Mike McGee – Co-founder of The Starter League

[quote style=”boxed”]I am not a big believer in failure when it comes to entrepreneurship. I am a big believer in learning from mistakes.

When you an entrepreneur, you are trying to create something that has never been done before, so it makes more sense that your initial idea will not work. I think failure is too strong of a word here. Thomas Edison says it best about creating the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”[/quote]

Mike McGee is the co-founder of The Starter League, an in-person school in Chicago that teaches beginners how to build web applications. Before The Starter League, Mike’s greatest claim to fame was that his High School mascot was a pretzel. He went to Northwestern for four years where he spent two years being a student and two years in student government – miraculously becoming Student Body President his senior year. In Spring 2011, Mike decided to turn down Obama for America (his first real job offer) to co-found The Starter League. Recently Mike was named to Crain’s 40 Under 40 for 2013 (along with his co-founder, Neal Sales-Griffin). His latest “dent in the universe” project is Starter School, an immersive, full-time program that will take people from zero to entrepreneur in 9 months.

Where did the idea for The Starter League come from?

The Starter League was born out of a personal problem. My co-founder (Neal Sales-Griffin) and I had problems we wanted to solve but we didn’t have the technical skills to solve them. Instead of getting other people to build our ideas, we wanted to learn how to be creators. For a year we went through every book and online resource we could get our hands on, all in the effort to make our ideas a reality.

People thought we were insane.

When we talked to friends and mentors they thought we were wasting our time. “You guys were both student body presidents at one of the top colleges in the country! You should be in six-figure jobs right now, not learning how to code!”

Even though we faced this negative sentiment, we powered through learning. We did this because we knew why we wanted to learn. We felt like we were prisoners to the ideas we couldn’t build, so we wanted to break free by learning how to make our ideas real.

In that year we learned A TON, but we also learned how hard it was to learn. This was before the “learn to code” movement had taken off, so there wasn’t a defined path to become a professional developer. We had to go through trial and error to figure out the best learning path.

At the same time there was a rising interest in startups in Chicago. Rahm Emanuel had just been elected Mayor of Chicago, and wanted the city to become a tech capital just like Silicon Valley and the East Coast, Groupon had just turned down a $6 billion offer from Google, and was the tech darling of the startup world. We also had tons of people coming out of the woodwork with ideas for startups.

We would go to all these startup events, and the normal conversation would go like this:

Me: [Looking at a title on their name tag] What does “X” do?
Startup Guy: Well X is this web app that is going to do Y… but I need a web developer.

What Neal and I realized was that there was a gap between the people who had ideas and the people who could make them real.

The people with amazing design/development skills were doing one of two things:

1. Getting paid mega-bucks to work at Apple, Twitter, Google, Facebook, etc.
2. Realizing that they could build startups themselves.

We also looked back at our year-long journey and realized that while we had learned a lot, we were no Zuckerbergs and needed a lot more practice to get there.

So we started looking for schools.

We wanted to find an in-person school that could help us accelerate our learning. The problem was that there weren’t any out there for beginners. You could either go to a 4-day bootcamp and spend $2-4K to learn web development that was geared for professional developers or go to a 4-year university and spend six-figures to get a computer science degree. The former wasn’t fit for beginners and the latter was too expensive and not practical enough for what we wanted to do.

“If you can’t find it. Build it.”

We decided that instead of continuing our search for a beginner-focused software school, we would just build it ourselves. We didn’t know how to build a school, but we knew that we didn’t want the experience to be like our last year of learning.

From March to September 2011, we went on a crazy rollercoaster ride of finding an instructor, space, resources, and most importantly students to come to our school. We wanted to get at least 12 people to start our program and we ended up with 35. Since the inaugural class, we have taught over 1,000 people from pretty much every age group, background, state, and country how to build web applications.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Usually when I see this question in other interviews it is followed by the interviewee’s typical (aka perfect) day. I’m going to be honest with y’all and say that my typical day is all over the place. I usually get up around 6:30-7am, even though I set my alarm for 430am. After a quick check of emails (I HATE DOING THIS BUT IT’S A HABIT) I make a big breakfast while having a TV show on my iPad in the background. I usually get into work around 9-930am and from there it’s all over the place. I could have class in the morning, meetings, or continue trying to get to inbox zero. The issue with helping run a school is that it can be a 24/7 business. It’s exciting and frustrating to have so many different things to do at the same time.

What I have learned over the last three years of working in this space is that you have to learn how to do things whether you are inspired or not. As human beings we want to have our perfect environment; a cup of coffee/tea, sitting by a sunny window, slight breeze in our hair, listening to NPR (ok maybe this is my perfect environment) and then we can get to work. But even when you do find yourself in this environment, you can still make excuses not to work.

I’ve learned that the best high is just completing things.

