The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

There's More to Fargo than a Movie & TV Show

By Mike McGee on September 22, 2014

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Fargo.

Hey Fargo, Stay Boring t-shirt

And contrary to this awesome shirt I realized Fargo was anything but boring!

I was invited by Greg Tehven (pictured above) to share The Starter League story at 1MillionCups Fargo. I met Greg last year at the Innovation Expo in Sioux Falls, and I've also participated at 1MillionCups Chicago, so I knew that this would be a great experience.

During my presentation, the audience was able to learn about what TSL's been doing over the last three years, but I was able to learn so much more about Fargo's startup community!

Yes, Fargo is more than this awesome new TV show and that one amazing movie) in the 90s. They are a growing startup community.

Hours before my talk, I met with local education, software development, and business stakeholders to give advice on how we built our tech community in Chicago. I really feel that my advice was unnecessary, because they are already doing the right things! From teaching young kids how to code to attracting talent from the surrounding area, I believe Fargo is well on their way to creating a little tech capital in the Upper Midwest.

Before I went on stage, there was an announcements section. And this wasn't a 45-second section with a couple quick plugs. Over 20 people came on stage to share what event they were putting on in just the next couple months! Some people even travelled from surrounding towns just to come to this event at 9 o'clock in the morning! On a Wednesday! WHO NEEDS COFFEE WHEN YOU HAVE THIS?

Feeling all this energy in the room, it was incredibly easy to get up in front of 200+ people and share our story.

After my presentation, I met so many people that were teaching themselves how to code, helping others learn in different countries, and leaders of local software development shops interested in hiring more developers.

I even had the chance to meet Doug Burgum, the Chairman of the Board at Atlassian (the company that created HipChat) and also a resident of Fargo. Outside of running a few billion dollar companies, he's done some amazing things for Fargo.

Other Fargo Highlights

A couple days before I arrived, CoCo, a new co-working space in Fargo had just opened! I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to see this new space and boy is it beautiful. CoCo has also partnered with 1871 so members of each space can work there! And the space is so beautiful we might have to do some remote working weeks from Fargo!

I also had the chance to hang out with Jake Joraanstad, CEO of Myriad Mobile. Myriad has racked up an impressive client list over the past three years and was recently recognized on the Empact 100 list and one of the "Top 30 Companies to Watch" by Entrepreneur Magazine.

I also hung out with some of his employees to eat some bison burgers and go bowling! And no we didn't bowl left-handed (and this fast) for the entire night.

And I've learned that Fargo is just like the West Loop! Lots of trains. Only there's are a little longer...

Silicon Valley, New York, Boulder are the first startup communities to come to mind, but I want to make a case for Fargo is an upcoming market. They have a great education system, local business leaders focused on acquiring capital and resources, a brand-new co-working space, and an awesome group of local leaders who care about building the community the right way. With people like Greg, publications like Emerging Prairie and companies like Myriad Mobile, Fargo can become a new place for startups to call home.

P.S. My Fargo hosts published a much better write-up of my story, so if you want some more Fargo check it out!

John Meyers on Why You Should Go to Starter School

By Mike McGee on September 3, 2014

John Meyers, one of our inaugural Starter School graduates, worked as a business development rep at Coyote Logistics before the program. During Starter School he built FamilyRoom with fellow student and close friend Chance Griffin. He's now working full-time as a product designer at NextPoint, tasked with redesigning their app's interface.

Last week he wrote a blog post communicating why others should consider Starter School. You can read a snippet of the blog post below.

Exactly one year ago today I was sitting at my desk at my sales job in one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods. The company I was working for had recently been named ‘The Best Place to Work In Chicago’ for the second straight year. I did not especially like my job. I felt unfulfilled. What kept me going was this little hobby I was working on outside of work. That hobby was HTML and CSS.

A friend of mine down in North Carolina, Chance, was also teaching himself how to code and he suggested I apply to this new code school in Chicago called The Starter School. He had already done so. I applied. We both got in. The two of us quit our jobs and Chance drove almost 1,000 miles to move to Chicago.

To recap: First, I quit my good, steady job. Second, I paid $36K. All to attend a brand new program that had yet to be proven.

What the hell was I thinking?

To read the full post on John's decision, visit his blog on Medium.

Erinn Barr Explains Her Decision to Attend Starter School

By Mike McGee on September 3, 2014

Our friends at Switch, the newest way to learn about in-person coding/design bootcamps, did a Q&A with Starter School graduate and founder of MakeHerSmile Erinn Barr. You can read a part of the interview below.

