Adda Birnir founded her own successful company Skillcrush, after being made redundant from her digital agency job in 2009. Her lightbulb moment came when she realised that they weren’t laying off any of the technical employees. She had remembered someone telling her to only to spend an hour each day sending out resumes and to fill the rest of her time learning something new. So that’s what she did. She spent an hour a day responding to job postings and the rest of the time learning to code. Even though it was just something to do so she wouldn’t go into an unemployment tailspin, but it absolutely changed everything.
We caught up with Adda to find out how she grew her business and the challenges she has overcome along the way.
Can you tell us about Skillcrush?
The company launched in 2012. Since 2009 I had been day dreaming about writing a chick-lit book about the web that would get women excited about coding. Makes sense, right?
At the time I had recently taught myself how to code, and the resources I relied on for learning were boring, dry and totally unsexy. But, as soon as I got the information into my head, a whole new world opened for me and the career opportunities that literally dropped into my lap were extraordinary.
So I started thinking about all the people who could benefit from learning these skills but who would never pick up one of those big, dry manuals you find in the computer science section of the book store. I wondered, how could this material be presented in a more fun, entertaining way?
As a first stab at it, I created this fun deck of “Digital Diva” cards with tech terms on them, which then turned into an educational newsletter. And after several (hundred) experiments and iterations, here we are today, with robust online class offerings, a thriving community, and amazing students transforming their careers every day!
What sort of people take your course? Are your courses just for those that want to work within the tech industry?
The most wonderful, creative, brilliant people take Skillcrush Career Blueprints and Classes. Many of our students, but not all, are women.
Skillcrush is intentionally designed for a MUCH bigger audience than people who want to work in the traditional “tech” industry. The thing is that nowadays almost any company you can think of is a “tech” company, in that, they can use technology to improve their business. Whether that’s a better marketing website, a mobile app, or software for internal processes.
That means that learning tech skills can open opportunities in almost any industry or company type. Many of our students work in fields like graphic design, marketing, or operations and are planning to use the tech skills to position themselves for a promotion. Others launch freelance businesses and start working for themselves, setting their own hours and often working from home. And others, use the classes and skills they learn as a launchpad into a radical career and industry change.
Why do you think it’s important for new entrepreneurs with start ups to learn how to code?
If you wanted to be a fashion designer, would that be possible if you didn’t know how to draw? And if you were unwilling to learn, would anyone take you seriously?
That’s how I think about tech entrepreneurs who don’t know how to code. You don’t have to become a full-time developer, but you really don’t have any excuse not to speak the same language as your developers so you can communicate your ideas. I think it’s about understanding the engine that’s driving innovation in your business and having a hands-on appreciation for what makes it run.
I can’t even begin to tell you the hundreds of thousands of dollars I’ve seen wasted, and months and months of lost time because entrepreneurs don’t educate themselves so they can work with developers effectively.
Honestly, the biggest problem is that people over invest in technology too early in their business. They think they know exactly how things should be and go all in on the idea before they have validated it in the marketplace.
Knowing even a little bit of technical skills positions you to be much more iterative and flexible and allows you to validate things one at a time and not commit to any one direction before you really know what will work.
Even just a one month class learning the building blocks of the web can make a transformational difference in your ability to create the company of your dreams.
You are a self taught coder/web developer. What did you do to teach yourself?
I read a ton of boring books and practised on projects I made up for myself to do. I was incredibly fortunate to have friends in the industry who helped guide me in terms of what I should learn and in what order. Without that guidance, it would have taken me MUCH longer to get to where I am today.
Unfortunately, not everyone can live in New York City and not everyone knows people in tech!
I designed Skillcrush Career Blueprints with my experience in mind – if I could have had a fun, encouraging environment to learn to code, what would that look like? And how could I recreate this experience of having friends to guide you the process at scale?
The Blueprints pack in exactly what I wish I had known, and the support structure I wish I could have relied on more formally, when I was learning myself!
Has the business grown organically or have you had investment?
We did take a small investment of $75,000 when we started. You’d be surprised by how fast you can spend that much money with 3 founders paying themselves!
Since the money ran out (after about 6 months), we have been completely bootstrapped, relying on dollars from customers instead of from investors to build the company.
It is definitely hard to bootstrap a company. I’ve had times, several of them, when I was 99% ready to throw in the towel and give up. In 2013, I made less than $5,000 from Skillcrush – and living in New York City, that is NOT easy to live off of (I supplemented my income by taking on freelance projects)!
On the flip side, there is nothing like looking at your bank account, seeing six figures and knowing that you EARNED that.
If you secured investment; where did you turn to?
Our initial seed funding came from an incubator we participated in called Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp and a convertible note from the Collaborative Fund, an early stage venture fund based here in New York.
What advertising and marketing do you do?
Every business MUST do tons of advertising and marketing to survive. Especially consumer facing ones.
