Entrepreneurs live by their own code
Starter League co-founders have succeeded by making difficult choices
By Ellen Jean HirstTribune reporter
July 27, 2014
Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee faced tough choices in spring 2011: They could work for the president's re-election campaign, split up for different opportunities, or work on their 3-week-old startup idea.
Ultimately, the two men chose the last and riskiest option, co-founding Chicago-based coding and entrepreneurship school The Starter League.
The journey to that decision involved ignoring advice from business veterans, turning down the president — and persuading Sales-Griffin's dad to move out of his apartment so Sales-Griffin and McGee could work together day and night.
"We couldn't stop this idea," McGee said. "And we went for it."
During the past three years, graduates of their school have spawned several companies, including one that raised nearly $1 million in venture capital.
But unlike entrepreneurs who take their concept national, Sales-Griffin and McGee plan to keep their business small and local so they can maintain personal relationships with their students.
"The way we work well together is, we share the same belief," said Sales-Griffin, 26. That belief is that the world will be better if people can solve problems with code.
"Neither of us is that religious or anything, but if we had our own religion, we'd both be very strong believers in it."
Their startup was profitable from day one, a "ridiculously rare" accomplishment, said one of their mentors, Howard Tullman, who also is chief executive of Chicago tech incubator 1871. Though he questioned the co-founders' lack of desire to grow, eventually, after a heated argument or two, he finally understood: "You could see that this was half a business in a way and half sort of a mission."
The Starter League was one of the first companies to land space at 1871 when it opened at the Merchandise Mart in 2012. In March, The Starter League moved into new headquarters, at 30 N. Racine Ave. The co-founders declined to say just how profitable their company is, its revenue or its rate of growth.
Sales-Griffin and McGee's unique relationship — co-founders who work and live together — began in college. They met at Northwestern University, where McGee was student body president his senior year.
"I remember recommending him (for a committee) after all the candidates spoke," said McGee, 25, though he'd never met Sales-Griffin. "I could really tell that he cared about the right things."
The two sometimes worked in their student government offices until 3 or 4 a.m.
"I knew that on a bad day, Mike could work harder than me," said Sales-Griffin, who, in addition to attending classes and heading up Northwestern's student government, also put in three days a week at a venture capital firm.
Amanda Lannert, CEO of interactive marketing company Jellyvision and on The Starter League board, said the duo's enthusiasm entices people to want to work with them. Lannert, for example, said she agreed to teach at their school even though she said she barely had time for the meeting during which Sales-Griffin asked her to teach.
"(Sales-Griffin is) kind of a broad guy and his arms are out and he leans into the table … and you just do it," Lannert said. "All of a sudden you're agreeing to things you didn't know you would."
The two men could be seen as interchangeable; they often fill in for one another because of overcommitted schedules. Yet they have different skill sets. McGee has a knack for design and Sales-Griffin's forte is business development.
Sales-Griffin is a homebody and a workhorse, laboring nights and weekends.
"He cares about nothing except for what he's trying to do," said Jack Mallers, a recent school graduate. "No score of the football game, he doesn't care if he's hungry. … Nothing else matters."
McGee is a sports fanatic and highly competitive. When he makes announcements, he does so with animated, grand gestures. And he can recall the smallest details of his life with stunning clarity, as if he were recalling scenes from a movie.
Sales-Griffin clearly is the restless one of the two. Six months after he graduated in 2009, he landed a job with Chicago venture firm and startup incubator Sandbox Industries Inc. But one day he called up McGee: "'Hey, I'm going to quit my job and you should learn how to code with me so we can build startups.'"
Twenty seconds passed.
"It wasn't a hard sell," McGee recalled.
At least not to him.
Convincing Sales-Griffin's parents was another matter. They thought he was crazy.
Sales-Griffin asked his dad to move out of his apartment so he and McGee could spend the next year, working 12 hours or more a day, sometimes in their pajamas, teaching themselves how to build Web applications.
"My dad, he was like, 'This is stupid. What are you talking about?'" Sales-Griffin said. "My mom, same thing: 'No, don't do this. You've got a good job.'"
It took three days to persuade his dad to move out.
"My value proposition was: We will rent this place from you. You'll be our landlord and you can go get a nicer place," Sales-Griffin said. With that, he turned his childhood apartment into their new workspace.
The year turned into a swirl of frustration. While teaching themselves how to code, and sifting through about 100 startup ideas, none seemed like a good enough business concept.
Then, a passive suggestion from a friend helped crystallize the idea for The Starter League: If they were struggling so hard to learn code, wouldn't other would-be entrepreneurs also need help?
"The light bulb went off," Sales-Griffin recalled. "I thought, 'Yeah, duh! This is a huge problem. … We need a place to learn this stuff, why isn't there a place for us to learn how to do this?'"
There were complications, though. Sales-Griffin had already secured a one-way ticket to Uruguay after a Web development firm there offered to teach him how to code in exchange for help managing projects.
A few weeks later, Harper Reed, chief technology officer for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, came calling. He wanted Sales-Griffin and McGee to be project managers.
"They spent a lot of time thinking about it," Reed said.
But ultimately, they said no to both opportunities.
"I was like … this is the president," Reed said. "You can't do that … and of course, Neal didn't (care)."
McGee said it was a tough decision — he could picture the hundreds of "likes" and "shares" on Facebook if he went to work for the president.
