On Wednesday, Zach Sims, founder of education startup Codecademy, spoke atY Combinator’s Startup Schoolto a crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs. He talked about his hilarious journey from being an aspiring inventor at the age of 13 to creating a website that teaches 24 million students from all over the world how to code.
Sims noted that people love sharing the story about how he and his cofounder, Ryan Bubinski, built the product for Codecademy a few weeks before Demo Day at Y Combinator and still found dramatic success. However, he told the audience it wasn’t nearly as easy as it appeared, and shared the numerous challenges he faced.
Here are some of the fun stories behind how Sims taught the world how to code, and the lessons we can learn from them:
Take advantage of the internet, because it levels the playing field.
In 2003, when the iTunes music store started to gain popularity, Sims emailed manufacturers with his idea to build a waterproof iPod case. He didn’t tell them that he was 13 years old at the time and had no idea what he was talking about.
Still, Sims managed to build the iPod case. For the first time, he held something in his hands that had morphed from an idea into a tangible product. What Sims learned from this experience was that being young, or living in a city other than New York or San Francisco, didn’t matter on the internet.
It didn’t matter that Sims never built hardware or that he didn’t know what marketing was. Instead, the internet allowed him to learn these things very quickly and to build something out of that.
Show up for opportunities, even if nobody else does.
When Sims saw a poster advertising a talk at Columbia University from Sam Lessin at Drop.io, he showed up two hours early for the event. Sims recalls, “I thought it was going to be a packed house, but when I got there it was in a small room. Lessin showed up — and nobody else did.”
In 2008, nobody in the city seemed to be interested in startups. Still, Sims stayed for the entire talk and pestered Lessin for six months afterward, until Lessin let Sims work under him for free. That summer, Sims learned everything he could from Lessin, which gave him a strong foundation to enter the tech world.
Think of things in terms of what you can learn from them.
Since many of Sims’ peers were interested in banking and consulting, Sims decided to try a few interviews as well. But as he sat across managing directors of large firms, he realised there was absolutely nothing he wanted to learn from them.
He recalls: “I sat there and regurgitated discounted cash flow functions, and even doing that in an interview was massively painful. If that was going to be my life for 18 hours a day for two years, I should find something else to do.” Sims understood that those fields were not where the real learning would take place for him, and he wanted to optimise everything he did for his personal education and growth.
Find a front row seat on a rocket ship.
When Sims went to TechCrunch Disrupt, he saw two of his friends demoing something called GroupMe. Sims thought this was a highly innovative idea and decided to join the team. GroupMe was like a rocket ship in the sense that it was taking off so quickly, and Sims found it to be an invaluable learning experience. He watched as GroupMe grew from a team of two people to 20 and then was sold to Skype less than a year afterward.
Solve your own problems.
Sims’ friends created GroupMe when they attended a music festival the week before and got lost because they couldn’t easily text their friend group. A week later, they decided to build a product that solved their own communication problem, and it ended up being useful for thousands of other people as well.
Sims got the idea for Codecademy when he tried to learn how to code from books and realised the knowledge never clicked with him. He knew the best way to learn was by working on real projects and building real things. As a result, he integrated this experience into Codecademy, so people could learn by doing.
Since Sims himself didn’t know how to program, he was patient zero for the product. He recalls, “If I could learn how to program well from Codecademy, that means a lot of other people could learn from it, too.” Although many of his previous ideas didn’t work out, what was different about Codecademy was that they were building it for Sims. Sims says, “It’s much easier to build for yourself. You know what works and what doesn’t.”
There’s no excuse not to get started.
As a political science major, Sims quickly realised that the skills he learned for the past two and a half years at Columbia weren’t relevant to what mattered in the job market. He watched as all his friends struggled to find jobs because the things they learned weren’t immediately practical.
Sims immediately seized upon this opportunity and realised he wanted to fix the gap between education and employment. Though Sims and Bubinski could have easily made excuses, they got started immediately. Their first idea, Comerecruitus, was “the dumbest thing people had ever heard” — but because they started early, they had a chance to recover and look for more ideas.
Don’t be afraid to have stupid ideas.
When they first applied to Y Combinator, Sims and Bubinski were criticised for having “too many words and not enough information.” They had no idea what they were building, but they weren’t afraid to apply anyway.
As if through a miracle, Sims and Bubinski were accepted at Y Combinator, and came up with tons of ridiculous ideas, such as creating a Customer Relationship Management system for club promoters. Sims says, “If you spun a jackpot wheel, you wouldn’t get anything as crazy as what we came up with.”
In fact, Paul Graham called them the “smartest two with the worst ideas.” Still, they persisted with the philosophy that if nobody else thinks they’re good, at least someone will think they’re crazy. With the first version of Codecademy, people to told them that they should feel embarrassed. Sims and Bubinski realised that even though they initially didn’t know what they were doing, they would never learn unless they tried.
Startups are a rollercoaster.
When Sims and Bubinski were accepted into Y Combinator, they thought success was a sure thing. Two weeks later, they realised they didn’t have any ideas. They ended up returning to their original idea of helping people find jobs and finally figured out the right implementation. It ended up being a long period of ups and downs.
When Codecademy was first featured on Techcrunch, it got extremely popular. Yet a few months later, they hit the “trough of sorrow where everything was miserable” because nothing else was bringing traffic to their site. As a result, Sims had to go back and find more people to join the team. He ended up interviewing 100 people before hiring the first person, which was extremely frustrating for him. Sims grew to understand that the startup experience is always a wild ride, and that he needed to adapt.
It pays to be a cockroach.
Sims advises, “Don’t stop, don’t die — even if everyone along the way tries to kill you.” His friends initially thought startups were dumb, especially his ideas. At Columbia, Sims was often ridiculed for his interest in the tech world and had nobody to talk to about his excitement. Sims soon realised it pays not to quit.
Now, Sims’ product affects millions of people. Codecademy helps equip people with the skills they need to find a job in the 21st century, and it’s helping bridge the employment and education gap that Sims wanted to fix all along.
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