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.

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!

Starter School Spotlight: Notably

By Mike McGee on April 7, 2014

Notably, the best way to curate your Facebook news feed.

Stelios Constantinides is an alumnus of our inaugural Starter School class. He just launched a new product called Notably. I talked to Stelios to learn more about his journey from Starter School to Notably.

What problem are you solving with Notably?

I have a pretty "dynamic network." My friends move, switch jobs, and fall in (and out of) love often. Besides a handful of close friends that I talk to on a regular basis, there was no easy way for me to keep track of what was going on. Notably does just that. It's news about your friends from Facebook.

How did you come up with the name?

The idea was always to focus on important news about your friends. Not another album of vacation photos, but the fact that someone called their engagement off. That's news! Since it's all about "notable" news, "Notably" seemed appropriate!

How has the reception for Notably been so far?

It's been great. There were already success stories just a week after launch. Users finding that a old friend moved back into town, the girl they had a crush on had "hid" her relationship status, and other things that you can easily miss or just can't see on Facebook.

In September 2013, you were one of our inaugural Starter School students. What made you decide to go to the program?

Like a lot of fellow students, I was tired of being an "idea guy" who didn't know how to take a concept and turn it into a product people use and enjoy. Starter School shows you how turn an elevator pitch into a shippable product.

What did you learn at Starter School?

Confidence! Coding isn't easy but it's not as hard as it seems to a complete beginner. It's not that there aren't good resources available, it's that you're intimidated because you don't know where to start. Jeff, Vince, Arvin, Arjun, and Raghu did an awesome job of showing just enough to get us started so that many aha moments were on our own time. The concepts you learn outside of class are the ones that stick with you and give you the confidence to keep going.

Did you build any other apps before Notably?

Nothing as full-featured (yet) but I've made a couple simple apps for fun: Shit To Do and The Fuck Should I Wear.

Sound like fun apps! What was the reception?

"The Fuck Should I Wear?" was featured on the Tosh.0 blog. It was pretty cool to get 5,000 hits in 2 days!

What's the next milestone for Notably?

Growth. People who try it love it, but it's never easy to get new users. We're looking for a partner that can help with distribution and benefit from our API. Any leads? Let us know.

If you want to give your Facebook news feed a makeover, sign up for Notably today!

Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things

By Daniel Lopes on April 4, 2014

One of our students ( @cbgriffin ) shared  a blog post from Scott Adams, Dilbert's cartoonist. It has one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever heard:

"Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things."

He even uses himself as an example:

"In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare."

I think this is great advice for anyone at any stage of their career.  Read the entire blog post here

Strive for self-managed teams

By Daniel Lopes on April 3, 2014

I've always been intrigued by leadership and self management in teams. Some people need rules and recipes to make progress while others become less productive with more structure and oversight. The way leadership and hierarchy is defined determines what kind of people you can attract to, and keep on, your team.

I've noticed that a lot of people who've never experienced being part of a team without much management are the ones that advocate the idea that you always need someone to give you a path to follow. But an environment that's more directive is often less collaborative, with people asking for permission more often than assuming the responsibility. It's a major reason why so many people complain about their jobs and bosses.

On the other hand, in a self managed team you don't have pre-defined roles, but it happens naturally anyway. It isn't a person that has all the answers, or just a formal designation of one person in charge of each area, but there's usually someone that steps on the shoulders of the others to improve the result of the work based on his own special skills. For example, somebody with interface design skills improving the first version of a prototype after an engineer makes it work; or a more experienced engineer that improves the performance of an existing feature.

When the benefits are tangible and everybody is at the same level of hierarchy discussions and decisions can produce much better results than just one person giving instructions. Another good side effect for self-managed teams is that the person who stands for an idea will naturally assume responsibility for that and care about the implementation.

In self-managed teams the focus is usually more on the product and less on selfish goals like showing off one's skills to get recognition or to find out who's best. A self managed team is a much better environment for innovation and creative solutions, but it also requires a lot of maturity and it's extremely hard to achieve. It's a structure we strive to keep in our software projects.