How do you bring ideas to life?

By sheer persistence. The good (and bad thing) is that it’s not hard to come up with ideas, the hard part is execution. Actually, it’s not even the execution, it’s the path to execution. Accepting the time it will take to iterate, and continually shape the idea until it’s ready to ship.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Alternative education.

We were at the beginning of the coding school trend in 2011, and it has been amazing to see all these programs start all over the world in the past three years. This movement signals something that should have been evident a long time ago: learning doesn’t stop when you graduate college, it should continue and arguably be more impactful than all your previous years in formal education.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Doing things no matter how I feel when I am doing them. [See answer 2 & 3.] I have just learned to be like “Hey Mike! F&%#!g do the damn task!” Once I accept that and get started on the task I realize two things: 1. Damn this was really hard, but I’m going to commit to plugging away at it! 2. Actually, this was easier and more fun than I thought.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Thankfully I haven’t had a “worst job” experience because I have been very picky about my jobs. However I have had some tough job experiences. The last job I had before The Starter League was as a WordPress site designer.

To be honest I shouldn’t have even landed the job because I had very little knowledge in how to build WordPress sites & we were also building The Starter League at the same time!

But my boss was awesome at the start! He was totally down with me working for him while building a startup on the side. He wanted to help me build it!

But that didn’t last for long.

Like everyone, he took on more than he could chew, and that trickled down to me. What originally was a great relationship turned in a very poor ending with me not getting 50% of my final paycheck, which left me financially strained as we were building our startup! Fun times y’all. Fun times.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Learn not to worry so much! It’s hard when you are creating something, because it’s yours for so long before it’s someone else’s. Then you present it to the world and hope they don’t reject it. I’ve learned that most of the time when I launch something into the world that I get a positive response back.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

There isn’t something I wouldn’t do over, but there are a lot of things that I should have done earlier that I am now paying the price for. If there are things in your startup that you feel you can push off, DON’T DO IT. Grit your teeth and do it now, because those things come back with a vengeance.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

The best strategy we have implemented is delivering a great outcomes. Word of mouth trumps all other marketing, so by creating an amazing experience for our students, they in turn refer their friends, family members, and co-workers to our school.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I am not a big believer in failure when it comes to entrepreneurship. I am a big believer in learning from mistakes.

When you an entrepreneur, you are trying to create something that has never been done before, so it makes more sense that your initial idea will not work. I think failure is too strong of a word here. Thomas Edison says it best about creating the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We have had tons of learning experiences at The Starter League. Classes we thought would get a packed classroom only to fizzle out. Parnterships we thought would work but didn’t. Hiring and firing decisions that backfired on us. Internal projects that we wanted to finish but couldn’t. From those experiences we’ve learned from our mistakes and have made better decisions.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Haha I love this. I have so many ideas that I give away for people to build. Here’s one of my first ideas I came up with out of college.

CitizenU – Our society is pretty apathetic when it comes to politics. But contrary to popular opinion, a lot of things get done in Washington. The problem is that we don’t know about them and chances are they might not be to our benefit. We only get excited about politics every 4 years, but politics is an everyday sport.

This app would help in two key areas:

1. Knowing what is going in Washington – You would be able to see what your congressperson has voted on, what bills they brought to the floor, and how they impact your community.

2. Making you a more informed citizen – CitizenU would also be a social news aggregator that would incentivize people to be knowledge about key areas like education, healthcare reform, defense spending, environmental issues, etc.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

When I was 10 I was almost run over by a deer… While walking. Life in the country.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Oh boy, since I live on my computer this could be a long list! I’ll keep it to my favorites:

– Sanebox This plugin is SO CLUTCH. It filters away emails that are not important right now, which is a big deal for me. You can also train to Sanebox just in case it makes a mistake!

– Hype Machine- I love hearing new music, and this music aggregator is amazeballs.
– Rdio – Of all the streaming apps I love this one the most. Beautiful design and a great collection of music.

– Simplenote/Notational Velocity – This lightweight tool syncs across my iPad, iPhone, and Mac seamlessly and is super easy to use.

– Pipedrive – Super awesome web-based tool if you are focused on sales. Been using it for a few days and I love it.
– Basecamp – Our Starter League team swears by it to keep all our projects in order.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Mindset: The New Pyschology of Success: Transformed how I think about learning.

Basically there are two types of mindsets: a fixed and a growth mindset. A person with a fixed mindset believes that they have a predetermined level of intelligence and can’t change how smart they are. When they encounter something is difficult they move to something that is easier. A person with a growth mindset looks at challenges they face as an opportunity to get better. They don’t believe in a fixed level of intelligence, they are always striving to get better!

Read it.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Howard Tullman :
Jason Fried:
Leo Babauta:
Whitney Hess:
Seth Godin:


The Starter League on Twitter: @starterleague