The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

How MakeHerSmile is Helping You Give a Better Gift

By Mike McGee on July 7, 2014

MakeHerSmile is a service created by Starter School graduate Erinn Barr that helps you give great gifts to your loved ones. Now that Starter School is over I caught up with her to talk about the building process and what she has planned next for MakeHerSmile.

MakeHerSmile helps you find great gifts for your loved ones. We'll handle the hard work, you'll handle the overwhelming gratitude.

What was the catalyst for this idea?

Growing up, my dad struggled at buying gifts for my mom. One year for Christmas, he bought her one place setting and figured he had gifts for the next 11 holidays. She asked him whether he wanted a divorce or if she was supposed to eat by herself.

Now that I'm married, I see my husband struggle at buying gifts as well. While my dad and husband have the best intentions, it doesn't translate into a good gift.

There's also the fact that I love buying and wrapping gifts. It's something I get kind of obsessive over when Christmas or a birthday rolls around.

Walk me through how MakeHerSmile works.

A person interested in getting a gift will come to the site and sign up. I'll then reach out to them, ask them questions about the person they are buying for and then send the gift recommendation. Once the person confirms the gift, I'll purchase the gift, wrap and ship it. Going forward, I'll send gift recommendations for other occasions and holidays.

What is special about giving a gift?

The reaction it creates. The way it makes someone feel. Gifting reminds us to appreciate the special people in our lives and to go out of the way to celebrate them. I believe that reminder to ourselves is actually one of the most important parts of giving a gift.

"While my dad and husband have the best intentions, it doesn't translate into a good gift."

Why is it so hard to give a good gift?

I think most of us get busy and don't spend a lot of time thinking or prepping for it. It's very easy to let ease trump thoughtfulness.

Can you remember the first gift you gave? Who was it for? And how did they react to it?

When I was in first grade, my brother was going away to college at West Point. I remember being at a store with my mom and getting to pick something out for him. I picked out a magnet with a mom cat and a little kitten next to her. It said something along the lines of "I love you" and my mom tried to explain that it wasn't appropriate. But, I was certain that that was the gift I wanted to give my brother - a guy going into the military. A magnet with kittens on it. Of course when I gave it to him, he pretended to love it but I do remember a few chuckles as well.

What was the worst gift you've received or experienced someone getting?

Well, my mom did receive a lot of bad gifts over the years. Besides the one place setting, my dad once gave her his wedding ring which had been accidentally mangled by his wood chipper. She was already pretty upset about the fact that he destroyed the ring, but then he put it on a necklace and gave it to her for Valentine's Day. She said, "I don't want your mistake hanging around my neck."

Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, does not like to give gifts. But after using MakeHerSmile, he was able to give an amazing gift to his father.

Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, does not like to give gifts. But after using MakeHerSmile, he was able to give an amazing gift to his father.

Over the past few months you've been able to beta test MakeHerSmile. Do you have some special testimonials from your early customers?

"Pure gift giving perfection, Erinn! WOW!! Completely blown away by the care and detail. Love how you arranged the socks. Best gift "I've" ever given. Outsourcing gift giving. Who would have ever thought. I wonder if mom will approve?"

Josh Braun, VP of Business Development at JellyVision

"Erinn gave me the peace of mind I so desperately needed to make sure I was doing my best to be a better boyfriend. She loved her gift, it worked!"

Neal Sales-Griffin, CEO of The Starter League

"Thank you so much for taking care of each and every detail of my Mother's Day gifts! Everything shipped at the perfect time and made the important women in my life very happy! I wouldn't have had such a successful reaction on my own. Thanks again!"

Jon Solomon, Starter School Alumnus

"Gifting reminds us to appreciate the special people in our lives and to go out of the way to celebrate them."

This is the first product you've built. Talk to me about how much you have learned while building MakeHerSmile.

This is definitely not easy. It's been really important to test my idea as soon as possible. To start working with people and hacking everything together. I know that I've learned more this way.

