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VCs bet millions on Microverse, a Lambda School for the developing world

The student loan crisis in the U.S. has left venture capitalists searching for novel approaches to financing higher education, but can the same systems designed for helping coders in Silicon Valley get jobs at Google help underserved students in developing countries become part of a global work force?

Similar to the buzzy San Francisco startup Lambda School, Microverse is a coding school that utilizes ISAs, or Income Share Agreements, as a means of allowing students to learn now and pay later with a fixed percentage of their future salary. Microverse isn’t aiming to compete heavily with Lambda School for U.S. students, however, they are looking more heavily at courting students in developing countries. The startup currently has students in 96 countries, with Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and India among their most represented, CEO Ariel Camus tells TechCrunch.

The pitch of bringing the ISA model worldwide has attracted investor interest. The startup tells TechCrunch it has just closed $3.2 million in seed funding from venture capitalists including General Catalyst and Y Combinator.

Lambda School and its ilk have excited plenty of investors. There has also been plenty of scrutiny and some questions on whether quickly scaling to venture-sized returns or building revenue by selling off securitized ISAs ends up pushing these startups toward cutting corners.

Microverse, for its part, is already built quite lean. The program has no full-time instructors. The entire curriculum is a self-guided English-only lesson plan that relies on students that are just months ahead in the program serving as “mentors.” Students are expected to spend eight hours per day pushing through the curriculum with assigned study partners and peer groups, graduating in about eight months on average, Camus says.

“The average starting salary for us — it’s of course lower and that’s expected,” said Camus. “The only way we can offer as good or better learning experience as Lambda or any other campus-based education in the U.S. — with salaries that will usually be lower — is if our costs are lower, and that’s why we have designed the entire system to allow us to scale faster. We don’t have to hire teachers, we don’t have to create content and that allows us to adjust to changes in the market and new technologies much much faster.”

While Lambda School’s ISA terms require students to pay 17% of their monthly salary for 24 months once they begin earning above $50,000 annually — up to a maximum of $30,000, Microverse requires that graduates pay 15% of their salary once they begin making more than just $1,000 per month, though there is no cap on time, so students continue payments until they have repaid $15,000 in full. In both startups’ cases, students only repay if they are employed in a field related to what they studied, but with Microverse, ISAs never expire, so if you ever enter a job adjacent to your area of study, you are on the hook for repayments. Lambda School’s ISA taps out after five years of deferred repayments.

Without much of the nuance in how Lambda School or Holberton School have structured their ISA terms, Microverse’s structure seems less amenable, but Camus defends the terms as a necessary means to getting around under-reporting.

“When you use a cap, you’re using a perverse incentive for under-reporting,” Camus says. “In the U.S. where you can enforce tax reviews, there’s no need to worry about that and I think it’s better if you can cap it, but in most of the developing countries where there is not a strong tax system, it isn’t a possibility.”

For students that qualify for terms for repaying this ISA, they are, again, on the hook for $15,000. Charging such a hefty fee for an online course without full-time instructors geared toward students in developing countries could be controversial for a venture-backed startup, but it will also put a heavy burden on the school to keep their students satisfied and help them find employment via its network of career counselors.

The CEO acknowledges the high price of Microverse’s instruction. “It is huge,” but he says that the premium is necessary to build a business around getting students in developing countries careers in the global workforce. Microverse is keeping its total number of admitted students small early on so that it can ensure it’s meeting their needs, Camus says, noting that Microverse accepts just 1% of applicants, adding 70-80 students to the program per month.

“This conversation around the ISA in the U.S. is so hot that you have to frame it in such a different way when you’re talking about students in developing and emerging countries. Like, there are no alternatives,” Camus says. “…if you can find a value proposition that aligns with their goals and gives them some international and professional exposure, that gives them a world-class education… that’s a very compelling proposition.”

Source: TechCrunch

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Codeacademy has already outlived many rivals — is that enough?

