Store. It was excellent preparation.
As an entrepreneur, are you glad you made the decision to attend TurnToTech?
Yeah, absolutely. TurnToTech teaches you the basics. They get you started, and teach you how to learn, which is the most important thing. They can't teach you everything in four months, so I've had to learn a ton of things afterwards that are specific to Baron Fig. TurnToTech teaches you the building blocks of almost every app you’ll make. I think TurnToTech does a great job of teaching you the fundamentals and then you can teach yourself.
How do you spend most of your time now as a CTO of Baron Fig? How large is your dev team? What does a typical day look like?
Our business is very diverse; we make notebooks, planners, pens, and pencils. We fulfill corporate projects for custom notebooks, but we’re also in 60-70 independent bookstores around the country.
My time is split in a lot of ways, and that's a challenge. Partly, I’m actually sitting down writing code. Then I also help our COO with the production side of the business. I talk with my partner Joey about our product release schedule, strategy, our new email that's coming out, and testing our website. I also deal with our finances, trademarks, etc.
We're continuing to work on a note taking app, which takes a chunk of my time and we have a web developer here who I work with on new features for the website.
How do you stay involved with TurnToTech? Do you mentor other entrepreneurs?
Yeah. I really like their involvement with community and hosting events, bringing speakers in. I've been to a few meetups in their classroom, and it's really helpful to go and talk to people and see what they're saying, what can I learn. They've got a community message pool where they send lots of events and happenings going on in New York. That's very helpful.
There are also a handful of alumni with whom I keep in touch who are all helpful. We are all working on difficult problems so it's useful getting feedback from others.
Since I’ve graduated, I’ve learned that it's very important to build your network of resources, which include the graduates of your coding program and instructors, but also your community at large. I've been to a lot of meetups here in New York, and people are generally happy to help.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who are considering a coding bootcamp? Would you suggest it?
If you're serious about starting a business and you really want to build your own app, then a coding bootcamp is the best way to do it. You could hire other developers, but they're not going to care as much as you do. Plus, they’ll be way more expensive than doing it yourself. If you want to do things right, and actually get them done, do it yourself. Then in the future, you can hire other people once the business starts working.
A coding bootcamp also teaches you to speak the same language with other developers. As a business, it’s helpful to cultivate a strong culture, and if your plan is to hire a technical team, then that’s really important.
But be prepared: it's difficult. If you're running a business at the same time you're doing the coding bootcamp, it's hard. I was lucky to have a partner, but it's a strain on everyone, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.
The most important thing by far is discipline. Continue to work through problems, make sure you understand it. If you're not learning it, figure out ways to learn it. Whether that's asking a classmate or an instructor or researching on your own. Push yourself and work hard.