Zach Sims speaks quickly and succinctly. He sounds busy – as busy as you might expect from a 22-year-old man running a multimillion-dollar new business based in New York City.
While most university juniors are skipping Spanish class and trying to determine the edibility of tequila mixed with iced tea, Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski were quietly and quickly building a substantial business. The former political science and computer science majors, respectively, started digging for a startup project two years ago and they hit on something that hit big.
“I was learning to code and Ryan was teaching people to code while we were both at Columbia,” says Sims. “I found it to be a frustrating thing to learn, and Ryan found it frustrating to teach. So we decided to build something better. We wanted to do something that would fit into our bigger, theoretical understanding of the lack of practical education people are seeing in the world.”
Accessibility may help explain why Code Academy was able to acquire 200,000 users within 72 hours of launching. They now claim to have millions of “students.” “We take something that has traditionally been very complex and we make it really easy to learn,” says Sims. The young partners quickly garnered an impressive and vocal fan base, earning praise from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and raising capital from, among others, Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, O’Reilly, SV Angel, Thrive Capital, Yuri Milner and Richard Branson. In June, Sims and Bubinski announced that they had raised $10 million.
In addition to an international set of financiers, more than half of Code Academy’s users live outside of the United States. “We always saw the global possibilities for this, and we knew it would work anywhere there’s no comprehensive computer science education – which turns out to be pretty much everywhere in the world,” says Sims. He says that the site has gained particular popularity in the BRIC countries, and that they’ve started hiring from outside of the United States to encourage staff to think internationally. There are no current plans to fracture the site into unique country sites because Sims believes that would ruin the current sense of community.
Of course, the big question remains: How are Sims and Bubinski going to make money for their investors? Sims is evasive on the subject, but others have speculated. Writing in Forbes, J.J. Colao suggested that Code Academy could start charging for premium content, such as “video tutorials and lessons veiled as interactive games.” There are also, of course, significant advertising opportunities attached to a domain with one million pairs of eyes.
Sims is already far from his dorm room, with no plans to return any time soon. He took a leave after his junior year, but he insists that his now-consuming work on Code Academy is not such a departure from what he planned to do with his professional life.
“I worked at startups in undergrad, and I had always planned on finding something passionate to do on my own,” says Sims. “Everyone here is super driven and it’s something I look forward to doing forever. It’s hard to think of something that’s higher impact than what we’re doing right now.”