Sometimes it makes more economic sense to learn something yourself than to hire someone to do it for you.
That’s the premise behind Starter School, the web development and entrepreneurship program by Neal Sales-Griffin, who made his name with The Starter League and Code Academy programs.
A graduate degree “is less efficient and less catered towards your unique goal” if your eye is on a tech startup, Sales-Griffin said, “and the outsourcing makes you beholden to someone who’s far less committed to the success of your idea.”
Sales-Griffin and business partner Mike McGee launched Starter School classes in September, taking a holistic approach to web development and entrepreneurship and offering teaching by Jason Fried, Amanda Lannert, Harper Reed and many other Chicago tech standouts. By the end of the nine-month program, students “will ship a product and be armed with a skillset that will enable you to start your own company or get a great job,” according to the school’s website.
Starter School costs $36,000 and offers no degree.
The founders contend that that’s about the going rate for someone to prototype a web app. And once they learn the skills, students will be able to tweak their own software, for free — or just abandon it and start something else.
“Once opportunity costs (of hiring a developer) are considered, to me, it’s a no-brainer,” Sales-Griffin said.
Starter School adds the business-skills component, plus start-to-finish product development and back-end functioning via Ruby on Rails.
Sales-Griffin, 26, a Kenwood native and
Northwestern University graduate, says he and McGee, 25, from Freeport, are trying to capitalize on students’ desire to run their own businesses. Some of their target students would identify more with software culture, but others they’d like to sway into their program are in business school — or considering it.
Starter School, which Sales-Griffin says received some seed money from Chicago development house 37signals, is about a month into its first term, with 23 students. Its teachers include those from The Starter League, which counts 723 graduates of its programs, McGee said. Starter School meets at 1871, the co-working space in the
Abby Raskin, a Chicago native, says she quit her job at a
Manhattan-based nonprofit in March to learn code in a Starter League course. After one three-month class, she said, she landed a job as a business analyst and designer with a West Loop mobile-app team.
She said the course was maybe more difficult than she thought it would be.
“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Raskin said. “But there are people who cannot function unless they have a way to start something, to solve a problem that’s meaningful to them.” She’s still massaging an idea she cultivated in The Starter League: an easy way to distribute the food routinely wasted by restaurants and grocery stores.
At Starter School, students learn in three phases — web development and entrepreneurship; design of user interfaces; and a final phase in which the student unites all abilities “in order to ship a web application that you care about,” its website says.
The federal government won’t back loans to attend Starter School, since it hasn’t sought accreditation. The school’s website says “not being accredited has enabled us to be agile and flexible so we can easily improve our program without bureaucracy.”
Starter School is a for-profit business, a fraught term considering criticism that many for-profit schools offer poor value and saddle graduates with higher debt and lower-paying jobs than their traditional, non-profit counterparts.
But Starter School will be hard to measure under traditional terms such as salary after graduation. If their school’s a success, the founders say, it will produce entrepreneurs, who often don’t make much money starting out.
McGee offered anecdotal data, naming five tech startups for which alumni of The Starter League now work (including Belly, SimpleRelevance and PrettyQuick). He also cited more than 20 startups founded by alumni (like WeDeliver, Project Travel and LaunchPad Lab). But he hasn’t tracked alumni participation as a whole in the tech sector.
“Most of our students are complete beginners,” McGee wrote recently in an e-mail about alumni of The Starter League. “Our focus is three, five, 10 years from now when our alumni have gained more experience (and) had a chance to learn more skills and build their own companies.”