If there is a prototype method for building a tech start-up, this is it: A business- and tech-savvy student meets a whiz-kid programmer. They get into an incubator, rent a house in Silicon Valley, and code for 18 hours a day, all summer. They eat ramen. They aim to solve big problems.
This is exactly how Codecademy came into existence.
Only there was a hitch. Well, two.
One of the founders, Zach Sims, regardless of how many nights he stayed up late reading manuals and watching instructional videos, couldn't keep up with the programming. The other founder, Ryan Bubinski, longed for his days at Columbia University, where he taught programming and evangelized the importance of learning to code through a student group he had founded called the Application Development Initiative.
"We wanted to solve our own problem. We wanted to build something that I would like learning from, and that Ryan would like teaching through," Sims said.
The pair took the framework they had built for a skill-discovery and job-matching website--designed to meet the needs of recent grads struggling to find jobs--and focused on building a site featuring simple lessons on programming basics.
They launched Codecademy.com in three weeks from that "aha" moment, and, with no marketing, gained 200,000 users over the course of that weekend at the end of August 2011. It is free to use the site's interactive lessons, which begin the moment one lands on the site and answers its request to type one's name in quotation marks. Next, find its length by typing "YourName".length. Huzzah: You're typing a whole new language.
By the end of 2011, the site had more than a million users. In January, Codecademy launched Code Year, a free weekly email and lesson plan. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would learn to code and tweeted that he had signed up for Code Year. Close to half a million other people signed up, too.
Although the site is meant to be most useful to job seekers looking to beef up their skill sets, the facts that Bloomberg has signed on to Codecademy and the White House has partnered with the site for a learning initiative are signals Bubinski's line of thinking is becoming mainstream. He said, "A familiarity with programming is absolutely vital to everyone's role in this information economy, and that it should be universally accessible, and not something that can be conquered or understood by a select few."
The company is still in investment phase. It received $2.5 million in venture capital from Union Square Ventures, among others, in October, and brought in a Series B of $10 million more in June. The team of is working out of an AOL incubator space near New York University's campus. But the founders have solid visions of monetization. Revenue is most likely to come from turning Codecademy students into employable programmers. With software engineers in high demand and headhunters earning $15,000 to $30,000 on signing, it's a marketplace crying out for disruption.
"What I would say is, developers are eminently monetizable as the most sought-after group of employees now," Sims said. "We'll find them find better opportunities. That's the logic behind a lot of what we're doing."