I'm also trying out lots of different things that I didn't really consider in the beginning. For example, I'm helping a friend buy all the gifts for her upcoming wedding. Also, I'm helping Jill Salzman buy gifts for her Founding Moms Conference that is in October.

To learn more about MakeHerSmile, you can go to http://makehersmile.co, follow Erinn Barr on Twitter, and keep track of updates on the MakeHerSmile blog.

Great talk by Ricardo Semler, the genius behind Semco

By Daniel Lopes on May 13, 2014

Ricardo Semler is the CEO and majority owner of Semco SA, a Brazilian company best known for its radical form of industrial democracy. He turned his family's moribund manufacturing business into an innovative workplace and increased revenue from $4 Million in 1982 to $212 million in 2003. But the most interesting thing about him is how he achieved such an incredible feat.

As a Brazilian nearing 30 years old, I remember what it was like here in the 80's and 90's. Culturally, Brazil wasn't close to the level of innovation Ricardo achieved. He built Semco amidst inflation, poverty and corruption levels sky rocketing.

The type of environment and mindset he describes isn't only for industrial management. It also fits with technology business like ours. His point of view on motivation, control and leadership are highly inspiring. His management style has a lot in common with successful companies and leaders in our field.

To learn more about Ricardo Semler check out this talk (and if you enjoy his message I would also recommend this in-depth interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USC1RE8jE50)


How to Change Your Life in 9 Months

By Mike McGee on April 24, 2014

In 2011, we launched the first in-person school for beginners who wanted to learn how to build web apps. Over the past three years, hundreds of 3-month bootcamps have popped up across the world to teach people how to build web apps.

In 2013, we decided to go bigger.

Instead of teaching just one part of the web application puzzle, we wanted to teach people how to build a product and launch a company in 9 months.

During our pilot program, our students have gone down a learning wormhole. They've learned Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, UX, product management, and entrepreneurship. But what's more important than gaining the technical chops of building a product is what they've learned about themselves.

Before Starter School, Garrett was a teenager looking for a school to teach him how to build web apps, now he is building an app to help founders manage their company's equity. Erinn was working at a company that didn't offer her the flexibility she needed, now she is building her own company to help people buy better gifts for their loved ones. Pete was a musician who was passionate about sports and tech, but didn't have the skills or community to make his vision real, now he is building a platform for sports fans to share their season tickets.

After going through this program, our students have developed a successful process for turning problems into solutions.

The Starter School Experience

The best way to learn about the Starter School experience is to learn from students themselves. Watch this video to hear their perspective on the program.

Investing in Starter School

When we launched our pilot program, we had our students cooped up in one classroom. While they were making great progress and having fun building their apps, we knew we could provide a better environment.

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Last month we moved into a two-floor, 12,000 sq. ft space in the West Loop. Instead of one classroom for Starter School, we have an entire floor dedicated to the program. We've built a custom classroom to fit our students and teachers' needs, we have open space for students to continue working in when class isn't in session, and we have breakout rooms for students to privately collaborate in. Our new space was specifically designed with the goal of making Starter School your second home for 9 months.

Who We Are Looking For

At Starter School, you will transform from customer to creator. Rather than being a cog in a wheel, you will become the designer of the machine itself. You will learn how to build a product from start to finish and will be immersed in the creative process that is software development and entrepreneurship.

If the opportunity to build software and create companies that change the world for the better gives you chills, and you have the passion and energy to do what it takes to make that change happen, then Starter School is for you.

2014-15 Applications are now open

Applications for the next class of Starter School are open! We are accepting students on a rolling basis, so the sooner you apply the better chance you have of getting in.

The application deadline is Sunday, August 17, 2014.

If you have any questions about the admissions process, don't hesitate to reach out to us @starterschool or admissions@starterschool.com.

Don't be jealous of your competitors.

By Neal Sales-Griffin on April 22, 2014

When we launched The Starter League (then called Code Academy) we were the first of our kind. There was no DevBootcamp, there was no Flatiron, General Assembly existed but hadn’t taken the “immersive” approach yet.

