In today's Graduate Spotlight, we talk with Ricky about his passion for socks, why DC is the perfect town for a consumer-facing startup, and how his Dev Bootcamp education is integral to Nice Laundry's success.
What were you doing before you attended Dev Bootcamp?
Phil and I were both at LivingSocial, I ran Social Media there and Phil was on the Brand team.
What was your technical background before applying? What sparked your interest in programming?
Nothing other than some light HTML and CSS, and VBA in Excel. Phil and I wanted to do our own thing, and whether that thing was an app or e-commerce, it needed to be tech-enabled at a minimum. We had a lot of ideas, and we would get all the way up to the build phase, but finding technical talent is very difficult, especially in DC. You can go down the agency route or find someone overseas, but there’s a lot of complexities and expenses that get introduced into the dynamic when you go with those options. We were then interested in looking for a technical cofounder, but that’s difficult as well. So we’re two guys who believe if you chop your own wood, you’ll warm yourself twice. We thought, “Screw it, let’s go learn it ourselves.”
Which bootcamps did you apply to? Why did you ultimately choose DBC?
At the time, there was basically just Dev Bootcamp, one of the originals using this immersive model. Flatiron School was just starting up- they were starting to take applications for their first class by the time we had been admitted to Dev Bootcamp. Also, not that location is the most important thing, but I think a lot of people appreciate that Dev Bootcamp is located adjacent to Silicon Valley, and if you’re looking for a job then it definitely helps to be near those companies for interviews and networking.
Did you and Phil decide on the Nice Laundry concept before attending dev bootcamp?
I started working at LS in early 2011, at which point I met Phil. I had always been a sock guy, having 150-200 pairs of socks in rotation at any time.
Where do you even store 150 pairs of socks?
You can fit a surprising amount of socks in a very big drawer. I hate doing laundry.
So I met Phil, and he’s clearly a guy who cares about how he looks, but every day he would wear these ratty, white Adidas gym socks. Gym socks, black dress shoes? It’s not the look he was going for. So as soon as I felt I knew him well enough, I suggested he try out a pair of these colorful, funky socks. He paid $20, plus shipping for one pair online and the next day, he got some compliments at work and was feeling great. But then the next morning, he was greeted by the same sea of grey, ratty gym socks. He was bitten by the bug and wanted to refresh his sock drawer, but that proved to be a very time-consuming and expensive proposition. We looked at each other and decided there must be a better way to do this. People want to buy high-quality and very reasonably priced socks. So it was an idea that we had when we went to Dev Bootcamp, but we weren’t necessarily set on it.
Did you and Phil apply to Dev Bootcamp together? I’m imagining a Stepbrothers-esque interview scene.
We referenced each other on our applications and brought each other up in the interview, but we didn’t try to apply as a ‘package deal.’
What kinds of students were in your cohort? Did you find diversity in the group?
We had a broad mix of people- some coming out of school, some working in startups. We had one person who worked in retail. The unifying factor was that everyone was super hungry. One thing that people may not understand about these programs is that the instructors are great, but at the end of the day, they’re not sitting next to you every hour of every day. Dev Bootcamp has a great instructor to student ratio, but they can’t be with you at all hours. The true benefit is that you’re surrounded by 40-45 (the cohorts are smaller now) people who are super motivated. When you run into a problem, there’s most likely someone sitting next to you who solved that problem an hour ago.
Can you teach yourself how to code by yourself with online tutorials and books? Sure, but without the other students, you’re not going to be able to push yourself as hard. There is some level of peer pressure, also, to know all of the material. When you get paired with someone, you don’t want to be the guy holding the group back. That pressure is essential.
Did any students find that the program wasn't for them and choose not to finish?
We had one person who was asked to leave, not for a lack of trying, but she had a lot of other things going on at the time. I believe she came back for a later cohort and finished.
What kind of person would you recommend attend a coding bootcamp? What kind of person won't succeed?
What separates someone who will get the full experience out of Dev Bootcamp from someone who won’t is how quickly you can iterate and figure out a new strategy. There’s only so much time you have in your weeks there, you don’t want to spend 4 hours figuring out a bug.
