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  • 02.15.17

When This Entrepreneur’s Thriving Business Lost Its Purpose, He Walked Away

Shereef Bishay, the founder of the influential code school Dev Bootcamp, realized that, in becoming successful, his business had strayed far from his own social mission. It was time to try again.

When This Entrepreneur’s Thriving Business Lost Its Purpose, He Walked Away
[Illustration: srckomkrit/iStock]

Every entrepreneur is expected to have a purpose these days. We’re told we need it to pitch our businesses, to rally our employees, and to attract loyal customers. But in my experience, there’s an enormous gulf between having a purpose and burning with it. The most effective entrepreneurs I’ve known not only know their purpose, they obsessively tie their brands, their operations, and their lives to it. At times, they may even find themselves having to let go of a thriving business when their venture and their purpose no longer align.

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“It poisoned me,” says Shereef Bishay, founder of Dev Bootcamp, of the moment he decided to sell the company that had, just a few years before, saved him from bankruptcy and put him at the forefront of a booming educational movement. “I was standing in front of the class trying to talk about the magic of our first cohort. College wouldn’t work for them, but we could help. And the people in the room were just staring at me, like ‘how’s this going to help me get a job?’ I realized that it had become just a transactional service.”

It was 2013, and the demand for code boot camps, a model Bishay had first introduced to the world two years earlier, was growing exponentially. But, more recently, the industry had come under fire by both students and employers, questioning the value of the education they provide. In response, the programs have launched a counteroffensive, commissioning studies and pointing to self-reported impressive stats on student success. Today, Bishay believes the criticism is fair.

“Because boot camps worked so well, they’ve now stopped working,” he says.

When Bishay founded Dev Bootcamp in 2011, it was the first such program to launch and the first to reach scale. At the time, computer science schools weren’t producing adequate talent to keep up with job growth. And tech companies were desperate enough to hire people who only had a bare-bones coding education, then train them on the job.

“Now that there are thousands of people coming out every year with a few weeks of coding experience, employers can be pickier. They’re expecting more,” Bishay says.

Boot camps have also been touted as a solution to another well-known tech problem: Nearly everyone in the industry is young, white, and straight. Because they cost about 85% less than a four-year degree, boot camps were supposed to help widen the field of opportunity. But Silicon Valley companies, like Google and Facebook, still cite the lack of a talent pipeline as the main barrier to creating diverse workplaces.

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Access and opportunity are issues that have preoccupied Bishay since the beginning of his career. As a young programmer in Egypt, he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for Microsoft at their Seattle campus. That opportunity suddenly turned to dust when he was conscripted into the Egyptian army. It would take three years of hard work and a good dose of luck for him to make it to the U.S. That experience taught him just how fragile social and economic mobility can be. Bishay believes that while it’s easy to give lip service to boot camps as engines of opportunity, that promise has been thin.

“Boot camps just weren’t designed to address the diversity crisis,” he says. “There are so many assumptions built in: that people can afford to take a bet on themselves, that they can learn in such a short time period. You can’t effectively tackle social oppression without that being part of the core purpose from the start.”

I found it surprising to hear Bishay openly admitting that he believed the creation for which he is best known had fallen short. He has certainly benefited from the industry he’s now working to disrupt. Starting Dev Bootcamp, he says, was a last-ditch (successful) effort to save his house from foreclosure and prove to his family, after repeated entrepreneurial failures–the last being a smog shop–that he was capable of building something. Dev Bootcamp brought him prestige and the reputation in Silicon Valley of a far-sighted innovator. He had poured years into the effort to build the company to three campuses.

Under such circumstances, admitting that one is not on the right path isn’t easy. There’s a cognitive trap known as “the sunk-cost fallacy” that makes us overweigh investments we’ve already made into something when deciding whether to continue doing it. New research into the sunk-cost fallacy shows that when we work hard on something over the long-term, we tend to forget the “why” that drove us to begin with. Our brains allow our commitment of time, money, and prestige to stand in for that forgotten, and perhaps now obsolete, purpose behind our initial investment. Such a fog can last for years, perhaps a whole career.

Like most entrepreneurs, Bishay was used to a gnawing dissatisfaction popping up from time to time, and, even before this moment hit him, he had been working on a side offering, known as Dev Bootcamp U (DBCU), to address the needs of less traditional students. Progress was slow. Bishay now admits that the undertaking wasn’t fair to the business itself.

“The core purpose of Dev Bootcamp is to teach people to code as fast as possible,” he says. “It wasn’t about let’s create a dignified livelihood for everyone. That’s what I wanted, but it’s not what we’d built our team and our culture around.”

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By 2014, Bishay had made the painful but liberating decision to sell Dev Bootcamp and start again.

Today, he is leading a new venture, Learners Guild, which, while still roughly in the boot camp space has some key differences. The program runs for 10 months, not 3, focusing not just on code skills but basic work and learning skills as well. Students pay nothing up front, get a stipend while attending, and pay the program back only when they get what Learners Guild considers a high-paying job. (This makes the offering less risky, but often more expensive in the long run than a traditional boot camp.) The co-investment model means that Learners Guild will fail if its students fail and succeed only when they succeed, which, in Bishay’s mind, changes the whole nature of the exchange from transaction to partnership. The culture, the marketing, and the curriculum are designed for a core customer who has traditionally had trouble accessing the industry: low-income students, women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community.

When we met, Bishay greeted me at his Oakland office on a miserably wet and cold January day. Outside the rain was pelting the windows, but inside there was a feeling of serious concentration and calm. The typical “brogrammer” culture of on-tap beer, foosball, and lots and lots of young white men was conspicuously missing. Learners Guild participants are predominantly nonwhite and female. Its first two classes have included a heavy dose of parents, transgender students, and even students with only a basic set of computer skills. I could tell that it was still very much an experiment.

“I realized that to really make the impact you want to, you need to get crystal clear about your purpose,” he says. “It’s too hard to change it once you start. So agonize over it.”

Truly understanding your purpose makes it far more difficult to forget why you started in the first place, keeping problems like sunk-cost bias at bay. When your actions depart from purpose, you self-correct. When your purpose no longer ignites you, you make deep interventions, or you leave.

As Bishay enthusiastically introduced me to his “learners,” (in the lingo of the program) it became clear to me that here was an entrepreneur in sync with his creation. That sync can easily get lost in a successful, growing business that has slowly departed from its leaders’ passions or values, blinding them to the evidence that the very model of their business needs a rethink. But ignoring this evidence often leads to frustration and failure. While it may seem safer to opt for ongoing, incremental change, consider this: 70% of corporate change programs turn out to be failures.

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With each change to a company’s DNA facing huge odds, counting on a series of small wins to bend a venture to its purpose is, I believe, extremely dangerous. Bishay says that’s been his most important lesson since taking the leap. “Sometimes you’ve got to say: ‘We’ve been going in the wrong direction’ and cut your losses. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to need to do it once or twice in your career. If you don’t, something’s probably wrong.”

Jonah Sachs is a cofounder and partner at Free Range, a purpose-driven design and innovation firm. He is the author of Winning the Story Wars and the upcoming book Unsafe Thinking, which will be published in spring 2018.

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