By the end of her first day at Starter School in Chicago, Erinn Barr had covered everything she'd already known about coding. That set the pace for the education she was about to embark on, having quit her job as an online marketer to learn how to design and code a web application from scratch over a period of nine months. "I wanted to change what my career options would be in the future," she said of her decision.

Since then, Erinn has gone on to launch, a service designed to help men give great gifts to their loved ones. A person interested in finding a gift signs up on the site and answers questions about the person they want to buy for, before receiving a gift recommendation from Erinn herself. Upon confirmation from the customer, Erinn coordinates the gift purchase, wrapping, and shipping.

We caught up with Erinn to learn more about her experience at Starter School.

Erinn, why did you decide to attend Starter School?

I knew a bootcamp would provide me with more opportunities in the future and also let me take control of my future career. Starter School was a good mix of coding, design and entrepreneurship. I didn't think I would end up a backend developer but wanted to know how to do it myself.

What challenges did you overcome to get to where you are?

There were daily challenges with keeping up on the work, overcoming frustrations, and avoiding distractions. Getting through the bootcamp requires you to continue working through issues even though you may be stuck on a problem or frustrated. The people who give up and quit will have a harder time later on.

What plans/dreams do you have for the next 5 years?

I'm going to move forward with and building more of it. Right now I'm working at the co-working space provided by the school, but eventually I'm going to want my own space and hope to have that within a few years.

Any advice for students looking to join a bootcamp?

Be ready to give up on other things for the bootcamp but realize that the time you spend there is special. You'll make new friends, put yourself in uncomfortable situations and learn a lot about yourself.

For more on why Erinn chose Starter School, read the full interview on Switch's blog.

Why I'm Changing My Stance on Yo

By Eric Brownrout on July 23, 2014

Imagine an app that revolutionizes communication as we know it. An app devoid of clutter, skeuomorphism, and badging. An app so simple that it only serves one purpose. Imagine an app that sends "Yo."

Congrats! You’ve just imagined what some are calling the greatest mobile app since I am Rich. Unfortunately you’re a few months too late.

I didn’t believe the headlines at first. A million dollars in funding for such a basic app built in only eight hours. It read like an Onion article, yet my browser assured me I was still on TechCrunch. I didn’t know what to feel. This confusion was soon replaced by a wave of anger and frustration. But why was I mad? Did Yo’s funding signify the existence of another tech bubble? Perhaps it was Yo’s marketing that ticked me off. “Single tap zero character communication tool that is everything and anything you want it to be.” Or maybe I was just annoyed that I didn’t think of it first.

Later that day I received a Yo invite. The message read “I wanna Yo you! Add my Yo username” and was sent from none other than the TODDFATHER (aka my dad). Everyone knows that when your parents are inviting you to join the latest social media platform, something is up. So how did this app, so simple in nature, manage to go viral and make waves? This question left me pondering.

When it comes to virality, there is no surefire way to predict which apps will have it. Oftentimes virality is a form of serendipity. For every Yo there are thousands of other apps lying undiscovered, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

Yet Yo has managed to thrive off its initial wave of buzz and take advantage of every available opportunity.

What makes Yo unique is it that it challenges the principles that some of today’s most successful apps are built upon. Developers are packing more functionality into apps than ever before. And users have come to expect it. Software giants are eating up smaller companies left and right in an attempt to integrate new services.

Then there’s Yo. A simple app (even it’s icon is just a shade of solid purple) which claims to be nothing more than that. When you want to let someone know you’re thinking of them without the hassle of a text. Yo. When you arrive at the restaurant to meet your friends. Yo. When you’re bored and cause why not. Yo.

Is Yo going to change the world? No. Is Yo ultimately a fad? Probably.

But I believe that Yo’s success should serve as a reminder for us all. As we set out to solve more difficult problems, our solutions grow in sophistication and scale. The tech giants are growing closer and closer to critical mass, and even now they are taking steps to counteract it.

Sometimes less is more, yo.

How MakeHerSmile is Helping You Give a Better Gift

By Mike McGee on July 7, 2014

MakeHerSmile is a service created by Starter School graduate Erinn Barr that helps you give great gifts to your loved ones. Now that Starter School is over I caught up with her to talk about the building process and what she has planned next for MakeHerSmile.

MakeHerSmile helps you find great gifts for your loved ones. We'll handle the hard work, you'll handle the overwhelming gratitude.

What was the catalyst for this idea?

Growing up, my dad struggled at buying gifts for my mom. One year for Christmas, he bought her one place setting and figured he had gifts for the next 11 holidays. She asked him whether he wanted a divorce or if she was supposed to eat by herself.

