La French Tech
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La French Tech

Students in their natural state: wrestling with code, together.

I opened a coding bootcamp in China. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

One year ago, just days after my own graduation from learning how to code at Le Wagon Shanghai, I returned to Chengdu to open up the 19th city in the Le Wagon global network. Since then I’ve had one hell of a roller-coaster ride setting up a business in China, recruiting teachers, finding a home for us, and most importantly, building a community of fun, hard-working, creative, and entrepreneurial minded students and alumni.

Over the course of the past year I’ve learned so many things across all areas of business — from financial planning, to tech talent recruitment, to product coaching, to design and marketing, to negotiating with local partners, to controlling my emotions in the face of the startup struggle and the infamous search for product-market fit.

Le Wagon Chengdu enrolled 50% females last year — the highest in the 29-city global Le Wagon network

One year ago I had no clue of the sheer grit, determination, and relentless perseverance required to build a profitable business from scratch. I had no idea I’d go from fist-pumping with joy in my room one day to curled up in the fetal position crying in bed the next. Now, after a year of both struggle and success, I will never take the notion of a successful business for granted, and I revere the countless entrepreneurs who came before me and bootstrapped their businesses with just a belief and good old-fashioned hard work.

While I’ve learned far too much to write about, below are some core beliefs that I’ve picked up over the last year, which now inform the way I run Le Wagon in Chengdu.

1. You can’t growth hack a transformative education

I’ve had the extreme privilege to attend or work for two of the most impactful education institutions in history — Yale University and UC-Berkeley. Like all of the world’s great universities, past and present, they started small (with just 1 student and 40 students in their first classes, respectively), and their early survival depended entirely upon building trust and community, and delivering a transformative education. They built their reputation slowly, over decades and centuries, and you’ll never see a Facebook or Instagram ad promoting an undergraduate education at either of these schools.

Even though I instinctively knew these things, I thought I could simply and quickly grow an existing high-quality educational program like Le Wagon in a new city. I thought that with effective marketing and a clear message, I could fill seats with enthusiastic young people like me — those ready for drastic change, wanting to learn practical skills, and jump head-first into the tech world. I learned that, whether or not you are ranked the top coding school globally, local students are still entrusting their livelihood to your institution, and are rightfully and healthily cautious. Making such a big commitment requires a strong relationship built on trust, and built over time; students must know you have their best interests at heart and that you’ll do anything and everything in your power to ensure their success.

Simply put: The best institutions have strong communities. Strong communities are built on strong relationships. Strong relationships are built on trust. And trust is built through personal interactions, over time.

This is antithetical to growth-hacking, which is to acquire as many users as quickly as possible, usually to meet VC-approved revenue targets. This is partially why Le Wagon’s 29 locations are bootstrapped by alumni of the program — alumni who care about building communities, sharing the transformative education they experienced, and empowering students to change their lives by learning practical tech skills. I firmly believe you can’t growth hack a transformative education (at least in the early stages!)

2. Stop comparing yourself to others

It was hard, but I stopped comparing myself to peers a few years ago when I realized my trajectory as a semi-nomadic secondary educator in East Asia was quite different from the consulting, corporate, legal or MBA route of the majority of my Yale peers. So, I was surprised to see that I compared the Chengdu campus of Le Wagon to the Shanghai campus — constantly. Shanghai could draw dozens, even hundreds of people to events; they could feature people from top companies like Google and Didi at their events. Meanwhile, I sometimes struggled to get six people at a workshop, and my guest speakers were small time tech entrepreneurs in the beginning. After a handful of events I’d nearly given up as I was chasing quantity while comparing a developing city in Western China to the cosmopolitan metropolis that is Shanghai.

Eventually I snapped out of it, stopped comparing apples and oranges, and focused on understanding my market and reaching my target customer, whether it was one prospect or one-hundred of them. And what did we find? Of course our target student in Chengdu is far different from our target customers in Shanghai — younger, local, and either studying abroad or preparing to study abroad. They also hang out online instead of attending in-person events. This is nearly opposite of our expat, mid-20s professional students in Shanghai who love to gather at networking events and industry meetups, and look forward to a more exciting future in tech. It’s far too easy to compare an early-stage startup to any other company…which makes it too easy get discouraged. You shouldn’t do it. Realizing this point also helped me understand the next point:

3. Quality over quantity — every time. And don’t forget it.

When you’re an entrepreneur you’re balancing survival with providing quality service. You make dozens of considerations in this regard — do I go for quantity so I can pay the bills, or do I go for quality to ensure a transformative experience. In education this is even more exacerbated because each student in the class affects the entire group’s educational experience. More so in our program, where students spend one-third of their experience building and shipping products as a team in a very high-pressure, deadline-driven startup-like environment.

