Firehose Project — Designing a business model for a digital learning ecosystem
In 2013, Marco Morawec and Ken Mazaika taught their first web development workshop to a couple dozen students in a Boston classroom. Very quickly, they would go on to host at places like Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Brown, RISD, and Babson. It was then when Firehose Project was founded with a mission to give people the in-demand technical skills that aren’t taught in traditional 4-year college programs.
Today, Firehose Project’s mission is to transform people’s careers by providing experiential education for tomorrow’s world. The program remains bootstrapped, continues to be profitable, with 600+ graduates and 100+ trainers globally. Partners include the Obama Administration’s TechHire and Germany’s Refugees on Rails initiatives.
I joined Firehose Project in early 2017, just as the online education space began to mature. Competitors closing down signaled a consolidation of the “coding bootcamp” market, making it more difficult for smaller players like Firehose Project to compete against VC-funded education programs.
Over the year I was with the team, the company persevered through several transformations in response to the changes in operations. As a director, I was committed to guiding the company on the path to building a digital learning ecosystem that sets the standard for vocational education.
Innovate the Product
The consolidation of the market has forced online education programs to promise more than they can deliver, as seen by the recent Flatiron School Settlement. A product innovation that has emerged from this competitive environment is the Job Guarantee: the promise that students will secure a job if they make it through their program and meet certain, predetermined criteria.
While the concept appears virtuous as a service, there are inherent flaws with it in practice:
- Programs devote their resources to outcomes at the cost of the actual educational experience.
- Programs filter out and remove students who fall behind so that they can boost their job placement numbers to prospective students.
Given that there are more factors that impact hiring decisions, such as a person’s aptitude, interpersonal skills, and work ethic, the idea of guaranteeing someone a job inherently unethical unless you’re going to hire them yourself.
As an education company, Firehose Project has a fundamental duty to be transparent and accountable to its students. With this challenge, how does Firehose Project differentiate itself from programs that offer Job Guarantees?
Scale the Operation
Many online education programs have taken on Venture Capital funding in order to scale quickly and gain a bigger market share. A strategy that appeals to investors is the Income Share Agreement: agreements that require you to pay a percentage of your future income instead of a tuition. Using an example, under Thinkful’s ISA agreement, an average junior web developer in the US could pay $25,761 over the duration of the 3 year ISA period. This is an enormous increase over the $14,000 standard upfront price Thinkful charges.
While the strategy appears intuitive for a business, there are inherent flaws with it in practice:
- Programs model their business for a student’s future income in order to survive.
- Programs need to constantly add students, consequently targeting people with less disposable income.
Online education programs with VC funding are at risk to this conveyor belt mentality, rather than an individual approach that promotes the learning goals of the student. Education shouldn’t be a commodity.
As an education company, Firehose Project has a fundamental duty to provide an educational experience that leads to future career satisfaction. With this challenge, how does Firehose Project effectively compete with programs that use Income Share Agreements?
Look to Experiential Education
The inspiration for designing the service and business were found in the experiential education methodology: the infusion of direct experience with traditional learning. It is based in the belief that learning and doing are not mutually exclusive: both can be done at the same time.
This type of education puts what a student learns into practice, and makes it more likely to retain the knowledge because it connects the learning to real-world situations. By demonstrating knowledge in this way, it makes graduates more attractive to potential employers because they have proven ability for the job.
Respect the Culture
Direction for optimizing operations was rooted in how the company was founded. The in-person teaching experience helped the founders understand how people learn technical skills. They spent a year refining their teaching methods, constantly adapting the curriculum in the classroom.
This led to the establishment of company values, that are considered in every decision-making process:
- Be people-focused.
- Be open.
- Be practical.
- Be ethical.
Together, this means that we lead with empathy and look after each other, be humble and give honest feedback to each other, set realistic expectations with our stakeholders and each other, and always do what’s in our member’s best interests and never compromise our integrity for short-term wins.
Outline the Jobs to Be Done
The job market for the current workforce looks very different than it did for any previous generation. In recent years, industries have changed rapidly and frequently, forcing employees to re-skill, take more career risks, and scale higher barriers to enter the workforce. This trend is accelerating rather than slowing down.