We experiment with marketing all the time. From content syndication to giveaways to webinars, we’re always experimenting to see how we can best connect with our potential customer audience.
The key for us is positioning Skillcrush as a solution to your career woes. How many people do you know who are sick of their job? Or don’t make enough money? Or want more flexibility or to start their own company – but don’t know how? Skillcrush classes answer all of those questions, and the Career Blueprints are specifically packaged to include career content that shows students how to apply your skills right away. All of our marketing that is effective tells the Skillcrush story in a way that connects with people who really could transform their careers and lives through learning to code, but perhaps hadn’t considered it as an option.
Skillcrush is now a hugely successful business that is widely recognised for its excellence; how do you drive women to your site, and also encourage them to want to learn how to code?
By inspiring them with stories of other women who are making it happen, and the things they can do with their skills.
And then TONS and TONS of support, mentorship, and guidance at every step along the way.
Is learning to code difficult? Do you need to have a particular aptitude?
Let me say this to start: you (yes you, reading this now!) can absolutely learn to code. You can even make money from your tech skills within just a few weeks.
Learning to code isn’t easy – it takes a lot of practice and discipline. If you’re ready to embark on the journey of your life and get serious about getting technical, finding a community of support to help keep you on track will be critically important to your success. It is very hard to learn alone, so make sure to join a community or find a group of friends, online or offline, that will be your support system!
Great coders are great problem-solvers. So if you like puzzles, or if you are the type of person who won’t stop Googling until you find the right answer, you’re perfectly cut out for learning to code!
In the TV news segment you did for the BBC, Anders Ramsey said he had lower expectations of women as coders, and his first thought would be that women wouldn’t be as knowledgeable as men when it comes to coding. This must be frustrating; have you ever directly encountered this kind of sexism and bias in your working life?
Yes, it is frustrating! And yes, I have encountered it.
That said, I think there is a difference between being a woman in tech and a woman who techs.
What I mean by that is that there is a lot of institutional and cultural sexism around women in technology, and the problems are REAL. I have had many a friend who has experienced harassment and intimidation from investors, co-workers, and bosses.
It’s depressing, I know!
But, it’s critical that we don’t conflate coding with sexism or technology with sexism.
When we speak about sexism in tech, what we are talking about is sexism that has occurred within specific companies working in a specific sector.
But coding and tech skills are applicable across so many disciplines and so many industries, and there are so many incredibly amazing ways to apply your technical skills without having to ever work in a hostile environment.
What do you think needs to be done to change the way women are perceived within the industry?
We need more women in the industry and we need more institutional change within tech companies to create a better environment for all workers.
Dear Kate received a lot of criticism for featuring female coders (including yourself) within its recent ad campaign. There are those that believe it undermines the authority women are trying to command in a male dominated industry. What are your thoughts?
I love the empowering message that Dear Kate’s is communicating as a brand, and I am proud to support fellow female entrepreneurs. It’s an excellent example of a BRILLIANT female scientist using her skills to innovate in the consumer fashion space. I think Julie Sygiel is a rock star.
As far as regretting being involved in their recent ad campaign, it was a campaign for an underwear company! You have to show the underwear. Plus, last I checked, even tech ladies have to wear underwear (and can look super fly doing it). And as an added benefit, Skillcrush received some fantastic press in big name outlets and that translated into email signups and sales! Which means more women coding.
There are fewer female coders than there are men; could this be down to the misconception that women have about the industry being very technical and robot like when in fact it’s an extremely creative industry?
Industry stereotypes definitely are a hindrance to women getting involved in tech. And you’re absolutely right, it is such a creative industry! You can build, and design, and create things that you imagine. It’s incredible!
I also think that learning to code seems hard and boring. I’m so hell-bent on changing that perception so women can realize that it can be fun, exciting, empowering, and most importantly, career-transforming!
What do you think is the secret to your success?
That I don’t give up! And I course correct quickly.
I strongly believe that there is no such thing as failure, there is only giving up. Far too many companies “fail” because the founders run out of gas and decide to do something different.
Dust yourself off and remember: every day is a new opportunity to get back in the game and do it better than yesterday!
You have been invited to the White House, and Chelsea Clinton tweeted out in support of Skillcrush; that must be surreal; how has success changed you?
Ha! This question cracks me up.
Here’s the thing, when you tell your story it’s always the highlight reel (White House, Chelsea Clinton). Maybe if those were everyday occurrences it might change me but for now, everyday is spent working my butt off to build Skillcrush into the best, most healthy company it can be. So, no, I don’t think the “success” has changed me. Except to boost my own confidence that Skillcrush is a viable company and it’s meeting a real need in the marketplace.
What’s next for Skillcrush?
More classes, more Career Blueprints, more students! You’ll hopefully start seeing us everywhere. And maybe you’ll sign up to take a class and change your career, too. Right?