Our New Workspace

By Vincent Cabansag & Caity Moran on April 1, 2014

We’ve been teaching since 2011. In that time, we've called a few places home. We started in a corner of the Groupon offices, moved for a brief time to the John Hancock Center, and for the last two years, we’ve been running The Starter League from our own space within 1871.

With the success of Starter School, our nine-month grad school, we found ourselves needing more space. These students typically work 10 hours a day, five days a week, all from a single classroom. 1871 has been a terrific workspace in lots of ways, but it's been clear that the students need more space. A place to call their own.

We began looking for a new space in the fall. Quickly we learned of a 12,000 sq. ft. space, split over two floors, soon to be vacated by Sprout Social. It was great: it could accommodate our current needs and give us room to grow. So we pulled the trigger.

With the help of a grant awarded by the State of Illinois, and using the same architect and construction company that built out the amazing 1871 space, we’ve created a space fit for our students’ needs. The classroom has two projection screens, writeable walls and a layout that facilitates our hands-on approach. Students also have access to open workspaces, breakout rooms, a kitchen and eating area, and lounge spaces. Plus, it's just down the hall from Basecamp, the company that invested in us. We're also excited to have lots of new friends to go to lunch with.

That's the top floor. The ground floor is the new home of The Starter League. There are lots of desk and meeting spaces, enough to see our team grow much bigger. We also have room for an alumni coworking space, which we're in the beginning phases of planning out. Starter League alumni interested in joining us can email me at

The Starter League will continue to have a strong presence at 1871. We’re teaching AngularJS and User Experience this spring, and in the summer we will continue our teacher training initiative, teach a class through the Center for Talent Development, and hold a new Middle-School Makers program for kids.

Finding and building a new space wasn't easy. We're grateful to the people who helped us along the way. Here's a sincere thank you to Jack Keenan, Andy MacGregor, Dan Polito, Jim Melachrinakis, Ray Kennedy, Jennifer McKenzie, Justyn Howard, Aaron Rankin, Rachael Pfenning, Darren Green, Craig Shultz, Phil Denney, Jason Fried, Michael Berger, Shaun Hildner and Geoffrey Euston. We love our new home!

Another thank you to our alumni, mentors, instructors and community partners for your support over the last few years; we couldn’t have done it without you. We’re proud of the school we’ve built, and we look forward to sharing this next step with all of you.

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Photo by Vincent Cabansag

Our new space is in Chicago's West Loop at 30 N Racine Ave. The Starter League is in Suite 110 and Starter School in Suite 210.

5 Tips to Get You Out of Your Procrastination Rut

By Mike McGee on March 20, 2014

You might be thinking:

"Why did Mike post tips about staying productive DURING MARCH MADNESS?!?"

You're right. It's crazy. But once your bracket is completely busted tonight (oh don't argue with me, it will), you will want to do ANYTHING but watch basketball.

When that happens, we will be here for you. Here are five tips from The Starter League team on how to get important work done.

More from Vince:

"There's a great TED talk about this. It's not necessarily meditation, but a total clearing of your mind, bias, aspirations, struggles, thoughts and what have you. Try it for a week and see if it's helpful to you."

More from Neal:

"Keeping a short daily list helps you focus on what's important for you to do today, and also eliminates the guilt we feel when there's extreme task buildup.

I built an app 18 months ago to address this, it has since evolved since John Chan took it over and ran with it a bit further"

More from Sandy:

"The number of important emails that I need to know about it right away is very close to 0. If someone is really in a rush to get my response, they'll text. I like to keep email turned off when I'm trying to work, and only check it a few times a day."

While you don't need to take exact 13-minute naps, there is research backing the power of short naps during the workday.

Like Sandy, I agree that in order to get your most important work done, you have to limit how much time you spend with email. However, it doesn't mean quitting email altogether. My routine is to check email for 15-20 minutes in the morning, early afternoon, and early evening. These timed sessions allow me to power through email without being consumed by it.

Hopefully these tips can you help you get something done during March Madness. If so, you might want to consider keeping them in your productivity toolbox long after your bracket is busted.

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