Finding ROI In Higher Education

The news is full of stories where students paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college (and beyond) only to find themselves stuck in dead end jobs and unable to pay off the cost of student loans. We have a crisis in the US in higher education. The costs have risen and the benefits have declined.

It has gotten to the point where I believe if you have to personally shoulder the cost of your higher education, you should think twice about the traditional model. If you can get scholarships or if your parents are willing to pay the tuition bills, I still think its a valuable experience, but sadly it is not one that makes sense if you have to make the investment personally.

So what are we going to do about that? We need to find new models. And one new model that is working in NYC is The Flatiron School. The Flatiron School started two years ago and teaches students, both high school grads and college grads, how to become software engineers in a twelve week course that costs $15,000. Scholarships are available for students who cannot afford that investment.

Today The Flatiron School has published an audited report that validates the notion that their model produces graduates who can find high paying jobs. Here is a summary of the report and this is the “money slide” from it:

cost and benefit of flatiron

So for a high school graduate, the tuition at Flatiron can be paid back with six months of after tax income. For a college graduate, you can increase your pay by ~$30k by spending $15k. You get that payback in one year of after tax income.

For the average college grad, it takes roughly three years of all of your after tax income to pay off your college costs. If you go on and do Flatiron, you can pay off everything with two years of after tax income.

Anyway you cut the numbers, The Flatiron School is a great investment. Part of it is that the students learn a valuable skill – software development. Part of it is that the cost of delivering that education are very reasonable. And it isn’t that they do this on the cheap. Here is the work required from a student at The Flatiron School:

educational activity at Flatiron

There’s been a lot of talk that online education is the answer to lowering the costs of higher education. The huge investment in MOOCS that happened a few years ago was based on that notion. The reality is that online education is a part of the answer but not the silver bullet that some thought it would be. I gave a talk at Wharton a couple years ago about this.

The answer to lowering the cost and increasing the benefits of higher education requires a multitude of changes to the current model. And one of them is teaching students skills that are directly related to job requirements. Doing that makes students more employable and more valuable.

This is not a criticism of the liberal arts model, per se. As Steve Jobs said in this interview, learning to code is a liberal art. This is a criticism of administrations and faculties that are rigid in their interpretation of what liberal arts and education should mean. This is a criticism of not evolving and changing with the times. This is a criticism of thinking what worked yesterday will work tomorrow.

And mostly this is a criticism of not making hard choices. Schools that are happy to add courses, faculty, and buildings are not willing to eliminate courses, faculty, and buildings. When you always add and never subtract, you get cost structures that are not sustainable.

The Flatiron School is an example of what can be done with a blank slate. They have figured out how to give students highly relevant and valuable skills at a cost that is both affordable and recoupable very quickly. Adam, Avi, Sara and the entire team has created a model that should be an inspiration for others.

What I Write About And What I Don’t

There was a discussion in the comments on this week’s fun friday post about me “pimping” our portfolio too much. To which I responded with this:

i am my portfolio. its all the same thing. i go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. i would blog way more about it than i do but i can’t talk about most of the stuff that is going on in my portfolio.

It’s the latter point I want to talk about a bit today. Every day I run a bunch of blog topics through my head before deciding what I am going to write about. And most of them get rejected because they are “too close to home” meaning they are too specific to something that is going on right now in my work life. There is one thing right now, for example, that would make a great blog post but there is no way I can talk about it. That is almost always the case.

Here are some rules I live by:

1) If an entrepreneur walks into our office and tells us/me something that is not publicly known, it is confidential unless I explicitly ask for permission to mention it on AVC and receive permission.

2) If something happens in our portfolio, in a board meeting, in the company, or even in the market, and it is not public, then it remains confidential and I do not blog about it unless I’m asked to.

3) I don’t mention people by name unless I ask them and they OK it. There are times I don’t comply with this one perfectly. Last week I mentioned AVC community member Kirk Love in a blog post by name but left his wife’s name out. Kirk is known to this community and the mention was pretty harmless. This is something I manage as best I can. I think I do a decent job of it but it’s always a calculation.

4) If its a grey area, I don’t blog about it. Better to be safe than sorry.

What I should do and don’t, at least right now, is write down all of these things I’d like to write about but can’t, so that I could come back to them in the future when they are in a place where it is possible to talk about them. Not everything gets to that place. But a lot of things do. I will think about starting to do that.

I find myself in the middle of, or have a courtside seat for, a lot of super interesting things. But I can’t and don’t write about most of them. Which is a bummer for me and a bummer for all of you too.

Video Of The Week: A History Lesson On Why We Need Neutral Networks

My partner Brad went down to Chattanooga where they have a gigabit fiber network around the city and attended an event about connectivity and what it does for society.

In this short (~10mins) talk he gives a history lesson on how we got permissionless innovation on the Internet and why we could lose it.

Fun Friday: Year End Music List

Every year since I started this blog, I’ve shared my favorite music of the year with the AVC readers.

In the early years, I would post different album every day for ten days (or eleven) in the process of putting together a top ten list. I moved away from albums a few years ago because I just don’t listen that way very much anymore.

I’ve moved to SoundCloud playlists and today I’m publishing my Essential Tracks of 2014 playlist here at AVC. It’s also available On SoundCloud and everywhere that SoundCloud is available (your phone, your browser, your Sonos, etc, etc). Enjoy.

The Interview Mess

So Sony has decided to pull the plug on The Interview after the major theater chains decided against showing the film.

This is a fascinating story on so many levels. It is not clear  to me who was behind the hacking attack on Sony, but there are some obvious candidates. We are witnessing cyber warfare in real time. And there are real costs involved. Who knows how much Sony has lost or will lose as a result of the hacking incident and all the repercussions. But we do know that The Interview cost $42mm to make and there were “tens of millions” of marketing and distribution costs already spent as well. All of that comes from the article I linked to at the start of this post.

