Thiel-Backed, Learn-to-Code Startup, Thinkful, Raises $4.25M Series A

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Corporate jobs don’t suit everyone. Just ask Tracy Huynh, who landed such a position shortly after graduating Rice University in 2013 but soon found the bureaucratic pace of the work stifling.

So Huynh decided to try her hand at coding. She began with tutorials on Codecademy and Treehouse and enjoyed “the ability of code to make ideas happen.” As she looked for more advanced programs, she heard from a friend about Thinkful, a startup offering online programming courses. She took a front-end web development class in October 2013, one of the stepping stones on her way to getting a software engineering job in New York City.

Huynh is one of a growing number of educated, young adults seeking coding skills to broaden their career opportunities—an attractive market for online education companies like Thinkful, which just closed a $4.25 million Series A round led by Floodgate Fund. The company’s previous investors, RRE Ventures and Quotidian Ventures, also participated.

Joining Thinkful’s board is Ann Miura Ko, one of Floodgate’s founding partners and once christened by Forbes as “the most powerful woman in startups.” On top of a $1 million seed round from investors that included Peter Thiel, the New York-based startup has now raised $5.25 million.

Founded in 2012, Thinkful currently offers 10 online courses, from beginner classes like introductory web design to advanced ones in data science and backend development in Node.js. Many of its students are between the ages of 20 and 40.

Few industries have germinated as quickly as coding schools, driven in part by claims over a shortage of STEM workers—particularly software engineers. Specialized brick-and-mortar programming schools have launched around the world; a few have raised millions in venture capital. Thinkful has counted more than 44 on-site programs.

These “bootcamps,” as they’re known, dangle prospects of hip jobs and $75,000 starting salaries. Some early data support these promises: a survey of 48 such programs found that students saw a 44% salary increase (from $52K to $75K) in their new jobs after graduating.

But not everyone has the means to attend a bootcamp, which tend to concentrate in urban regions and charge fees upwards of $10,000. And so, “our program is perfect for people who don’t want to quit their job, move or go into debt,” boasts Thinkful’s co-founder and CEO, Darrell Silver. (His co-founder, Dan Friedman, is a graduate from the first Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship.)

The company offers a reasonable price tag: $300 to $500 per month for each course, which are designed to be completed in 90 to 120 hours. But students are free to work at their own pace. In an ideal scenario, they split their time evenly between self-driven learning (in the form of text and video instruction and quizzes), building projects (which number five to 15 for each course) and getting weekly personal feedback and mentorship from one of the company’s network of 250 professionals.

The program proved convenient for students like Huynh, who continued to work while taking her first Thinkful course. Where Codecademy whetted her appetite for more challenging instruction, Thinkful’s project-based curriculum helped her develop deeper problem-solving skills and build a portfolio, as “a big part of the program was being able to demonstrate that I can make things on my own.”

Over 3,000 students took a Thinkful course in 2014--a fivefold increase from the previous year--and the company claims a 70 percent completion rate. Silver says “around 200 students [have been] in touch with us about their new jobs” at companies like Google, PayPal and Instacart.

Thinkful’s next offering is a dedicated job recruitment and placement service, which the team of 28 has been providing on an ad-hoc, informal basis. Huynh simply tweeted at Thinkful after finishing her front-end web development course and connected with an employee who suggested job search tools and fellowship opportunities to help her software engineering career.

“What we found is that a lot of students want career advice like how to create a great GitHub profile,” shares Silver. “Sometimes our mentors are prepared for [these requests], but not always.”

Thinkful will face stiff competition with a growing number of online coding providers. Bloc, One Month and Udacity are just a few of the many venture-backed startups offering a similar proposition: learn to code and get a job.

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