We thought we were special because we were first. But now there’s more than a hundred software schools that have started in the past three years. Some of our alumni (we’ve reached nearly 1000!) have even started their own schools all over the globe.

We’re proud to have played a meaningful part in the movement as subject zero. But that doesn’t mean it was easy for us to deal with such a hyper competitive landscape.

At The Starter League, we strive to be the purple cow. We offer a completely different experience for our students than any other software school.

Our goal isn’t to place you into a job, it’s to help you solve a meaningful problem with software that you care about.

We don’t only teach you how to design, or how to code. We weave the two together with product managemet and entrepreneurship. It’s the alchemy of those pieces that lead to innovative solutions for people through software. We don’t get commissions for placement. But our students are happily employed and applying their newfound skills in meaningful ways.

It was both a gift and a curse to find little to no examples of a software school like ours. On one hand, we had no competition so our novelty would allow us to garner a lot of attention. On the other hand, there was no evidence of demand which put us at risk with no proof that our model would work.

Thankfully it worked out for us. Though we’ve been navigating the bloody, competitive waters in search for our new blue ocean ever since. I’m happy to report that we’ve built our castle and moat with Starter School.

With these experiences, I’ve learned a lot about dealing with competitors. I’ve also learned how to deal with my own feelings and fears because of them.

When you come up with an idea for a business, it’s important to research the other companies who are solving a similar problem. If you find comparable companies, you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t with their solutions.

But, this process has a dark side.

When you’re analyzing the alternatives, it’s easy to get intimidated about your ability to compete. Most ideas won’t last a day before something like it shows up in your search results.

A natural reaction is to feel a sense of urgency. You’re not moving fast enough. You’re not working hard enough. You don’t want these other guys to build your idea first.

Instead of freaking out, turn the energy you’re wasting on envy into fuel to push forward with your idea.

Competition forces improvement. You owe it to the other companies to challenge them with a competitive product. You should be happy there are potential solutions out there. They are proof of demand for the problem you’re trying to solve.

You’ve got too much work to do and too much to learn to feel salty about their success. All those emotions point to is your own insecurity with your capability to execute.

Embrace the first-movers. Don’t let your hope balloons pop just because you found an example of someone else doing it already. Who cares? They need you. They need someone who’s willing to give them a run for their money and force them to become better. Just like we need the other software schools to push us to become better every day.

“No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s never what you do, but how it’s done. What you base your happiness around? Material women and large paper? That means you inferior, not major.” - Nas

Don’t be jealous of your competitors. When you come up with an idea, do some quick research. Find out what’s out there, what’s missing, what’s unnecessary, how it could be better etc. Then build it, regardless of whether something comparable is out there or not.

Creating the Starter School Stories Page

By Arvin Dang on April 18, 2014

Photo of student caught mid-air

Our Starter School students are impressive individuals. Their stories are inspiring and as we've watched them grown over the past six months, we couldn't resist to feature them on our site. Here's how we did it.

We began looking for inspiration from features we loved across the web and pieced together simple layouts. We liked Pitchfork's Cover Stories, but we didn't want to distract from our students' stories — so we asked ourselves, what would best bring them to life?

Sketches of wireframes

Our next step was making sketches of potential layouts, then an HTML/CSS prototype. We reworked the grid to see how it felt and used Web Inspector heavily to design in the browser as quickly as possible, taking screenshots as we ideated and shared them with the team in Basecamp for feedback.

It's important to note just how useful Web Inspector was in this phase. This isn't where we wanted to worry about code, but instead where we wanted to discover the right feeling for our page. Using Web Inspector gets you out of the mindset of clean code, and instead focused on just getting it to work. And if something isn't right— just refresh.

Caity setting up the umbrella light

We bootstrapped a photo studio using white boards, backdrops, and umbrella lights. We had students bring in props, dumped confetti on them, threw rubber ducks in the air— anything we could think of to get the most entertaining shot.