The immersive experience is what you make of it. Just because you show up and put the hours in, doesn’t mean you’ll get out. The biggest challenge that these programs have, I think, is having some level of consistency, especially if their goal is to send graduates to jobs. Now, the program has changed and there have been some additional guardrails to account for this issue, but when we graduated, there was a very wide discrepancy of skill. So for an employer, it’s difficult to not have other metrics to evaluate an entry-level programmer. For example, if you get a Masters in CS from Stanford, you have additional layers of evaluation like GPA, professor referrals, side projects etc. But graduating for Dev Bootcamp you don’t necessarily have those metrics. Getting a consistent level of proficiency is the big challenge.
Was it important that Dev Bootcamp taught Ruby?
That’s a big question that people have- what language should I learn? It doesn’t matter. Pick the language that most of your friends or that your community knows. Washington, DC, especially given our LivingSocial background, is a Rails town. So having resources is very helpful, and for us, using Shopify (Shopify has it’s own language called Liquid, which operates very similarly to Rails) is very easy.
Did you complete a capstone project at the end of the program? What did you choose?
Yes, we worked in groups of five. We did a project called filters.io, which was actually mentioned in Venture Beat. The typical experience for a marketer using Instagram is not easy, so we essentially recreated the filtering portion of Instagram online.
Describe your experience after Dev Bootcamp- you obviously went on to work with Phil on Nice Laundry. How did you used your Dev Bootcamp skills in that venture?
We took an atypical route- we went into build-mode right away. Everything you see at nicelaundry.com today was built by things we learned at Dev Bootcamp. Everything from setting up the staging server, to the HTML and CSS on the front end, to custom things that make the site operate in the way that it does. We can confidently say that we have the most advanced cart that runs on the Shopify platform. Our cart is constantly listening to what the user is doing- adding or taking away from their cart- and in real-time, it calculates discounts based upon what’s in the cart. To me, it’s quite an advanced algorithm, and we were able to do that because of what we learned at Dev Bootcamp. Can Phil and I build an app that scales to 10 million people overnight? Probably not. But can we build a very well-functioning, high performance, optimized, e-commerce site? For sure.
Do you both do the dev work for the site?
Yep, we also have a buddy who went to Dev Bootcamp who helps us out as well. But we do all of the code in-house. I can’t stress how much of a game changer that is. For example, in e-commerce, tweaks can affect things like conversion rate- do we put a button here, do we change the language etc. Being able to test that in-house in 20 minutes instead of having to contact dev, wait for them to launch the test and give us feedback, has made us and saved us thousands and thousands of dollars. The most valuable thing of all is the time we save.
How do you think your experience with Nice Laundry would be different without Dev Bootcamp?
We wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are today. We were able to launch our site for free, we could set up things like our own email server without jumping through hoops, and that’s a boom to the business. Our medium is the internet, and being a developer for an e-commerce store is the same as owning and building out a brick-and-mortar store.
What’s next for Nice Laundry?
We’re still focused on socks! We’re focused on refreshing as many sock drawers as possible. We took a boring, everyday item and started to build a brand and awareness around it. We’d like to expand our product line within socks, so you can come to the site and build out your perfect sock drawer with every type of sock that you need and potentially get this on a subscription basis. So consumers can say, “This is my sock drawer, send it to me once a year.”
Why did you decide to come back to DC after Dev Bootcamp? What do you think is strong about DC for your business?
DC is a bit of an atypical town, but it’s our home and it’s what we’re familiar with. Especially in the beginning, when we were in build-mode, we didn’t want to think about moving to a new city. DC is a great town for a consumer-facing venture because it’s not a small city, so you still have some credibility and legitimacy. But when you’re doing something consumer-facing in DC, you stand out a lot. Compared to being in Silicon Valley or NY, we get a disproportionately high amount of attention and awareness being in DC. Also, DC has been a pretty traditionally boring fashion town, but I think it’s going through a renaissance right now. Socks are the new ties, people are looking at brighter colors and paying a little more attention to fashion. The days of the “Capitol Uniform” are starting to disappear. It’s a very exciting place to be in this perfect storm of factors that make us love DC.
So no plans to leave DC anytime soon?
No plans as of now!