Modern Learning Empires

How School16 Built a 4-Month Tech Career Accelerator That’s Sending Learners to Top Tech Companies

Negin Sairafi
March 24, 2022

Education clearly runs in the Revzin family blood. As children living in Belarus, brothers Sergei and Vadim watched their father build an alternative school system from the ground up. This system gained global notoriety, focusing on early integration of career training through interests and talents for even the youngest students.

Vadim and Sergei Revzin’s early professional careers saw them wearing many different hats, from sales manager to sales engineer to product manager—but all the while, they were building businesses from scratch in addition to mentoring and advising as professors at City University of New York. In working with adult learners, Sergei and Vadim noticed an opportunity to create a school system that helped professionals advance their career without the burden of traditional higher education.

With their father’s legacy and vision pushing them forward, School16 came to life just two years ago. The name, borrowed from the school their father built, is a nod to their childhood and where they’ve been able to grow from humble beginnings.

Today, School16 offers a rigorous 16-week career advancement course with concentrations around Product Management, Tech Sales, Operations, and Digital Marketing as pillars in their curriculum. During the first half of the course, all learners build a foundation around startups, the tech industry, and the four pillar areas of study. The back half of the course allows learners to concentrate on one specific area and become trained enough to apply for roles within that industry.

Though School16 is still in its early stages, Sergei and Vadim have learned a lot about curriculum design, marketing, and scaling a business to find the perfect candidates for this type of education. With their own career experience and mentorship background guiding them, School16 is on track to train the most successful professionals in the tech industry.

Other creators and founders of bootcamps, academies, and micro schools will find inspiration in this brotherhood and what it means to build a successful learning community together:

How School16 became an instant success story for aspiring tech professionals: Lessons worth learning as an emerging founder or operator of an academy, bootcamp, or online education business

Start building when (and only when) you've found some unique insight

“When we started School16, we decided that the way to find out what the best educational program and curriculum design would be is to talk to the people who are actually trying to get into tech and trying to break into these careers,” says Sergei, co-founder of School16. “We had a lot of assumptions as to who that would be. The pandemic had just started, and we had people in healthcare, retail, teaching, and other industries completely reconsidering what they were doing because they were not being served by their employers. They were not being protected by their employers and, oftentimes, losing income and job stability.”

Sergei and Vadim threw all prior assumptions out of the window and instead began interviewing both potential customers and folks who were already successful in the type of roles School16 trains for. They began hosting webinars during the pandemic, bringing together people who were both working in tech already and those interested so they could learn alongside one another:

“We decided, ‘Hey, people want to learn from other people that are already in these jobs. We have built a good network of people over the years — why don't we bring them to the people looking for these jobs and they can ask questions directly? Through that process, we got to interact with probably close to one hundred job seekers, career changers, and recent graduates over a very short period of time, which means our learning was very condensed and very powerful.”

From these learnings, there was one trait all of the job seekers shared: A lack of direction. “The current education system tells you ‘Go to school, choose a major, and that'll probably help you get a job,’ which it doesn't. So we decided we have to take a completely different approach,” Sergei says. 

What fuelled their early program design were these newfound insights from the type of people who wanted careers in tech and why they wanted those careers. But, drawing learnings from their father’s success, not all journeys are created equal. Sergei and Vadim knew how important it was to cater to each individual’s unique background, interests, and talents.

“We decided we have to provide context. We're just providing the context and letting the individual explore what they're best at and what they're going to be strongest at,” says Sergei. “Now, we don't have PhDs like our father, but we do have a lot of experience in business and across different jobs, so we knew that's the best way to learn.” 

In that experience in many different industries and roles, they learned another important lesson that helped form early program design: people want to learn not from academics, but from professionals. Providing context and showing learners what they could become as a result is far more impactful than teaching in a traditional classroom.

Sergei mentions: “People want to learn from other people that they want to emulate. That wasn't a far-fetched insight because, if you think about the best classes you had as an undergrad, or if you're lucky enough to have gotten a graduate degree or MBA, it was probably taught by an entrepreneur or a business builder or an executive who teaches on the side as an adjunct professor — not the career academic whose curriculum is too theoretical. So that framed the insight on how we designed our curriculum.”

In order to remain less theoretical and more practical, the brothers shifted the focus of their curriculum to training for non-technical roles. It reduced the barrier to entry significantly because not everyone in tech has to be technical. “Our friends are very successful, making six-figure salaries in tech without being technical. We know it's very possible, so that's how we decided to design our programs.”

Bake flexibility into your business model

Deciding the right cadence and timeline for different cohorts in your virtual academy or bootcamp is one of the biggest lessons founders learn in the initial stages of growth. For School16, this was one of the most foundational shifts in their business model — and that shift was informed by really getting to know their customer and allowing flexibility in the business model to be an opportunity, not a hold up:

As Vadim recalls “We knew there were a couple of constraints [in finding the right cadence]. One, it started off with figuring out who your customer is. For us, our customers weren't people that were already in tech. They weren't necessarily people that had great high-paying jobs. Some were, but, for the most part, it was folks that were trying to break into tech and didn't have a lot of time or they needed to do it in a relatively short period of time. We truly believed, from the very beginning, that you don't have to be in school for a long time to do this.”

