How a Great Product and Functional Swag Transformed The Starter League
Neal Sales-Griffin is atypical in his archetypal success. He’s in his 20s, doesn’t have a million-dollar pedigree and hails from the south side of Chicago not Silicon Valley. Yet, if investors created the prototype for an entrepreneur, Neal would be the mold.
Neal and his co-founder, Mike McGee, have the winning formula for their startup, The Starter League. Founded in 2011, The Starter League, formerly called Code Academy, is already a multi-million dollar success story. The Starter League teaches ordinary Joes and Janes how to accomplish their tech development dreams; teaching them to build web applications and other products. The Chicago-based startup also teaches them to ship those products to the world.
It is the darling of the Chicago tech world and has steadily gained buzz, praise and revenues as it grows exponentially. But how did this duo from Northwestern University get to start up success? Neal took just 14 minutes and 54 seconds to explain to me his startup secret sauce. Here it is:
Be the Best Forget the Rest
Neal doesn’t waste time speaking about fancy marketing plans, strategies, mission statements etc. Instead he talks about two things: creating a great product and telling everyone about that product.
“We are the best at what we do,” Neal boasts about The Starter League. “At the end of the day all this marketing stuff is just gravy, it’s all marginal. The vast majority of the promotion and the way you’re going to market is by having a great product. If you have a great product that rises above EVERYTHING else. You have a crappy product the best marketing in the world isn’t going to do you any good.”
Functional Swag Helps Drives Profit
Neal and McGee, have parlayed their everyman’s coding school from a personal project to a multi-million dollar company that has people from all over the world learning Ruby, Rails, HTML5, CSS and more. In just one year, more than 300 graduates from 25 states and 12 countries completed their courses and bootstrapped the company into more than $1 million in revenue. In 2012, Chicago tech powerhouse 37 Signals invested in the Starter League, the first company stake 37 Signals has ever bought. How did they build all this buzz?
“We didn’t have a marketing budget,” Neal says, “so we bought all our students bags, backpacks with our logos on it. We didn’t have a lot of promotional products. We didn’t want too much swag. We wanted functional swag. It was one the best marketing tactic; promotional products, functional swag was effective for us. Our backpacks were pretty popular.”
That functional swag–logoed backpacks and hoodies–added jet fuel to The Starter League’s word of mouth campaigns. Wherever their students went around 1871, the loop, their neighborhoods, etc., on their backs or bags were the flags of Starter League’s logo. The promotional marketing was so strong that even when the startup changed its name, from Code Academy to The Starter League, people still knew who they were.
Throw in a few videos and online testimonies and more than 500 happy students and The Starter League built a bastion of buzz that brought in students, investors and now company partners.
It’s About the Product Stupid
But true to his entrepreneurial spirit, Neal cautions that promotional products aided in their success but what guaranteed it was his company’s superior product.
“You have to have a product that’s great, that rises above everything else,” Neal said. “Product. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Product. Product. Quality of your product is your marketing.”
More From Neal:
On Developing Your Product:
Your product should begin with a problem, and an opportunity and then the solution. Too many people start with the solution first. First you need to identify the problem and then the opportunity. Then you need to define what you want your product to look like when it’s done. €¦ We pioneered a model. I was looking for something and it didn’t exist.
It happened organically. Mike and I went to every networking event we could and told people about what we do. We had 35 students the first quarter, 56 the next, 88, then 93 then 120.