Now that I'm married, I see my husband struggle at buying gifts as well. While my dad and husband have the best intentions, it doesn't translate into a good gift.

There's also the fact that I love buying and wrapping gifts. It's something I get kind of obsessive over when Christmas or a birthday rolls around.

Walk me through how MakeHerSmile works.

A person interested in getting a gift will come to the site and sign up. I'll then reach out to them, ask them questions about the person they are buying for and then send the gift recommendation. Once the person confirms the gift, I'll purchase the gift, wrap and ship it. Going forward, I'll send gift recommendations for other occasions and holidays.

What is special about giving a gift?

The reaction it creates. The way it makes someone feel. Gifting reminds us to appreciate the special people in our lives and to go out of the way to celebrate them. I believe that reminder to ourselves is actually one of the most important parts of giving a gift.

"While my dad and husband have the best intentions, it doesn't translate into a good gift."

Why is it so hard to give a good gift?

I think most of us get busy and don't spend a lot of time thinking or prepping for it. It's very easy to let ease trump thoughtfulness.

Can you remember the first gift you gave? Who was it for? And how did they react to it?

When I was in first grade, my brother was going away to college at West Point. I remember being at a store with my mom and getting to pick something out for him. I picked out a magnet with a mom cat and a little kitten next to her. It said something along the lines of "I love you" and my mom tried to explain that it wasn't appropriate. But, I was certain that that was the gift I wanted to give my brother - a guy going into the military. A magnet with kittens on it. Of course when I gave it to him, he pretended to love it but I do remember a few chuckles as well.

What was the worst gift you've received or experienced someone getting?

Well, my mom did receive a lot of bad gifts over the years. Besides the one place setting, my dad once gave her his wedding ring which had been accidentally mangled by his wood chipper. She was already pretty upset about the fact that he destroyed the ring, but then he put it on a necklace and gave it to her for Valentine's Day. She said, "I don't want your mistake hanging around my neck."

Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, does not like to give gifts. But after using MakeHerSmile, he was able to give an amazing gift to his father.

Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, does not like to give gifts. But after using MakeHerSmile, he was able to give an amazing gift to his father.

Over the past few months you've been able to beta test MakeHerSmile. Do you have some special testimonials from your early customers?

"Pure gift giving perfection, Erinn! WOW!! Completely blown away by the care and detail. Love how you arranged the socks. Best gift "I've" ever given. Outsourcing gift giving. Who would have ever thought. I wonder if mom will approve?"

Josh Braun, VP of Business Development at JellyVision

"Erinn gave me the peace of mind I so desperately needed to make sure I was doing my best to be a better boyfriend. She loved her gift, it worked!"

Neal Sales-Griffin, CEO of The Starter League

"Thank you so much for taking care of each and every detail of my Mother's Day gifts! Everything shipped at the perfect time and made the important women in my life very happy! I wouldn't have had such a successful reaction on my own. Thanks again!"

Jon Solomon, Starter School Alumnus

"Gifting reminds us to appreciate the special people in our lives and to go out of the way to celebrate them."

This is the first product you've built. Talk to me about how much you have learned while building MakeHerSmile.

This is definitely not easy. It's been really important to test my idea as soon as possible. To start working with people and hacking everything together. I know that I've learned more this way.

I'm also trying out lots of different things that I didn't really consider in the beginning. For example, I'm helping a friend buy all the gifts for her upcoming wedding. Also, I'm helping Jill Salzman buy gifts for her Founding Moms Conference that is in October.

To learn more about MakeHerSmile, you can go to, follow Erinn Barr on Twitter, and keep track of updates on the MakeHerSmile blog.

Great talk by Ricardo Semler, the genius behind Semco

By Daniel Lopes on May 13, 2014

Ricardo Semler is the CEO and majority owner of Semco SA, a Brazilian company best known for its radical form of industrial democracy. He turned his family's moribund manufacturing business into an innovative workplace and increased revenue from $4 Million in 1982 to $212 million in 2003. But the most interesting thing about him is how he achieved such an incredible feat.

As a Brazilian nearing 30 years old, I remember what it was like here in the 80's and 90's. Culturally, Brazil wasn't close to the level of innovation Ricardo achieved. He built Semco amidst inflation, poverty and corruption levels sky rocketing.

The type of environment and mindset he describes isn't only for industrial management. It also fits with technology business like ours. His point of view on motivation, control and leadership are highly inspiring. His management style has a lot in common with successful companies and leaders in our field.

To learn more about Ricardo Semler check out this talk (and if you enjoy his message I would also recommend this in-depth interview:

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