BWP Ep. 1: Codecademy w/ Zach Sims

Meagan Loyst
Building with Purpose
9 min readOct 20, 2020

by Meagan Loyst, Early Stage VC at Lerer Hippeau

For EdTech founders. NYC founders. Education enthusiasts. This one’s for you!

When I think about what it means to be “Building with Purpose,” Zach Sims and what he’s building with Codecademy is the perfect example (and why I’m so excited to chat with him as BWP’s first interview). Codecademy was founded back in 2011 in Zach’s college dorm room. Fast-forward to today, Codecademy has served more than 45 million learners and in a way that makes learning to code both accessible and affordable. Their mission is to build the education the world deserves, and IMHO, they’re well on their way.

Simply put, Codecademy is a New York-based online interactive platform that offers coding classes in a wide variety of programming languages. However, Zach and his team have gone above and beyond during the past few months to help students, furloughed workers, teachers, and NYC learn to code:

  • Student scholarship program: In mid-March, Codecademy announced a scholarship program for students affected by school closures, with plans to reach 10k students across the globe and provide free access to our platform. Based on overwhelming demand, Codecademy extended the scholarship program and awarded over 100k students in 147 countries.
  • Worker support campaign: In April, Codecademy launched a campaign to help workers who had been laid-off or furloughed during the pandemic, by donating five 3-month memberships for every single purchase of Codecademy Pro. By May, they unlocked 100k donated memberships.
  • NYS and NYC partnerships: This summer, Codecademy launched new public-private partnerships at both the state and city level. They joined forces with Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team to provide 1,500 training licenses to New York State developers, helping them prepare and manage the government’s response to the crisis. They’re also working with the City of New York to provide free Pro access to New Yorkers who are seeking new careers.
  • Student and teacher offerings: Codecademy expanded its work with students and teachers this fall, including its first-ever student membership which provides complete access to its curriculum for a more affordable price. With growing demand among students, this plan allows Codecademy to make its platform more accessible and help students who are navigating in-person and remote learning this year. Codecademy is also working with the learning platform Clever to provide free access to its curriculum for K-12 teachers and their classrooms.

A huge thank you to Zach and the entire team at Codecademy for all they’re doing for NYC (& the world!) to help further the education landscape. Super excited to share our conversation with you — I hope it encourages current & future entrepreneurs to build with purpose, and learn from one of the best about Zach’s journey to launching & scaling Codecademy.

A Conversation with Zach Sims: CEO/Co-Founder of Codecademy

First start with telling me about your mission, and how Codecademy was built with purpose from the start.

It all comes back to creating economic opportunity. Back when we started the business, what that meant was teaching important technology skills that people needed to transform their lives. Our tech inherently helps with self betterment & self improvement through education. For us, we’re big believers in doing well by doing good, if you will. And we succeed by making sure our users are successful!

We have this belief that consumers are willing to pay for something that will meaningfully improve their quality of life and education, and I think we’re on the way to proving that.

Many EdTech companies on the B2C side utilize a freemium model to build a large base. You and your co-founder chose to launch & offer Codecademy for free, and from an article I read, gained your first 200k users in one weekend. What was your secret for finding your audience so early on in your launch?

I think we were pretty lucky to be honest, but it also helped that I was basically our target user. I had been a non-technical person interested in learning to program, and I found everything that existed at the time to be way too challenging. And so we wanted to create an experience that would help people like me.

It turns out that the majority of people in the world don’t necessarily feel predisposed to start learning programming or engineering, and so creating a way that’s easy and simple for them to get started was the key.

The key thing that we did was allow people to feel a sense of magic in that process. I think what led to it taking off so quickly was giving them this moment, early in the experience, of “wow, I can do this!” And I think that made a lot of people excited.

We’ve also seen many companies on the B2C side in education transition to offering B2B contracts as well and tap into corporate user bases. What made you decide to take that leap, and what has been the most successful / challenging about that transition?

We want to be where learners are! And the reality is that many learners are currently in the workforce and looking to upskill. From a company perspective, there’s a huge incentive to not only increase your teams’ output and productivity, but to keep employees engaged and connected to their work. This leads to more efficient onboarding and training, as well as higher team retention, saving organizations both time and money.

As far as what’s been successful, we now have a broader base of people that are using the product in terms of background and career interests. All too often, people look at Codecademy and assume that this is a product that’s just for people that want to become engineers — or for people that already are engineers. We see the same thing with our B2B learners as we see with our consumer learners, which is that learning technology skills is something that’s important to pretty much everyone in every job. On the B2B side, we’re now seeing people in finance learning how to interpret the data that their companies build on top of. Same with product managers and everything in between — it’s actually rarely just in engineering or technology departments, so the scope of impact that we can have has been really heartening.