In addition to understanding their customers’ unique time and financial constraints, the brothers had to deeply understand where and how they were getting lost in an endless sea of options:

"There's a lot of content you can consume: YouTube, relatively cheap Google certificates, and the like. But the problem is that people actually get lost in the optionality. They're not any closer to knowing what to do, because there are just so many options out there for them,” says Vadim. Knowing that these potential members needed a central place to get the training they needed was an important task as Sergei and Vadim built out this community.

“The third insight was that the self-paced learning type of MOOC model where you're watching videos online and expecting to have career outcomes already wasn't working.  The completion rates weren't good and, quite frankly, people were even more lost because there was nobody there to explain concepts if it got difficult.”

This final insight helped inform the fact that this course had to be live. Somebody had to be on the other side of the computer teaching difficult concepts and abstract ideas. They also knew from the first findings that there was a time constraint. People were anxious to get into new, high-paying roles and didn’t have all the time in the world to get trained.

“We started off with eight weeks because we decided, ‘You know what? Most of these folks don't know much about tech because they come from completely different disciplines. They need that foundational understanding of what it's like to work in tech.’ So we decided on a program that would make you decide what you want to study. ‘Am I going to learn digital marketing? Am I going to learn Python?’”

This initial course allowed members to deep dive into the tech industry and learn how the disciplines of sales, marketing, operations and product management all play various roles. The design was successful: 85% of School16 students landed a job in tech within six months.

But members still wanted more.

“Some people want roles that require a little bit more education,” Vadim admits. “Most people were craving a course like our first eight week program, but they actually wanted to dive deeper into product management class or sales, even though they took a two-week module on it. So we decided to keep our customers longer and help develop their skills in a model that we think works best. That was the impetus for us changing the process from eight weeks to four months to now 16 weeks: the first eight weeks is the same as it always was. But now, in the last eight weeks, you're focused on a niche area of your choice.”

Dan Martell says “Riches are in the niches.”  It’s how SaaS Academy became one of the most successful courses for founders of SaaS companies in tech — read how.

Naturally, doubling the length of the course meant ramping up marketing to fill monthly cohorts and hiring a team to support an influx of students — and they were able to with ease. Sergei and Vadim baked this idea of flexibility into the initial business model so changes could be made without hassle. 

“Our model is flexibility,” says Vadim. “Flexibility of when you learn (it's part-time), flexibility of options for payment, and the like. It’s really important for us to have accessibility to our classes and flexibility of when you even start the classes.”

Build your community around what happens after the program

In a little over two years, an impressive 250 members have joined the School16 community. Sergei and Vadim learned quickly that the support you offer members once they’ve completed your bootcamp or academy is equally — arguably, even more so — important to the support and growth they achieve during the program.

The School16 staff engrains this into their culture even before prospective members join the community:

“It's actually a question that prospective students ask us when we're interviewing them: What happens after the program? And how do you support us on the career side after the program?” Sergei says. “I think part of the reason why people are conditioned to ask that question is because most programs de-emphasize any kind of career outcomes: preparing for interviews, understanding how to build your network in tech, getting your foot in the door — that's all usually left until the end. In fact, for many programs, unless you're doing a full-time commitment, you're not really getting much support there. We have some of the best career support that exists out there in the market.” 

School16 regularly engages students and alumni by hosting events for the community and inviting professionals from different tech companies to speak. They’re open to the public, but their community always has first dibs for introductions to the speaker if it’s going to advance their career.

They also offer additional coaching support for alumni that may be struggling post-program to land a job as quickly as others, including synchronous and asynchronous support from day one.

“That's part of our strength — for a lot of companies, collecting data on alumni outcomes is pretty difficult. It's not easy for us either. But we're lucky enough where our alumni often come to us because they're so excited they have some career outcome and want to give back to the community. It’s a great cycle that some alumni members can support other alumni,” says Sergei. “Career support continues throughout, even after people graduate.”

align human-centered outcomes with revenue goals

Vadim admits that determining pricing for your academy or bootcamp is one of the most difficult hurdles to jump for a budding founder. Even taking the necessary steps — competitive analysis, customer discovery, A/B testing, to name a few  — won’t necessarily help you land on the answer, as Vadim and his brother discovered.

“We thought, ‘Okay, most of these folks that we were interviewing through our customer discovery process or who are coming to our events don't necessarily have the finances to be able to do something this expensive. That's why they're coming to us in the first place. So how do we make sure that we're still getting compensated and are able to compensate our instructors and everyone that's involved? How can we also provide that individualized support and accessibility for our students?” Vadim questioned.

They knew their program needed to cost somewhere in between the multi-thousand dollar coding bootcamps and the inexpensive, inefficient certification courses. This realization helped land School16 on a part-time program.

