Quincy Larson on scaling freeCodeCamp 🖥️ Transcend Newsletter #55
Interviewing the founder of freeCodeCamp on how he built & scaled a leading education platform.
Hola! Alberto here. Welcome to the Transcend Newsletter 👋
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This week I caught up with the founder of freeCodeCamp, Quincy Larson. Read on to learn about his founder story building and scaling one of the most impactful edtech startups globally.
🚨Quincy will also be joining us for an Open Discussion next Wednesday, July 13th at 9 AM PDT! Click here to RSVP and come jam with Quincy here!🚨
freeCodeCamp is a nonprofit unicorn
Like our friend Darrell said, freeCodeCamp is a nonprofit unicorn: users logged over 2 billion minutes of coding on its platform last year, reaching every country in the world (including North Korea) and growing at 60% yearly since its founding in 2014.
freeCodeCamp teaches anyone how to code, for free.
But just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The freeCodeCamp software engineering curriculum is made up of certificates you can acquire through self-paced learning and projects: it requires about 3,000 hours to complete the 10 certifications. Oh, and their full-stack web development and machine learning curriculum are open sourced for anyone to use.
If you assume a student is fully immersed in studying for 40 hours a week, the curriculum would take about 75 weeks to complete. That is about three to five times longer than most for-profit coding bootcamps, which prefer to prepare students in less than 15 weeks.
Here’s the crazy part: the whole organization runs on a budget that’s smaller than what some developers make on their yearly salary.
Let’s learn more about how they do this and its origin story directly from its founder Quincy Larson!
building freeCodeCamp from scratch
Before starting freeCodeCemp, Quincy was a teacher in schools in the US and China. Through these years, he learned to code and put this new skill into practice little by little: he started by automating some school workflows, and eventually got a job as a software engineer.
He then founded freeCodeCamp in 2014 and the platform hit the ground running right away!
Quincy knew he had found product-market fit early on, and the key was the messaging: people didn’t need to be convinced of the value of learning how to code; they were excited to learn that there was an easy (and free!) pathway to get there.
Here’s him referring to the early signs of traction when building freeCodeCamp:
A nugget of wisdom for early-stage founders: focus on the benefit of what you teach (get a job as a software engineer) rather than the skills one will acquire through your program (learn to code). No one cares about the latter if they don’t see a clear ultimate benefit!
Quincy had traction from Day 1, but he didn’t choose the traditional path of raising venture capital – instead, he bootstrapped the organization himself and eventually incorporated as a non-profit.
The reason he shared for going nonprofit was twofold.
First, he didn’t need to raise. The product could be built with some code and had low production costs, so he self-funded the initial years.
Secondly, it was about incentives. freeCodeCamp quickly found an army of contributors that volunteer their time and knowledge to help others learn to code, and he didn’t want their incentives and the organization’s incentives to diverge. Going nonprofit was a way to ensure this was the case.
Here’s Quincy talking about volunteers and how people got involved in the workforce early on for freeCodecCamp:
As such, freeCodeCamp is donor-funded, and a big chunk of this is done through individuals that contribute $5 a month. It’s amazing to think that an organization with such impact does much with such little resources!
freeCodeCamp does more with less
With a total yearly budget of $754,030 (all coming from donations), the organization extracts every bit of value from its dollars to run at a massive scale.
Let’s look at the impact of a single dollar donated: a $1 donation essentially enables 50h of learning, so just $20 can cover the cost of half a year of learning to code on the platform.
And this isn’t stopping anytime soon – freeCodeCamp has kept a 60% y/y growth since 2015.
There’s another lesson here for founders, and it’s to think carefully about what type of funding model suits your organization, product and mission from an early stage. We call it funding-market fit at Transcend.
Are you trying to build a high-tech solution from the jump that requires a high upfront investment? If the costs are small, you should consider bootstrapping to keep optionality open!
In this clip, Quincy also compares his model to that of bootcamps, and it’s a fascinating description.
Over 217,000 people self-report as fCC alumni (listing at least one certification on their LinkedIn profile) and at least 40,000 have gotten jobs as software engineers after completing fCC certificates.
By these numbers, freeCodeCamp has more graduates with a job in software engineer than all enrolled students in bootcamps in North America last year.
The main difference is those coding bootcamps charge an average tuition of $11,727, whereas fCC is obviously free. That’s about $469M saved for learners!
Quincy is optimistic that learners need more options to learn to code, so it’s good to have coding bootcamps and self-paced offers like freeCodeCamp. Some individuals are highly motivated to learn and will love fCC’s self-paced certificates, while others need the extra motivation and social experience that comes with an in-person campus like the ones that most coding bootcamps offer.
Where freeCodeCamp goes from here
freeCodeCamp has had a hell of a ride! But it’s just getting started, and I was dying to learn more about Quincy’s vision for the future.
Quincy has a few priorities: the first one is localization. He is mobilizing hundreds of contributors to translate 9,000 tutorials into world languages, so more people can benefit from the curriculum around the world.
The second one is really exciting too: he wants to turn their certificates into an actual accredited degree, and build the first free Computer Science Bachellor’s degree!
This project is very long-term oriented and is still in the works, but here’s what the experience could look like for students: you start learning on freeCodeCamp through the self-paced content, and eventually start taking on projects, certifications and practical labs that push you to dive much deeper into the core computer science curriculum, all inspired by the top CS programs in North America.
As you complete these more intensive courses that are accredited by a partner university, you could then transfer to a university with $0 in debt and complete your degree there!
Quincy recognizes there’s still a long way to go until university degrees become irrelevant in the workplace, and he wants to help make the curriculum as relevant as possible, especially for low-income students that want this credential.
“I don't think degrees are going to start to diminish in their importance for a long time. So we want to be able to actually get people through a bachelor's in computer science”
Wrapping and follow up
It was so awesome learning about Quincy’s journey and the decisions that shaped freeCodeCamp into the nonprofit unicorn it is today. His relentless focus on helping students for free is inspiring and I suspect many founders will learn from his decisions and journey.
If you want to ask Quincy a question directly and learn more about how he built freeCodeCamp, you should join our Open Discussion with Quincy next Wednesday! It will be a session open to all with Quincy hosted by Transcend Network, which will have both facilitated questions and Q&A from the audience.
Before you go, you just read about how much of an impact freeCodeCamp has with every dollar they take. You can become a monthly donor and for just $5/month (I am and it’s awesome!), and you will enable 3,000 hours of coding for free, which is almost two years of coding full-time.
Join me if you are an individual donor, and if you are an organization that wants to support fCC, DM Quincy on Twitter to explore ways to work together!
The Roundup ☀️
🎙️Join us for an Open Discussion with Quincy Larson next Wednesday, July 13, at 9 am Pacific Time. Click here to RSVP
🌍World Economic Forum (WEF) Report - Online learning: What next for higher education after COVID-19?
🎨Google partners with Figma to bring quality design education to the masses!
🤝 Bright Eye Ventures is hosting its EdTech Startup Festival 2022! RSVP here.
Network Jobs 👩💻
Looking for your next opportunity in the edtech + future of work space? Check out our Transcend Network Pallet to find the best job opportunities from our network:
Sales Admin Assistant @ NewCampus (Remote)
Learning Experience Director @ Electives (United States - Boston, MA)
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Really excited about Free Code Camp U! Cool to hear that it's a partnership approach, and that it'll be free/open source, in the awesome tradition of FCC.
Nice work Quincy, thanks for diving into it Alberto!