Inside Startup Institute, A Bootcamp For Chicago's Startup Talent Gap
This article originally appeared in ChicagoInno. You can't talk jobs in Chicago today without talking startups.
In the last five years, Chicago overtook Silicon Valley's tech job growth rate by five percent, with the number of tech jobs growing 25 percent. In addition, funding raised by startups doubled in 2014, indicating more financial movement-- and subsequent hires-- in the startup space. But finding the right talent isn't as easy, many have found. Given their fast-paced growth, lean resources, and untested success, startups require a different skill set and mind set than traditional company. Who can fill those jobs without slowing down the innovation process?
That's why Boston-based Startup Institute (SI) decided to open a location in Chicago two years ago. The eight-week career accelerator located at 1871 trains students in tech-oriented startup skills (including sales, marketing, developing, and web design) with the aim of producing a workforce that can hit the ground running at an early stage, high growth company. It is part of the larger movement of accelerated education and coding bootcamp options that have exploded in Chicago as the number of tech startups grow-- Chicago now has six bootcamps for interested students to choose from.
But what really sets SI apart from a coding bootcamp? Can you make someone employable to the next big startup in just eight weeks? Is it worth paying over $5,000 to get a job at a company that may not exist six months from now? These are all questions that SI faculty, students, and alum grapple with themselves. But since opening their doors 18 months ago, over 150 students have given it a shot, joining over 1,000 other SI alumni around the country.
With that in mind, I spent the day at SI talking with students, instructors, mentors, and project partners hearing about what it takes to succeed as a startup employee, and what programs like these can bring to a growing startup ecosystem like Chicago.
Here's a look at a day at Startup Institute.
9:30 am: Morning standup
A quarter of the current students at Startup Institute were missing when I joined the cohort-wide morning meeting on a recent Monday. Though attendance usually indicates a good student, in this case students were doing exactly what Startup Institute is training them to do: they were out at "coffee chats" and meetings with members of the Chicago startup community. Networking is a huge part of SI's core curriculum, and a big part of why a lot of students choose SI over other accelerated education options-- in fact all the students I talked to mentioned increasing their network as the reason they decided to pursue this type of education.
"I have sat at a desk by myself for eight years. I had no networking skills. I had no teamwork skills," said SI developer track student Shiovhan Boykin. Previously Boykin was a paralegal, though she originally had an interest in computer science when in college (she gave up on it due to the math requirements). In hopes of a career change to something she is more passionate about, she began teaching herself to code a year ago, and then applied to Startup Institute's consolidated Ramp Up program last January. It was there she realized that she didn't just need more coding skills-- she needed the people skills that are key to working in a small team.
"[SI] said you have to come out of your shell, you have to work on a team on a project," she said. "Not only will I get the skills that I need, I will be hirable because people will see that this person doesn't just need to sit in a corner by herself."
Students are encouraged to set up networking meetings with people around 1871, and the larger Chicago tech community, and coached on how to make meaningful connections that can grow their network and perhaps lead to a job. In this morning standup, SI Chicago director Lisa Schumacher called on the sales track to offer insights on how to ask purposeful questions. "Be authentic, make it a conversation, and you earn the right to advance," the group agreed.
10:00 am: Field Trip
After the morning session, the group headed to MATTER, the health-focused coworking space located next door to 1871 at Merchandise Mart.
Patrick Flavin, MATTER's cofounder and executive director, gave students a tour of the recently opened space, then sat down for a Q&A about the state of healthcare startups.
Built-in meetings with the Chicago tech elite are another huge part of the program, and students said the chance to chat with high-profile business leaders is indispensable as they attempt to wrap their head around the startup space. In the last month alone, students have toured Braintree and Jellyvision, and hosted visits with talent from KnowledgeHound, Raise, and Syndio (among many others).
The highly interactive nature of the program drew in David Miller. Though previously he worked in corporations, startups, and has an MBA, he's doing SI to gain some extra development skills, and hear from people making it happen in the real world today.
"What I've enjoyed the most is listening to real people with real experience giving the straight scoop from their experience," he said. "For me, it's pragmatic entrepreneurship. What it means to do [things] on the ground rather than trained at how to do something in a big entity."
11:00 am: Class time
Working at a startup isn't like working at a corporation, or even a midsize company. Teams are usually small and are expected to do a lot with limited resources. There isn't extensive on-boarding or professional development built in right away. With that in mind, there are four tracks for students to hone specialized skills (sales, marketing, development, and web design) within a startup setting. Students separate into tracks for courses or practice work about twice per day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
For example, the marketing class session I sat in on was focused on email and content marketing with Andy Angelos, director of insights at Manifest Digital and previously of SocialKaty. He pointed out that startup marketers are going to be on a small team that has a lot of traction to gain. Strategy has to be a lot more lean, he said, so email content, for example, is a way to do a lot with a little.
The track curriculum is more about helping students understand their role from a startup mindset, rather than honing in on specific lessons or strategies. "Marketing is so broad," said Neno Damyanov, a student on the marketing track. "It's more about becoming aware of the skills you want to develop."