Codeacademy, the New York-based online interactive platform that offers coding classes in a wide variety of programming languages, is a little like background noise; it’s been operating reliably since founder Zach Sims created the company while still a Columbia University student in 2011. It’s a brand that people know and that millions have used, but because it has grown steadily, without headline-making funding rounds — or, conversely, newsworthy layoffs —  the 90-person company doesn’t routinely attract a lot of press attention.

That’s fine with Sims, who we spoke with last week following the most recent bout of bad publicity for Lambda School, a younger rival that has raised $48 million from investors, compared with the $42.5 million that Codecademy has raised over time. Sims says his company is continuing to chug along nicely.

The question, increasingly, is whether that’s ‘nice’ enough for VCs. Indeed, Codecademy — like a lot of startups right now — is in the awkward position of being a smart, solid, steadily but not massively growing business — which raises questions about its next steps.

The last time we’d spoken with Sims, roughly two years ago, Codecademy — which struggled for years with how to produce meaningful revenue —  had recently launched two premium products. One of these, Codecademy Pro, helps users who are willing to spend $40 per month (or $240 per year) on the service to learn the fundamentals of coding, as well as develop a deeper knowledge in up to 10 areas, including machine learning and data analysis. Sims says this has taken off, though he declined to share specifics.

A second offering, Codecademy Pro Intensive, that was designed to immerse learners from six to 10 weeks in either website development, programming or data science, has since been dropped.

Sims says the company’s international have meanwhile been growing, with 60 percent of its paying users based in the U.S. and the rest elsewhere, including in India and Brazil. (The need for coding skills “isn’t a U.S.-only phenomenon,” Sims notes.)

Who are these users? He says they tend to fall into one of two buckets: those who are learning a discrete skill set, perhaps to build a website in a pinch, and those who are gainfully employed but looking to climb the ladder or switch jobs and who see Codeacademy as a way to spend a couple of hours a week to develop the skills to get there.

Sims says the payback is typically quick and that its customers easily rationalize the cost of the courses, which are exceedingly affordable as these things go. By way of comparison, some on-premise coding schools charge upwards of $20,000 a year — a big enough expense that in order to make themselves more accessible, they invite students to pay nothing upfront and instead collect a percentage of their salary once they find a job.

Naturally, because Codecademy largely lives online, so, too, do criticisms sometimes about its perceived shortcomings. One customer — a self-described computer science major — authored a thoughtful review in December, writing that “being a programmer is more than simply being able to memorize syntax,” While Codecademy has introduced “thousands to the fundamentals of computer science,” through “addictive bite-sized pieces that are easy to accomplish,” it falls short in helping cultivate a “coders’ mindset,” he wrote.

Either way, enough people are finding value in Codecademy’s vast number of offerings that it recently reached an important milestone —  it’s now cash-flow positive — having doubled it revenue last year. Sims is understandably proud of this accomplishment, noting that “there are few [coding platforms] that are growing sustainably and profitably and generating cash that can be invested back into the business.”

Codecademy is enjoying the same tailwinds it has from the start, too. While skepticism has grown around coding schools more broadly, the ability to design, shape, correct, and secure software will only grow more valuable. Receiving a related education that comes affordably and doesn’t require an income-share agreement remains an appealing proposition, too.

In fact, the company is continuing to paint that picture for consumers and, we gather, it’s talking more to enterprises that are starting to offer Codecademy type classes to employees. Though Codecademy already sells classes in volume packs, Sims suggests that a big push in 2020 will involve tie-ups with companies that want to provide what it teaches as a perk.

Whether it intends to paint a picture for investors, too, is another question, one that Sims declined to answer when we asked about fundraising more broadly.

Certainly, follow-on rounds are growing harder to land, as described in our piece last week about “portfolio bloat.” The reason: VCs have raised so much money in recent years that they’re funneling it into new startups faster than ever, too (They need to find the Next Big Thing to return all that capital.)

That’s leaving a lot of solidly run companies to fend for themselves for now.

Given Codecademy’s cash-flow positive status, at least, it can afford to wait.

Source: TechCrunch