We processed hundreds of photos using Adobe Lightroom. Our favorite photos were flagged and added to Dropbox for review. Once we had a quality photo sequence picked out, we went back to the HTML/CSS and began coding static versions of what we envisioned.

During the prototype phase, we decided that a sequence of photos would alternate on scroll alongside each student's story as you read them. This would allow a visitor to read a student's profile while sharing a visual moment with them.

Once we finished our prototype, we asked for feedback from the entire Starter League team. After some more iteration, we split up into sub teams to finalize the development, image processing and student profile copy.

We had to build around the notion that content could be any size. A student's profile could be 200px or 1700px long, and our images had to adjust both in size and scroll rate accordingly. You have to stop and think through what your ambiguities are as early as possible. From the sketching phase, we knew we would need a flexible approach to alternating between photos as a user scrolled.

Sketches of the different percentages we calculated.

To better understand where we needed to be flexible in our approach, we'd create small test examples in JSBin of each component. We wrote a small script showing how we can capture scroll in jQuery, then another script to show how on scroll how we could change a CSS property like background color, etc. Once we had each of these pieces built, we put them together in the final app.

We realized the constraint became our photos. On some screen sizes they were too big, others too small, sometimes too far to the left, or right of the content. Plus we needed to find a way to have the images stay fixed when you scrolled, but not permanently since we didn't want them to overlap with other elements like the footer.

It took a lot of experimenting, trial-and-error, and time to just sit and think through the problems we would run into. Fixing one issue often created another one. But eventually we chipped away and relied heavily on the resources around us to really understand what was happening at a fundamental level.

With the layout finished, and the content loaded, we began adding and editing each student's photo assets. We went profile by profile ensuring we had optimized all the images correctly, and more importantly chose the right sequence of images to represent the personalities of our students.

We love what we've created for our students as our Stories section is a fun and engaging way to meet our inaugural Starter School class. We hope you read them all, share them and find value on what they've built.

Animated slideshow photos changing on scroll

Solve a problem you care about

By Neal Sales-Griffin on April 18, 2014

The best way to start a company is to convert a problem you have into an opportunity. Think about something that pisses you off, and consider what you can do to change it into something that makes you happy.

This is how most great ideas are born. The sustainable ones stem from problems shared by many others. And if you build a solution for it, there might be people willing to pay you to share it with them.

Discover what that intolerable problem is for you, and it will give you the conviction needed to move forward:

We needed something to help us communicate ideas, organize the work to be done, and present work to stakeholders. Simple as that.

We tried a few tools, but they were complicated and too hard to use. So we slowly slipped back to using our old standby — email. Our problems continued.

Frustrated, we decided to build our own simple project management app. A few months later we had something ready. We started using this tool with our existing clients.

Immediately projects ran better! We regained the sense of order and calmness we’d been craving. And clients noticed — they really appreciated the improved communication and organization.

Jason Fried, Founder & CEO of Basecamp.

If it’s hard for you to work on something for yourself, it’s also effective to solve a problem for someone you have empathy for. But, if you aren’t experiencing the pain yourself, it’s harder to connect to the issue and design a proper solution.

Thankfully, it’s doable with help.

Think of someone you care about. It could be a relative, a friend, or someone who was born with a profound lack of freedom or choice in their lives. These are the types of people that the best of us live to do work for:

One weekend my in-laws were visiting, and my wife wanted to make restaurant reservations. She ended up spending three and a half hours calling restaurant after restaurant. I thought it would be great to build a website that could hook up to back-end restaurant reservation terminals.

Chuck Templeton, Founder of OpenTable

To solve a problem for someone else, you have to talk to them about it, a lot. Get to know it from their perspective and seek their help along the way as you design the solution. You should work with them closely. And you should definitely make them your first customers.

Once you’ve completed your research, it’s time to commit to getting it done. Develop a business model for a company that could make the solution. Learn what you need to create the product. If it does the job, great. If not, adapt your solution until it does.

Good luck!