February 26, 2013 at 09:00 AM EST
Backed By $1M From Peter Thiel & More, Thinkful Is On A Mission To Reinvent Career Training
Ask any startup founder, and they'll tell you that engineering talent is in high demand, but the problem is that good talent is hard to come by. What's more, we have a computer science education deficit in the U.S. Today, computer science is absent in 95 percent of high schools. Luckily, a gaggle of startups and websites, like Treehouse, Lynda.com, Code School, Khan Academy, LearnStreet and more will now teach you the basics of some of the world's most pervasive programming languages. While these startups are collectively doing wonders for the democratization of computer science education, the founders behind Thinkful believe that the current options lack the kind of support that students need to learn effectively. Launched last year by Darrell Silver and Dan Friedman (who was one of the first to receive a 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship), Thinkful aims to help anyone and everyone learn skills that let them advance in their career or start a new one, while giving them the support (and teacher interaction) they need to get there through one-on-one training.
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Ask any startup founder, and they’ll tell you that engineering talent is in high demand, but the problem is that good talent is hard to come by. What’s more, we have a computer science education deficit in the U.S. Today, computer science is absent in 95 percent of high schools. Luckily, a gaggle of startups and websites, like Treehouse, Lynda.com, Code School, Khan Academy, LearnStreet and more will now teach you the basics of some of the world’s most pervasive programming languages.

While these startups are collectively doing wonders for the democratization of computer science education, the founders behind Thinkful believe that the current options lack the kind of support that students need to learn effectively. Launched last year by Darrell Silver and Dan Friedman (who was one of the first to receive a 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship), Thinkful aims to help anyone and everyone learn skills that let them advance in their career or start a new one, while giving them the support (and teacher interaction) they need to get there through one-on-one training.

After running their first class this winter, the founders are announcing today that that they’ve raised $1 million in seed funding from Peter Thiel, RRE Ventures and Quotidian Ventures — to name a few.

The raise also follows on the news in December that Citigroup was going to lay off 11,000 employees in an attempt to reduce its operations in emerging markets during tough times for bink banks. Thinkful used it as an opportunity for a little intelligent guerilla marketing, hoping to help former Citi employees turn “a crappy situation into an opportunity by starting a new career in the tech industry,” as I wrote at the time.

The team posted a new landing page that offered “a bold entreaty” to former Citi-ers, and it worked. The founders said they received a bunch of applications from ex-Citi employees, on top of dozens more from those outside the company.

Friedman tells us that he thinks Thinkful is launching at the right time, considering that the demand for quality, professional education is on the rise, as jobs continue to become more and more specialized. More than 56 percent of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed, while 300K skilled positions (and jobs) go unfulfilled. That’s a problem.

So, the founder says, Thinkful’s vision is to become an online community that offers classes for all skills that professionals need to be productive workers and stay relevant throughout their career. The team has started by teaching classes in web development but now that technology has begun to tough almost every industry, Thinkful has received applications from students with jobs in marketing, sales and finance — as well as tech.

Professionals today are starting to realize they can be more effective with the technical skills these online course platforms offer, and Friedman says that he thinks prospective students will find Thinkful more appealing because of its course format and one-on-one instruction model. For those unfamiliar, when one signs up for Thinkful, the platform does a skills assessment, in which they ask applications about their goals and their background.

It then customizes its curriculum to meet their need, places them in a cohort with their peers, pairs them with a mentor who’s an expert in their subject area and, as the student works through the curriculum, they meet with their mentor online once a week to review their work, solve any problems that have come up and discuss best practices, etc.

In this way, Thinkful hopes that it can rethink career training — by helping to personalize education for each student based on their existing skills and by focusing on exactly what they need to learn to advance their careers. The startup has spent the last four months or so developing its curricula (which is still under construction, as Thinkful adds to its roster) and has already trained its first 25 students. Over 70 leading tech companies and startups, Friedman says, have expressed interest in hiring Thinkful grads — both now and in the future.

That’s all well and good, and it seems that Thinkful is on the right track offering personalized curricula and personal instruction. However, these can be difficult to scale. And, let’s be honest, as mentioned at the beginning, Thinkful is very far from being the only startup to recognize potential in this space, so there’s plenty of competition. Personally, I believe that this will be one of the biggest and most lucrative spaces in online education, so I would say there’s plenty of opportunity.

Even though MOOCs like Coursera traditionally haven’t had the highest rate of retention, they’ve begun beefing up their platforms (and potential revenue streams) with career services. With ACE approval, certificates, foreign languages and a host of courses from the most elite universities in the country, it’s going to be tough for startups like Thinkful to compete with Coursera for the college-aged attention. (At least initially.)

And, the fact of the matter is that platforms like Lynda.com have been helping big corporate customers like Disney, Time Warner, Sony, Pixar, ABC, and HBO to supplement their learning content online for quite some time now. (Finding more than a smidgen of success doing it, by the way.) That’s both validation of the opportunity Thinkful faces going forward and means there’s plenty of competition ahead.

For more, find Thinkful at home here.


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