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, in the aftermath of the most recent bout of bad publicity around Lambda School, a much newer rival that has raised $48 million from investors, or slightly more than than the $42.5 million Codecademy has raised over the years. He says the company is continuing to chug along nicely.
The question 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 $240 per year on the service to learn the fundamentals of coding, as well as develop a deeper knowledge (and receive certification from Codecademy) 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 say the company’s international users are also growing steadily, 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.) He also says the company’s users often 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 perhaps employed but looking to climb the ladder or switch jobs and 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 it easily rationalizes the cost of the courses, which are exceedingly affordable as these things go. Comparatively, 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 the company 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, adding: Codecademy “teaches you the basics of a number of programming languages without much instruction on how you’d apply them to real-life problems.”
Still, 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. As software eats the world, the ability to shape, correct, and protect it will only grow more valuable. Receiving an education that comes affordably and doesn’t require an income-share agreement remains an appealing proposition, too.
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. Indeed, Codecademy already sells classes in volume packs, and 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.