We’ve learned this the hard way. You see, $5,500 in tuition is a lot of money for a bootstrapped startup, and when you have a customer willing to pay that, yet they’re only 70–80% committed and/or qualified (this program requires 110%), it’s harder than you think to say no. However, one bad apple in the program can ruin the entire experience for everyone. Over the last year I’ve learned to abide by the rule — choose quality over quantity. It’s trite, but it’s true.

Paul Graham’s advice to “do things that don’t scale” can’t be more true in the education industry if you want to deliver a transformative education. I’ve had to court each potential qualified student, build trust with them, and show them that their success is our success. I now realize that it’s better to start with a small group of people who have an exceptional Le Wagon experience instead of trying to recruit hundreds of them to have a mediocre experience. I believe that growth will come in due time…and maybe after we’ve built a world-class reputation in China we can think about ‘scaling’ in a more growth-hacky way (much like how my former employer 2U, Inc. (TWOU) creates and/or scales existing high-quality university programs like UC-Berkeley’s Master in Data Science). But for now, we’ll stick to Graham’s advice, thank you very much.

“I believe it’s more important to have 100 people who LOVE your product than a million who just sort of like it.” — Reid Hoffman, Co-founder, LinkedIn

In addition to these learnings, I agree now more than ever with everything I said a year ago:

Innovation and Education in Modern China

Dozens of CTOs, tech recruiters, and startups have come to Le Wagon China looking to hire the tech talent we graduate — not only because they can code, but because they can think critically, solve vague and complex problems, and are eager to collaborate and keep learning in a constantly changing startup environment (not to mention the fact that most of our students are extremely entrepreneurial — two alumni-founded companies in China so far — and have a global outlook, with China at the core). These are qualities companies and recruiters have difficulty finding in recent university graduates or in the talent available to them in Western China…or anywhere for that matter. Programmers are in high demand here. Period.

Chinese Internet vs. The World Wide Web

We’ve gone even deeper into the trenches of the Chinese internet. One year ago Le Wagon China doubled down on WeChat development and became the only coding bootcamp to teach WeChat’s mini-program framework in English (Udacity just took a crack at it last month, in Chinese, with results to be seen). Because of the rising popularity of the framework and the growing use cases, demand has gone up and we now have a dozen plus graduates taking on freelance work to build these things for both foreign and local companies. And there is no shortage of demand. Le Wagon China is uniquely positioned as the only global bootcamp that’s adapted for the Chinese internet, and we’ll keep adapting.

Examples of some WeChat mini-programs our students developed in just 10 days

Chengdu continues to rise

To be honest, one year ago when I wrote my original post, I still had doubts about whether or not Chengdu would become the tech hub the government wants it to be. Even six months ago I’d find myself questioning whether Le Wagon was too early in Chengdu. Now, after learning from tech industry insiders that Chengdu’s growth is real, after seeing the slow but steady return of Chinese educated abroad or those who were working in Tier 1 cities, and after meeting a handful of Chinese and foreign startups looking to land in Chengdu because of favorable policies and a lower cost of living and operating, I’m now confident that Chengdu will keep growing in the tech sector. There’s still a shortage of talent, and wages have gone up, but hopefully our graduates can fill those gaps as the city continues to grow. 加油!

In conclusion: Keep learning

One year ago I was new to this whole startup world. Yes, I’d been entrepreneurial throughout my life — from the time I was six, selling painted rocks as paper-weights to my neighbors, to hustling and paying my way through college, to building a college counseling product and team for Western China — but none of that could have prepared me for bootstrapping a business…in China. There’s so much to deal with on a daily basis that no degree or online course can prepare you for. And that’s what I love about this. You have to constantly be learning, adapting, and striking a balance between listening to the market and changing it. So, for the next year, and forevermore, I look forward to listening and learning, every single day.

Chengdu’s Hi-Tech Zone

If you want to learn product development and coding in the land of pandas (and maybe soon some unicorns!) then apply for or next program. It starts on June 25th.

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