When bootcamps go big: from coworking space to lifelong learning behemoth

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Oct 1, 2019

Bootcamps focused on coding and computer science have emerged as an important pipeline for tech talent. We conducted in-depth interviews with seven leading bootcamps to better understand their outcomes-focused business models. We are now sharing their stories, this being the fourth profile. For more on the disruptive potential of bootcamps, read our recent paper, Betting on Bootcamps.

In 2010, General Assembly was a new, trendy coworking space. Business was good, and the company had a waiting list of 100 entrepreneurs waiting to get in. Then came the news: General Assembly had won a $200,000 grant from New York City’s Economic Development Corporation to start offering design, technology, and business classes. On February 1, 2011, General Assembly (GA) kicked off its education business, unaware that this effort would go on to eclipse its coworking offering, become a global behemoth spanning four continents, and begin reshaping the future of learning.

Helping students along a lifelong learning trajectory

The typical GA student is 29-30 years old, has a college degree, and enrolls in part-time or online asynchronous courses to learn news skills. Roughly 26% of GA students stop working to fully commit to a career change. When it comes to admitting these students, GA does not emphasize selectivity. “There are bootcamps that primarily admit people with more advanced backgrounds,” explained Liz Simon, VP of Legal and External Affairs. “Our primary screen is self-motivation and commitment.” 

In the first iteration of what its education business, GA taught one-off classes and workshops focusing on entrepreneurship and technology. Citing student demand for more advanced training, GA began offering 60-hour programs in web development. It was also in these early days that the company started working more closely with employers like GE, who would buy classes in bulk and send dozens of employees at a time for upskilling, foreshadowing the now very prominent enterprise arm of the business. 

By mid 2013, GA began offering what we now recognize as the quintessential web development bootcamp. Unlike its competitors, however, who focused on either web development or data science for the first few years, GA quickly added data science, digital marketing, product management, and UX design courses. “The goal of GA was not to simply teach people to code, but to be a place where people could learn the most in-demand skills and disciplines of the digital economy,” noted Tom Ogletree, GA’s Director of Social Impact. “While software engineering and coding have been and will remain core to our business, ultimately our goal is to be responsive to demand from employers.” This diversity of offerings would become more common in the bootcamp space, but only several years later. 

Among bootcamps today, GA continues to offer among the most diverse set of courses, both in full-time immersive and part-time forms. Tuition for immersive courses is now between $13,500 and $15,950, depending on the subject and whether or not the course is predominantly in-person or online. Like many bootcamps, GA partners with third-party lenders like Climb Credit to help students finance the tuition costs. GA also started offering income share agreements (ISAs) for certain full-time programs in September 2018, and is currently serving 400 students through this offering.

Branching out into the employer-pay market

While the direct-to-consumer business is growing steadily, it is far from GA’s only business. Where most of the bootcamp space focuses on D2C offerings, GA strategically began partnering with employers to teach their employees, and is now actually seeing faster growth in its enterprise business. GA Enterprise now generates roughly half of the company’s revenue. 

Prominent examples of employers leveraging GA courses to future-proof their workforce include L’Oreal’s initiative to retrain 7,000 employees and Microsoft’s recent partnership with GA to upskill and reskill 15,000 workers by 2022. “When you add up the cost of recruiting and paying severance, it’s a really smart decision to just invest more in training,” Simon pointed out. “Recruiting can’t solve the skills gap for the industry.”

Whether on the D2C or B2B side, the curricula typically share similarities, with elements of contextualization for particular companies, such as using industry-relevant data sets in labs and projects. GA also creates customized content for employer partners as needed. The main drivers of curriculum updates are GA’s instructional design and product teams. These teams receive input from Product Advisory Councils, which consist of subject matter experts and GA instructors, and students. Simon also cited the involvement of Standards Boards, made up of industry executives, in developing competency maps of what learners need to know at different levels of the job and to keep pace with changes in tech.

For both the consumer-facing and enterprise businesses, GA gauges student satisfaction through metrics like net promoter score, among others. Outcomes metrics tend to differ. GA measures job placement outcomes for its consumer business, like most bootcamps. On the enterprise side, GA works with employers to determine desired outcomes, such as assessing if courses directly contribute to a specific revenue goal. There is also the Talent Pipeline as a Service (TPAAS) offering, in which GA helps fill a certain number of roles in a set time frame. GA finds and trains potential employees, and then places them.

Employers pay for General Assembly’s services in different ways. For most services, the bootcamp does not put compensation at risk directly relative to metrics, according to Charlie Schilling, GM of General Assembly Enterprise. “If we satisfy objectives, we are more likely to continue being engaged,” he explained. “It depends, though. We do have shared risk in our TPAAS offering.” For GA, regardless of how their clients pay, the lower learner acquisition costs and large student cohorts inherent to the enterprise business render it a promising avenue for continued growth.

Success drives scale; scale fuels success

A major ingredient in facilitating growth in both the consumer and enterprise businesses, to the tune of well over 70,000 students completing GA programs, is the company’s wide geographic distribution. By 2012, the bootcamp was already opening campuses in London while eyeing new sites in Seattle and Washington D.C. The educational offerings grew so quickly that GA discontinued its coworking space business in 2014. There are now 17 US cities with GA offerings, and internationally the bootcamp has a presence in London, Singapore, and Australia.

In addition to opening its own new locations, GA also moved into Toronto by way of acquisition. In August of 2016, GA leveraged a portion of its almost $120 million in seed funding to acquire the Canadian bootcamp Bitmaker Labs, which continues to operate under its own brand.

The biggest mergers and acquisitions news for GA, however, came in 2018, when massive Swiss staffing firm Adecco acquired GA for $412.5 million. GA rests within Adecco’s holding company structure as an independent entity, hopefully finding synergies between a bootcamp that furnishes skilled talent and an HR solutions company that specializes in staffing and placement. Also, Simon noted how being a part of Adecco’s structure could insulate GA from economic recessions. “Adecco gives us access to an array of sister companies for our enterprise business, which is pro-cyclical. The consumer business is somewhat counter-cyclical. We are probably better positioned for economic changes than before.”

Outcomes-focus drives future directions

Throughout these transitions, GA has consistently seen graduation rates of at least 93% in its full-time D2C courses. GA only reports job placement outcomes for students who choose to participate in the Career Services program. For the 18 month reporting period from June 2016 to December 2017, about 66.5% of students did so. Of those, 91.9% find full-time employment in-field within 180 days of graduating, and 99% get there within one year.

Going forward, GA anticipates more growth in its enterprise business, both in sheer volume and in subject matter as it observes widening skills gaps in fields such as affiliated healthcare, and anticipates new financing models like ISAs opening up more opportunities on the D2C side. The very recent announcement of GA’s first university partnership, with University of Virginia, presents another area of growth. GA is also pouring considerable resources into its Assessments branch, which seeks to both benchmark talent and contribute to building industry-wide credentials going forward.

Further, the bootcamp hopes to tap into its alumni network more fully. “We have an alumni network that is 60,000-plus strong on the consumer side, skilled professionals at the peak of their career,” explained Simon. “When you join GA, you are joining a much larger community, and our job is to make those connections meaningful and valuable.” 

Our previous bootcamp profiles:

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.