"But then I was like, what about six months later?" McGee said. "Is this something that when you wake up on a random Tuesday that you want to do?"
Reed said McGee's and Sales-Griffin's willingness to say no is part of why they've been successful.
"It's not just that they say no," said Reed, who has acted as their mentor and serves on their board. "It's that they trust themselves. A lot of people say no, and they're just idiots. But Mike and Neal have this vision, and they're unwilling to sacrifice that vision."
During spring 2011, Sales-Griffin drove around Chicago with an iPad trying to convince anybody in the tech world who would listen that their idea was worth funding. That effort earned him "a lot of parking tickets," and after a frustrating runaround with venture capitalists, and watching their bank accounts dwindle to close to zero, they decided to go it alone, without capital funding. They would need students to pay tuition upfront to buy needed computers and to pay the rent.
"We were on State Street, we were waiting for the bus and we were just like, let's build this," McGee said. "Let's do it."
Even though they couldn't prove with "pretty charts and graphs" that there was demand for learning to code, Sales-Griffin and McGee knew it was there. They'd been to a lot of tech conventions where they'd heard people say they needed Web developers. That, they said, underscored the need for a coding school.
The original idea for the school was a nine-month program. The duo pivoted to a three-month model priced at $6,000 to test it out.
"We knew we could get people," McGee said. "We didn't know who they were, we didn't know what they looked like, but we knew they were out there."
Since The Starter League opened, dozens of coding schools have followed, along with a promise to churn out professional developers in as little as 10 to 12 weeks.
"It makes me laugh, because we really did just make that (stuff) up," McGee said. "Yeah, three months, quarter system, that could be enough time for someone to learn something. And now you see all these sites, 'Three months and you'll be a professional Web developer.'"
Paul Pagel, chief executive of 8th Light Inc., a software development company, said it's impossible to become a professional developer in 10 weeks. About one-third of apprentices who join his company are graduates of either The Starter League or rival coding school Dev Bootcamp.
McGee and Sales-Griffin aim to develop self-learners and quickly refocused on their original nine-month idea. They didn't want to churn out "screwdrivers," who knew how to code but not how to build businesses. They wanted to foster entrepreneurs.
Their first batch of students in the $36,000, nine-month Starter School program that teaches students how to code and design software and ultimately start their own businesses graduated in June.
Graduate Erinn Barr started a business called MakeHerSmile, a personalized gift-giving website for stumped boyfriends and husbands. Pete Albertson created a site to manage season tickets among friends as an alternative to sites like StubHub. Mallers opted to go to Starter School rather than traditional college and will continue working with Sales-Griffin on a Web application side project.
"I've really learned … that the world we live in was only built by people who are no smarter than you and I, and that we can build things," Mallers said. "We are the builders and designers of this world, and that whole point of view comes completely from Neal and Mike."
The decision to transition from a financially solid three-month model to a significantly riskier nine-month model had their mentors screaming about a year ago.
"I'm not sure who was yelling the most, but the thought was, 'We don't (care) if you don't want to run (the three-month model) anymore, you should hire people to run it. What are we missing?'" Tullman said.
"What we were missing was, that wasn't the business they wanted or intended to build," Tullman said.
Focus will be key, their mentors said.
"Part of the challenge about having this charisma is, opportunities galore come to them easily," Lannert said of the men who have, on several occasions, met with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and White House staff to talk about their ideas. "This school wants them to have a program, the governor wants them to do this, CPS wants them to do that. … Not doing too much is a challenge."
Sales-Griffin said the company, which has seven employees and several adjunct lecturers, is in "investment mode" after a big spike in revenue. He said he and McGee are using profits to bolster the nine-month Starter School, which begins its second year of classes in the fall.
Tullman predicts that Sales-Griffin and McGee will launch a couple of more businesses. "They can pretty much do whatever they want to pursue. I don't think they'll be going to work for anybody anytime soon."
McGee and Sales-Griffin agree that they won't be slowing down.
"I just look out at the world and think (about) how many people are out there with a far more challenging or difficult situation," Sales-Griffin said. "I owe it to those people … to put every last drop of blood, sweat and tears that I have into what I'm doing all the time."
Birthday: Aug. 10, 1988
High school mascot: A pretzel. "Our motto was, unofficially: 'You can eat us, but you can't beat us.'"
Favorite superhero: Batman
Ironic fact: One of the biggest hiccups in his campaign for student vice president at Northwestern University was the fact that no one knew how to build a website.
Favorite sport to play: Golf. He used to play an average of 54 holes each day during the summer.
Childhood: He grew up in Freeport, west of Rockford, but often visited an aunt in Hyde Park, near where Sales-Griffin grew up.
On getting started without venture capital funding: "(I'm) not going totally against capital. There are definitely some startups that need capital more than most, but the knee-jerk go-for-capital is not the smartest thing all the time."
Birthday: July 28, 1987
Childhood: He grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods.
Favorite sports: He was on the football and track and field teams in high school.
Ironic fact: He learned how to type four years ago.
First job: Selling Christmas trees in grade school.
On work ethic: "I'm just going, I'm grinding, you can't stop me. … I may not be smarter than you now, but I will be later, because I'm going to keep working."
On leadership: "It's ultimately just about bringing together a group of people that can collaborate and take action to solve a problem. … The rest is jazz."
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