We conducted user research to reveal insights in how adults learn online, engage with the curriculum, partake on one-on-one’s with their trainer, participate in their community, and continue their careers after completing the program. Students of our program had four distinct motivations:
- Start a Career — Unemployed, likes technology, and wants to become a web developer.
- Change to a New Career — Employed, likes logical thinking, and wants to earn more money.
- Further an Existing Career — Manager, has a company budget to take a training program, and wants the skills to work more efficiently with a technical team.
- Pursue a New Idea — Entrepreneur, has a product idea, and wants the skills to develop it.
A major driver of these motivations is the invasion of technology within nearly every industry. People need to acquire the skills they need to thrive in tomorrow’s economy and transform their careers to meet the new reality of the job market.
It was clear that our company goal must be to provide the best student experience so that people can attain meaningful and lucrative work — ultimately providing the basis for a better life.
Focus on Transferable Skills
Historically, job automation has taken blue-collar roles, such as manufacturing and agricultural positions. Now, we’re beginning to see automation threaten white-collar jobs, even those in the financial services industry. Because of this widespread push towards automation across all types of roles, it’s anticipated that we could lose up to 890 million jobs worldwide by 2030.
This means a tremendous number of people will need to retrain and acquire new skills in order to stay employable. Many of the jobs that remain will require an understanding of programming and logical thinking.
With the growing demand for programmers, applicable web development education is becoming more important than ever. We believe that this type of web development education is not necessarily about the programming language that you learn, but rather about learning how to problem solve.
If you build this skill, you’ll be able to pick up other languages in the future with ease. This, combined with learning the actual tools of the trade, best practices, and general developer mindset will set you up for success in a work environment.
Redefine the Value Proposition
We believe that vocational education provides a way for people to gain a better quality of life by learning new skills that are always in-demand. We also believe that vocational education as it currently stands is ripe for improvement: it needs to be updated to reflect the skills required in the digital age. Given that traditional college education is more expensive than ever, it is vital that there are alternative ways to gain lucrative employment, and this is where we think vocational education can come in.
I led cross-functional collaboration with product, education, and support stakeholders to develop systems for a digital learning ecosystem. We want to modernize it to teach the skills needed in today’s world and set the educational benchmark against which other companies are measured.
Rebuild the Business Model
The internet is still trying to gain credibility as a medium for education because of the newness of the industry and lack of regulation. However, the internet can provide a lot of value to the education experience. We believe that one of the big benefits of using online as a medium for education is the opportunity to democratize learning. Students of online education are no longer bound by geographic location, demographics, or life circumstances, making education and its benefits more widely accessible.
We designed a cohort-based program focused on transferrable skills and educator tools to give the best customer success experience. We see this as an opportunity to enhance the online learning experience by providing education that’s more experiential and caters to a wider variety of learning styles.
Setup Structures and Processes
Our vision is to create a digital learning ecosystem to make this type of education accessible for everyone. We envision a future educational experience that focuses on the application of knowledge, integrating hands-on experience and leveraging shared industry knowledge to help students prosper in tomorrow’s world.
To reinforce the changes to the organizations, I led the design of structures and processes to align and support the company culture and strategy. This enabled performance management to encourage employees to embody cultural attributes and training practices to reinforce the culture as the organization grows.
Establish Rituals and Ceremonies
The culture that had gotten Firehose Project to where it is, is not the culture needed for innovating the product and scaling the operations. Unlike developing and executing on designs, changing the company’s culture is inseparable from the emotional and social dynamics of people in the organization.
We wanted to shift our shared norms, beliefs, and implicit understandings in order to achieve the change we desired. I created a structured framework for dialogue so the team can talk through the change together. I designed conversations for different contexts and levels — daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly — to cultivate meaningful discussions and align on goals.
Invest in Culture Change
Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.
In May 2018, I left Firehose Project with the strategies needed to innovate the product and scale the operations. In defining the company's aspirational culture, I recognized my need to be a part of an established culture so I can foster my professional growth. I knew I could only find this outside the world of startups.
For the founders of Firehose Project, leading with culture will be a sustainable competitive advantage in achieving an innovative and scalable business model for a digital learning ecosystem.
If you are excited about what Firehose Project is doing, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org along with a note about what you are interested in. I can personally introduce you to the appropriate person on the team.