Amelia Humfress is the founder and CEO of the super successful London coding school Steer. Starting out as an intern at Jimmy Choo, Amelia discovered a gap in the market for easy, accessible coding courses, after attempting to learn how to code alongside her job as a digital marketer.
Launching Steer in 2013, the school now offers high-quality courses in HTML, CSS, iOS coding, Rails and jQuery from a base in Clerkenwell, and is founded on the idea that “learning to code can be simple”.
It’s almost unheard of for a new business to turn a profit within the first few years of trading, but Steer managed to achieve just that. With £100,000 of angel investment secured, Amelia was able to develop the business and her hard work paid off, with the Observer naming Steer as one of the best places to learn how to code in the UK.
We caught up with Amelia to find out how she did it.
Can you tell us about Steer; what do you do? when did you launch?
At Steer, we teach people how to code on short courses in London. Most of our courses are designed for complete beginners who’ve never written a line of code before. We’ve been rated as one of the best places to learn to code in the UK by The Observer and have been featured by The Times, The Evening Standard and The Guardian as one of the leading places in the UK to learn to code.
Who are your courses for? What can one expect to learn from taking one of your courses?
In the last year and a half, we’ve taught over 400 people how to code. Most of our customers are either aspiring entrepreneurs that want to build the first version of their website or app, or designers that want to take on digital projects. We also get a lot of marketeers and project managers on our courses – they want to prototype their ideas and communicate better with their developers and clients.
We’ve seen an increase in the number of people being sent by their employer in the last 6 months. Recently we’ve trained people from Marks & Spencer, Apple and Samsung.
Why do you think it’s important for people to learn how to code?
I don’t think that everyone necessarily needs to learn to code, but I do think that everyone should give the basics a try. After all, web development is one of the most in-demand skills in the world. So why not? The career opportunities are huge.
If you want to start your own business, it’s an incredibly valuable skill. Whatever kind of business you want to build, you’re going to need an online presence. When you know how to code you can build it yourself, and it helps you hire technical talent and communicate your ideas. You’ll also have a better idea of how long things should take and how much they should cost.
Is coding difficult to master?
One of the biggest myths about coding is that you have to be great at maths or science. It can definitely help, but it’s not a prerequisite. I’m dyslexic and I’ve never been good at maths, and I can do it. I find it incredibly creative, and the fact that we have so many designers on our courses is proof of how well suited coding is to creative minds.
What’s the best way to find a good web developer?
There are some great jobs boards that you can use to find a web developer. Our favourites include Stack Overflow Careers, Authentic Jobs and Github Jobs. I’d also recommend Silicon Milkroundabout, a popular London tech startup job fair. We hired two iOS developers the last time we exhibited there.
What made you launch Steer?
You shouldn’t have to put your life on hold to learn a new skill. 5 days is enough time to get to grips with a new subject, without being too much time away from work. When I learnt how to code, there weren’t any week-long, high-quality coding courses on the market. Excluding the evening and weekend courses, there were only one day courses and 3 month courses. There was a gap in the market, and I’d had so much fun learning to code, I wanted to help more people discover coding.
How did you learn to code? Why did you want to learn to code?
You received £100,000 seed funding; In what stage of your start up did you receive funding? Where did you get your funding from?
I raised early on, before we ran our first course, from a group of angel investors. I met two of our investors when I was employed as a Product Manager at another startup, and they encouraged me to start my own business. I decided to take their advice and when we went out to raise money, they led the round.
How has the funding helped you to grow your business? Did it help you to set up your first office?
We used the funding to set the business up and pay salaries until we broke even. We rented a space where we could run the courses, and bought equipment for the office and the classroom.
It is reported that you will have increased your turnover fourfold this year. How have you done this?
Most of our growth this year is a result of our students giving us great testimonials, and spreading the word about our courses. I think that to a degree, we created the right product at the right time. People are talking about the importance of being able to code, and discussing the gap that’s developing between the number of jobs we have for technically skilled people and the number of individuals that have the skills to fill these roles.
Do you do any marketing or PR? If so do you employ an agency or do you do your own?
We haven’t done any PR, but we’ve been featured in the press a number of times. High-profile acquisitions and the introduction of coding in the national curriculum has brought learning to code into the spotlight. We do all of our marketing in-house, and we’re looking for our first Marketing Manager at the moment.
What is your strategy for attracting new customers?
Search engine and email marketing are two strategies that we’ve been running since we launched, which have consistently been effective. When we first started out, we did a lot of speaking engagements. We found that they were an effective and inexpensive way of getting in front of a new audience.
What top tips can you give to someone launching a digital start up?
It sounds trite, but keep it simple. When we first launched we had a range of courses and struggled to fill them. We were spreading ourselves too thin, and confusing our customers by having too many options. We took a risk and decided to cancel all of the courses that we had scheduled and started offering just two courses – Front End and Back End Web Development – which we made the same price and length. Cutting back made it easier for our customers to choose the course that was right for them, and meant that we could focus. As we’ve grown we’ve added more courses, but we’ve kept our business model simple.