Photo: Daniel Goodman / Business Insider
Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski met while working for Columbia’s college’s newspaper.Then a freshman and sophomore respectively, the two became fast friends. A few years later they began discussing business ideas and launched a learning network to connect students with other student teachers.
Sims and Bubinski took their learning community idea to Paul Graham at Y Combinator. But while they were there, they ran into a persistent problem. Bubinski was a superior developer to Sims and Sims couldn’t find good online resources to help him catch up.
The startup immediately attracted attention. It went live on August 18; by August 23 it had more than 200,000 users.
Investors were all too eager to throw money at Sims and Bubinski. The pair raised a $2.5 million seed round from top New York investment firm Union Square Ventures with participation from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Josh Kushner’s Thrive Capital, SV Angel and Mike Arrington’s CrunchFund.
Codecademy had a big start to 2012 too. It launched CodeYear, an New Years resolution initiative that encouraged people to learn to code.
The campaign went viral and about 200,000 made the pledge, including big names like Michael Bloomberg, within the first week.
We caught up with the young founders—Sims is 21 and Bubinski is 22—who told us what it was like founding Codecademy, and what we can expect next.
Business Insider: Did you know you wanted to work on a startup together right away?
Ryan Bubinski: We were definitely friends for a few years before startups even really crossed my mind. While I was at Columbia I got together with some of my developer friends and we started an organisation that allowed any student to teach a topic to another student.
We called it the Application Development Initiative. It took care of all of the details of renting a room, advertising the event and providing knowledge share between students and presenters.
Zach and I worked together on that and that ultimately grew into a much bigger organisation that now hosts workshops and weekly development conferences.The organisation tries to build out the developer community at Columbia and give it a cohesive core.
That was around 2009, 2010. How soon after did you apply to Y combinator? Was that the idea you presented to Paul Graham?
Zach Sims: We were always fascinated with connecting people based on their skills and with helping people learn skills.
So we applied to YC with a way for programmers to prove how knowledgeable they were to employers by taking quizzes and evaluations.
When did the idea for Codecademy really come together?
ZS: Towards the middle of the summer it hit us that we would be better off solving a problem we were facing—and a problem we were really passionate about—which is how to create more developers.
ZS: We thought about what we would have wanted, like what Ryan would have wanted when he was teaching and then what I would have wanted when I was learning. We wanted to motivate people and get them hooked so they learned for the sake of learning. Users can tweet when they get badges for lessons or say they just learned to code.
So the gaming part is really just something to get people interested and get them learning as well.
Were users and investors interested right after your Demo Day presentation?
ZS: Yeah right after YC we had pretty explicit interest right out of the gate and so we were fortunate that a lot of the investors we talked to understood what we were doing relatively quickly.
We were actually very surprised by that initial traction and most of it was the result of Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth.
I think Codecademy has now been used in every country. Google Analytics says we’re in 200 countries and I think there were only 192 countries last time I looked at the United Nation’s list so …
What was it like when you were trying to choose investors?
ZS: We wanted to work with people we liked in addition to investors who really understood what we were doing and could cut through the numbers to actually be interested in our business.
Why did you move Codecademy back to NY?
ZS: The two of us were from New York. Our professional networks and relationships were all in New York so we thought it would be just as good of a place to build a company as the Valley.
Were you always interested in entrepreneurship growing up?RB: I came to Columbia with pretty clear intentions of going to graduate school. Over those four years I realised I wanted to spend my time building things and less so studying theoretical concepts.
My dad used to sell computers so I was always around them, tinkering with them. I tried to pick up computer programming a few times unsuccessfully before finding my core motivation.
I didn’t really seriously pick up programming until I was 15 when I got into web development which allowed me to share the things that I was creating, and that was an incredible motivator. I’ve continued working on it and learning up until this day.
ZS: I have always been interested in starting my own stuff. I have been doing it for a while. I started my own blog when i was in 6th or 7th grade and sold advertising. I wrote for a few blogs in high school and interviewed entrepreneurs. Then I worked for Groupme when i was in college so i had always sort of been in this industry.
Did watching GroupMe take off as an early employee and land an ~$80 million exit make you eager to start Codecademy?
ZS: Yeah, I think [my passion for entrepreneurship] started before that but it was definitely cool to watch a startup from its inception to getting bought. Being a part of that process has been really helpful running this company. We know better what to do and what not to do based on the GroupMe experience.
Do you guys have a mobile app or is Codecademy just on the web?
ZS: It is just on the web.
Is that changing?
ZS: No comment.
CodeYear basically doubled your users. What happened there?
ZS: We figured people make New Years resolutions and they usually don’t follow through with them; they aren’t necessarily impactful in their lives. We wanted to do something where people learn and give themselves a year to do it. Not just a pledge but a way to carry through. It was a huge success.
How many lessons are in the data base now?
ZS: Lessons have been user generated since early January and about 30 or 40 lessons have been published. Internally we are working on a much larger number than that.
A similar education company, ShowMe, has 1.4 million lessons.
ZS: Ours are courses. Different terminology. I am describing the number of courses and the majority of those are user-generated.
ZS: They are looking good.
We last reported that Codecademy had 1 million users in January. Can we assume that that number has doubled?
ZS: We can say that that number has increased.
Are most of the users daily active users or do they complete their lessons and then go on their way?
ZS: We are sending out new lessons every week so we usually see people come, finish their lessons, and return for new content. We see people engaging in different ways so we try to cater to whatever type of progress they want to make.
The CodeYear program is in increments so we move people on to different sections as courses are completed. We have noticed that a large number of users have their own unique pace. Some go through the courses at a rapid pace, others are slightly slower.
When most people learn to code, they often do so with an idea in mind of what they want to build. Would you ever do “Learn To Build A Blog” or “Learn To Create An eCommerce Site” courses?
ZS: What we’ve been doing recently is putting a lot more emphasis on projects like those. A project is where someone builds something specific, like an address book or a cash register. We will definitely get more practical over time as well.
ZS: More courses. We are trying different languages and just launched HTML/CSS. We’re working on really making a better experience for users. We launched a Q&A in early December or early January — questions for people who are confused and we have a glossary. We also added the course creator for any user to submit a lesson so there will be a lot more of that kind of stuff.
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