On the challenging side, we’re still figuring out our ICP — what the sweet spot is for the right companies to be working with. Our product can appeal to so many people, so this has been an interesting exercise in product marketing, and we’re definitely still figuring it out.

Why did you choose to start Codecademy in NYC? How has that impacted the story & mission of your brand overtime?

We started the company here because we lived here — my co-founder and I were both undergrads at Columbia. It’s your classic, cliche dorm room story of two people that start a company in college, and then I dropped out to the start building it full-time. We did Y Combinator, so we moved to Silicon Valley for a bit as well. And then by the time we came back to NYC, we decided that the number one priority was that we wanted to be in a city where our target learners work. What we realized early on was that Silicon Valley is a great place if you’re building a company for software developers because there are plenty of them and it’s somewhat of a monoculture in that sense.

We wanted to build a company for everyone else, and so we wanted Codecademy to be surrounded by people that didn’t know about programming, didn’t know about engineering, and who might be the type of people who eventually could be. It’s being in a place where there is a more diverse set of skills and more interesting people that we could cater a product towards. And that was New York City.

We also thought that there was a burgeoning community here and a network that we could hire from, so we wanted to hire some of our initial team members from folks that we were friendly with at Columbia, and we were fortunate enough to raise our Series A from the folks at Union Square Ventures and so we were also supported by an early set of local investors and board members.

With 45 million learners, Codecademy has certainly seemed to perfect the community piece. How do you keep people engaged over time and wanting to come back?

It’s definitely still a work in progress, and something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about. What’s worked so far is trying as much as we can to connect people to each other early in the product — it’s proven to be a really good way for them to be motivated to learn.

When you know someone else is going through the same type of experience that you are, generally we see learning outcomes are significantly better.

And so what we try to do is literally in that experience — whether it’s going to ask a question in the forum, joining a peer group, going to a meet up — we try to get people engaged in some aspect of the community so that they continually have a peer group that keeps them motivated. And I think that’s helped with learner retention. It’s not just your learners who are engaging with the community…they also require higher levels of satisfaction. The community piece helps with NPS and getting people to bring friends along as well.

When you think about the skills gap and so many people currently unemployed, how do you think through job placement and what happens after people complete their courses?

The skills gap has unfortunately continued to be a huge problem and is even more of an issue today in the wake of COVID and all the dislocation that the economy has caused. At this point, we have a real focus on preparing you first with the skills you need in order to get those jobs mentally — so that’s of course where programming skills are really focused. Recently, we started rolling out things like interview prep courses, and helping people understand what they’ll face when they go interview. For now, we’re staying purely in the realm of education. In the long run, we definitely have an interest in helping to close that loop and match people with the employment that’s right for them.

Advice for an entrepreneur building something transformative in education? What would you like to see built?

My biggest piece of advice to founders: know what you don’t know, and build a team around that. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

I spent a lot of time in the early days of the company trying to do everything myself, and learn everything myself, until I realized that you can surround yourself with people that are really trying to help areas you’re not as strong. And as a founder, sometimes it can be easy to focus on everything, when really you should just focus on what you’re good at. So I think that was a pretty critical lesson for me early on.

In terms of transformative things that I’d like to see built, I think there is still a dearth of opportunities for career-oriented education in areas outside of the technology field (ie: nursing for example). There aren’t great education solutions for careers that aren’t software development, cybersecurity, etc. So I wish someone would tackle that problem and help us fill other skills gaps that maybe aren’t as obvious to people in Silicon Valley and New York.

A huge thank you to Zach for his wisdom & time. I can’t wait to see all that Codecademy will accomplish in the coming years.

For more on Codecademy, follow them on Twitter. And Zach too!

If you’re a founder building something transformative in education, whether it’s career-oriented education platforms for non-tech industries as Zach mentioned above, or something else that’s changing the EdTech landscape, shoot me a note at — would love to meet you! Same goes for NYC-based founders who are building with purpose.

Keep up with me & future editions of Building with Purpose on Twitter in the meantime :)

A bit about me: My name is Meagan Loyst and I’m a VC at Lerer Hippeau, the most active early stage/seed fund in NYC. I spend time in thematic areas like EdTech, enterprise SaaS, consumer tech/brands, emerging tech, and digital media/entertainment. Before joining LH, I spent time at General Atlantic, BayBoston, J.P. Morgan, and Perry Capital. I’m also an Advisory Board member of Girls Who Invest. I’m excited to support founders building the next generation of category-defining companies.



Meagan Loyst
Building with Purpose

VC @ Lerer Hippeau | Founder of Gen Z VCs | Advisory Board @ Girls Who Invest