Neal Sales-Griffin: Solving problems, making things and having fun

Something is brewing in Chicago, and Neal Sales-Griffin is at the center of it. Sales-Griffin is from the South Side of Chicago and describes his home as a magical city and the Midwest as a magical part of the country. He is responsible for bringing people from all around the world to Chicago to learn

Today at Thinc Iowa, Neil Sales-Griffin shared the story of how and why he founded The Starter League.

Something is brewing in Chicago, and Neal Sales-Griffin is at the center of it. Sales-Griffin is from the South Side of Chicago and describes his home as a magical city and the Midwest as a magical part of the country. He is responsible for bringing people from all around the world to Chicago to learn how to code and design web apps through The Starter League, a school that trains people of any skill level to code and design.

This morning at Thinc Iowa 2012, Sales-Griffin took the stage at The Temple for Performing Arts to tell his story.

Prior to The Starter League, Sales-Griffin was working for a venture capital firm. “I had the best job anyone could have,” he said. He was learning and working with business models, technology trends, analytics and more. But he said he wasn’t satisfied, he wanted more. He realized he wanted to do three things:

  1. Solve problems
  2. Make things
  3. Have fun while doing it

Sales-Griffin decided that in the period of one year he was going to learn how to build web applications. Thus, The Starter League was born.

The Starter League Concept

Sales-Griffin and his co-founder created the idea for The Starter League off of a very simple blueprint. They sat down and asked themselves, “What if we could create a learning environment that is built off of Ruby on Rails, has 12 students, lasts three months, has class 2-3 times a week, is right here in Chicago and costs $6,000?” 

Immediately, people applied from all over the world, and Sales-Griffin and company realized they needed to be bigger.

What’s in a name?

One interesting part of The Starter League’s history is its name. Originally, the company was called Code Academy, it described exactly what Sales-Griffin and his team did. But then they came across something called Codecademy. Sales-Griffin explained he and his founders talked to the creators of Codecademy, worked out an agreement and relaunched Code Academy as The Starter League.

“We represented so much more than just code — a league of people who are going to live the rest of their lives, solving problems through technology,” Sales-Griffin said. 

Partnership with 37signals

Recently, Sales-Griffin and his team partnered with Jason Fried and his Chicago-based company, 37signals.* The Starter League became 37signals’ first investment, and Sales-Griffin said the partnership was a natural fit. 

This fall’s class at The Starter League has 123 students from all over with diverse backgrounds. One thing Sales-Griffin said he is most proud of is the student body is made up of mothers, CEOs, MBAs, engineers, truck drivers and more. The first class the organization ever had was made up of 35 students (four women), and this fall’s class of 123 includes 37 female students.

NSG’s Five Things

Sales-Griffin had five takeaways he wanted to share with the audience.

  1. In-person > Online – The ability to partner up and solve problems when you get stuck is a far better form of learning. Teamwork, mentorship, and immersive learning outweighs ebooks, screen casts and web tutorials. 
  2. Quality > Scale – Sales-Griffin said he fields a steady stream of questions: When are you going to teach PHP? How about python? When are you coming to Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco? When are you going to grow and scale? Sales-Griffin said he puts quality over scale. “Some people call it a cult,” he said, “but it’s really a family.”
  3. The Midwest is awesome – It just is.
  4. Teach people with an empty cup (or glass) – One unique aspect of The Starter League is that at the end of every week they ask the students for feedback. The Starter League is always checking progress and trying to get better. 
  5. Make the pie bigger – Sales-Griffin shared many success stories from Starter League grads and explained the school’s goal is to make the pie bigger. Through teaching and education their graduates will go on and create more and innovate. 

 

*Updated Oct. 11, 4:10 p.m. – A previous version of this story incorrectly identified 37signals as “37 Signals.” The post has been updated to reflect the correct formatting of the name.

Credits: Photos by Anna Jones and Phillip Harder.


Thinc Iowa is a premiere event produced by Silicon Prairie News. For live video of Thinc Iowa 2012, tune in at spne.ws/live from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Oct. 10 and 11. For more on Thinc Iowa, check out the conference on Twitter and Facebook

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