“That's more than sufficient for people to get career outcomes, and that was proven to us after people were getting jobs in tech. It also makes it so you don't have to have full-time instructors, which would be very expensive,” Vadim says.

This model also allowed them to really explore different payment plan possibilities to better support their members and create accessibility despite socioeconomic status. 

“We’ve actually had payment plan options from students from the beginning, but we’ve had to play around with the length of payment plan options over time. Like, what's a deposit that makes sense for somebody to make sure that they're invested in their education but also, if for some reason something happens they could still kind of defer to a future cohort and it doesn't break the bank for them? That’s still an ongoing process,” says Vadim.

Though Sergei and Vadim are still putting together the perfect package, this exploratory phase has helped them learn a lot about options they don’t want to explore.

“We never want to go the income share agreement route, which is what a lot of our competitors did. A lot of them are walking away from now because it doesn't tend to work that well. It tends to be predatory. It's still a loan. Sometimes you're giving up a huge chunk of your income once you get a job pre-tax. We realized that would just not be helpful to our students and wouldn't be aligned at all with what we're trying to accomplish for them. When you start to create constraints around these different things, you realize what’s fundamentally not true to who you want to be or what you want to be as an organization.”

Remember that aforementioned flexibility the School16 team prides itself on? Vadim and Sergei work on a humble, gracious philosophy: If you’re willing to learn and you can get there financially eventually, they’ll be flexible in how and when you pay.

“Constraints are a beautiful thing”, says Seth Godin. Read how setting boundaries helped his cohort-based courses grow to over 25,000 members in more than 90 countries.

thrive on constant experimentation, no matter how big your program grows

When it comes to marketing your course, the strategy will evolve overtime — but your spirit of experimentation should be a constant in your growth plan. The same goes for incentivizing community members to refer your business to others that may benefit from your teachings. For Vadim and Sergei, constant experimentation has been the cornerstone of their lightning-fast scalability.

“Early on in School16, we had about 40 people that had gone through the program after about six months. We then decided to experiment with paid referrals, mostly to see how this might change as our alumni base grows. Even if we don't offer a paid incentive, maybe we can offer other types of benefits. Whether it was a paid incentive or it was unpaid, it didn't change the amount of referrals that we got,” Sergei recalls. “What did drive more referrals were really good career outcomes. The faster our students can have strong career outcomes, the faster they can get great salaries where they feel, for the first time, that career stability they may not have had and job satisfaction that they thought was outside of their grasp.”

That knack for experimentation helped Vadim and Sergei learn early on that the lore of most startups — putting in long hours and seeing what comes of it — isn’t always true. Rather, you can start with one amazing idea and run with it to see the outcome. It doesn’t have to be a huge labor or a time-consuming activity.

Sergei says, “When we started School16, we started with a $15 tuition and a two-month product. We already knew in our heads that we were probably going to offer more classes down the line. But we didn't know when that would be; we needed to get to a certain volume of students and to a certain level of outcomes for students to get there. We were able to start offering additional classes this year because we got to that level. I think it's really important to have that sort of Northstar of the impact you want to have and work towards it.”

Constant experimentation is what also helped Sergei and Vadim generate revenue well before they sought out funding. To lower customer cost of acquisition, the brothers and their team focused experimentation efforts on the paid and organic acquisition channels they use to prospect new members and keep alumni in the mix:

“It's very important to have a healthy mix of both paid and organic acquisition channels that you constantly experiment with to figure out how to grow to make sure that your blended cost of acquisition remains relatively low. That's what we're constantly doing — we're figuring out how to have low to no cost acquisition channels where the only cost is our sales process and a healthy mix of acquisition channels that are paid but not so expensive that we're barely breaking even.”

The future of education is SaaS: School as a service

“I certainly don't think that the traditional higher education model has gone by the wayside, but I think it is going to change drastically in the next decade,” Sergei says. “What the traditional higher educational model is really good at is creating an environment for exploration, but I think people are already realizing and will continue to realize that going to just any other school where you have to go into six figures’ worth of debt is not going to give you a career. It's not guaranteed to give you the outcomes that you want. So People are going to start looking for educational experiences that really teach them practical skills.”

In addition to those practical skills, training for everything that comes with finding a job — marketing and branding yourself, networking, and talking with employers — are all skills that are missed in the traditional setting. As Vadim points out, “How do you communicate and sell yourself to an employer not only on a resume or on LinkedIn, if you have a non-traditional background, but also in an interview in a way that's compelling to them? So you’ll start to see a shift where the talent itself learns how to talk about themselves. We do believe certificate programs like ours, part-time programs like ours, and alternative education solutions are going to play a bigger and bigger role and universities are going to be a complementary piece to that. It's not going to be the direction that every single person will take, especially if universities continue to be as pricey as they have been for the last several decades.”

As for the collective community of budding founders and operators of online education businesses, learning from what’s worked — like Vadim and Sergei’s father, building a school system ahead of its time — can help inform the future of learning and nurture career launches and transitions.

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