1:00 pm: Partner Project work time
At SI, students don't just learn about the startup space-- they actually work within it. Throughout the eight weeks, student are put into small teams with representatives from several tracks to work on projects for partner startup companies, such as ThinkCERCA, ReviewTrackers, and Savvo. Partners work with SI to create projects that are doable for students still fine-tuning their skills, while providing real value for the company. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students spend time working on these projects at partner companies' offices.
For example, students in this cohort are helping launch a new product for data analytics startup Narrative Science. "It's exciting for them to be in the office and asking questions that you don't get everyday," said Amelia Carpenter, marketing associate at Narrative Science.
"It has really helped spread brand awareness," she added. "It makes your day to day more exciting when people are excited about what you are doing."
Erin Wasson, VP of marketing at UrbanBound, also a partner project company for this cohort, added that working on these projects gives students necessary experience for what they will experience in the real startup world. "It's good for sales and marketing to really work together to discover new audiences," she said. "They get a sampling of all the different parts [of a startup]."
Wasson is also an instructor in the marketing track. She said she is always impressed at how SI students are able to come into projects with up-to-date knowledge on trends, an understanding of startup jargon, and realistic expectations for what startup life is like. "I think eight weeks is a really good primer," she added.
Projects also teach people what kind of startup is right for them. Jason Henrichs, head of Kinetic Group and an instructor at SI who helped launch the program two years ago, said that the partner projects also help students assess a company--an important skill when every startup claims to be the next big thing. "Startup means a lot of different things," he said. "Just to say 'startup' isn't to define anything at all. [We] give people the tools to actually go assess what is a startup: what is its mission? What is its culture? Is that the culture for me?"
4:00 pm: Job prep
The cumulation of eight weeks of hard work? A job, hopefully.
The cumulative event at SI is the Talent Expo, in which each member of the cohort gets a minute to deliver an elevator pitch to the tech community (this cohort's talent expo is Thursday, August 13) on their interests and passions. If they stand out, they could land an interview or offer within days. On average, 90 percent of graduates find a job within 90 days, said Schumacher, director of SI Chicago. Students have been recruited to companies such as Signal, Enova, and Clique Studios, or join smaller ventures starting from the ground up.
In preparation for navigating the job field, Henrichs took the students through a salary negotiation, complete with discussions about equity, stock, and pay over time. It can be tough to know if you are getting a fair offer, so he recommended students look into four things: the stage of the company, their financial position, the management team, and their compensation philosophy. If nothing else, use the network around you he said. "Do your research and talk to your peers."
When I talked to students they were about two weeks out from completing the program and many still weren't sure where exactly they wanted to be once they graduated the program. But that wasn't necessarily an issue.
Take Howie Zisser. He previously worked in startups in Chicago, but had taken time away from the community to work on an early-stage venture based in Austin (though he worked remotely, from Chicago). It didn't pan out, so he decided that SI may be the best way to recalibrate his sales skills, grow a network, and take the time to better understand what he wanted out of a job.
Already he had been offered a job while at SI, but turned it down because he didn't feel it would be the right fit. It's a luxury, he admitted, being able to spend a few thousands dollars to take eight weeks off to figure out next steps (he paid for SI through savings). But he would make the same decision again.
"The eight weeks was really more of an investment in myself. I would never hesitate to do something like that," he said. "I knew that if I jumped into a job that maybe I would be lucky and it would be great. But I knew it was more likely I would find myself in the same position 16 months down the road."
SI is actually less prohibitive than other bootcamps when it comes to price and time. Chicago's eight-week program starts at $5,900. That's about half the price, and half the time, of bootcamps like Dev Bootcamp and Designation. Students can pay up front, in increments, or finance through an outside vendor. There are also scholarship options for exceptional students said Schumacher. Most of the students I talked to paid for the bootcamp through savings, though there were a few sacrifices to be made. Allie Fleming, a web design student who worked as a graphic designer before starting at SI, and her husband moved to save rent money while they live off a single income.
The crunched time (and cheaper price) does mean that students have to be prepared to learn on the job. "We won't be developer pros by the end of week eight, but I feel I have the foundation I need to keep going," Fleming said.
"It was this balance," Fleming added, explaining why she chose SI. "You are gong to learn technical skills but you're also going to have a great network and resources to grow your network. And have value in your work on top of it. It was a hybrid of components that I wanted in my next job."
Students also pointed out that their next job is just the starting point. After the end of the program, they are a part of the Chicago startup ecosystem. Previous alums have gone on to be a senior designer at Civis Analytics, director of marketing at Rippleshot, and a sales executive at ContextMedia.
"We're meeting these founders, but the people we're surrounded with are really talented, really ambitious, want to stay in Chicago for the most part, and... are going to be our closest networks," said Zisser. "Though we may be getting entry level and mid-level jobs now, in a few years I fully expect to see people doing some really cool things."