How will this impact the entertainment business going forward? Will they now harden all of their systems? Yes. Will the cybersecurity industry get a boost from this incident? Yes. Will it change how they think about making films and other entertainment? I would have to imagine the answer to that question is yes.

And what of the film itself? Should we allow censorship of this form to exist in our society? Should the film get released in some form?

I think the Internet, which was the source of so much harm to Sony, should also provide the answer to what happens to this film. If I were Sony, I would put the film out on BiTorrent, and any other Internet services that want it. Give it to Netflix if they want it. Give it to iTunes if they want it. Give it to HBO if they want it. Give it to Showtime if they want it. Essentially give the film to the world and let the world, via the Internet, decide what they want to do with it.

Of course this is about money to Sony. $42mm is a lot of money to write off. And it is a lot more than that given all the extra costs. But keeping the film locked away in a vault is also a cost. Both to Sony and to society. It says that the attack worked. I think the best thing Sony can do at this point is give the world the film and let us all decide what we think about it. We should not let cyberterrorist censorship have its way.

What’s Next

I am always thinking about what is next and I feel like I’m spending even more time this year thinking about this. All of us at USV seem to be pondering this question a lot right now.

I came across this nice post by Ben Thompson in which he ponders the question out loud, which is my favorite way to ponder.

Here is the money quote:

While the introduction of the iPhone seems like it was just yesterday (at least it does to me!), we are quickly approaching seven years – about the midway point of this epoch, if the PC and Internet are any indication.4 I sense, though, that we may be moving a bit more quickly: the work/productivity and communications applications have really come into focus this year, and while the battle to see what companies ride those applications to dominance will be interesting, it’s highly likely that the foundation is being layed for the core technology of the next epoch:

Ben’s framework is roughly similar to ours but his conclusions are a bit different as follows:

1) I would substitute personal mesh for wearables

2) I would substitute the blockchain stack for bitcoin

3) I would bet on messenger as the next mobile OS over anything else. We have already seen that happen in China.

But in any case, posts like Ben’s and what comes of them (this) are super helpful. Thanks Ben.

Hashtags As Social Networks

Our portfolio company Kik launched hashtags yesterday. Kik is a mobile messenger so in Kik’s model hashtags are private or public group chats.

If I send a hashtag to a friend in Kik that says let’s chat about tonight’s knicks game at #knickskik, then that becomes a private group between me and that friend (and any others who we invite). I’ve done that so the #knickskik hashtag is now private on Kik.

But hashtags can also be public. If you have the latest version of Kik on your phone (came out yesterday), type #avckikgroup into a chat and then click on that link. Up to 50 of us can be in that group.

The cool thing about Kik is that it doesn’t use phone numbers like other messengers. It uses usernames and is not tied to your phone number or Facebook username. And so Kik, unlike other messengers, is used for both chatting with people you know (like other messengers) and people you don’t know.

That makes Kik an ideal platform for these public (and searchable) group chats. You can meet people in these public chatrooms and then take your conversations private in a one to one chat in Kik.

Ted Livingston, Kik’s founder and CEO, called this “hashtags as social networks” in a blog post yesterday.  I agree with Ted that Facebook’s model of the one network to rule them all has not really worked and that many of us are using messengers as defacto social networks. My friend Kirk told me that his wife’s family uses a group in WhatsApp like their personal family facebook feed. I think that’s the phase of social networking we are now into and so Kik’s hashtag as social network model makes a ton of sense to me.

Holiday Giving

Every year at this time of the year, my office piles up with gifts that people send me. I don’t drive back and forth to work so it’s not easy for me to bring them home. So a big pile builds up and sometime in January or February, I get a big bag, come in on the weekend, and pick everything up and bring it home. As you can imagine reading this, I get annoyed by this. I know the gifts are sent with the best intentions. But sadly they are not received that way.

What I would massively prefer is a donation be made instead.

– Back a Kickstarter.

– Or participate in the Crowdrise Holiday Challenge (which The Gotham Gal and I helped make happen).

– Or help a teacher on DonorsChoose.

If you are in the giving mood, I have a specific suggestion. CSNYC, our non-profit that funds computer science classes in the NYC public schools, has a holiday wish list up on Crowdrise.

If you want to see a map of what CSNCY is funding, you can see that here.

Our wishlist was built with our existing donor pool in mind and AVC readers might find the specific asks a bit steep. So if you don’t find any of our wishes to your liking you can make a donation of any size here:

Fundraising Websites – Crowdrise

The Perfect Board

Last month Sam Altman wrote a post about board members and why you should want them. I read it and then tweeted it out:

In Sam’s post, he says:

Personally, I think the ideal board structure for most early-stage companies is a 5-member board with 2 founders, 2 investors, and one outsider.  I think a 4-member board with 2 founders, 1 investor and 1 outsider is also good (in practice, the even number is almost never a problem).

I’ve been serving on boards for 25 years. I’ve been in every conceivable configuration. To my mind, the perfect board is either five or seven and it looks like this:

Founder CEO, Two Independents, Two Investors

Founder CEO, Three Independents, Three Investors

If the Founder is no longer the CEO, then I like this configuration:

CEO, Founder, Two Independents, Three Investors

If you have less than three investors (yay!), then replace investors with independents in each formula and you’ve got a winning configuration.

An entrepreneur the Gotham Gal is invested in asked me this question via email a few weeks ago, and I told him this:

This is a long way of saying that you aren’t done once you put one independent on the board. You are going to need a bunch.
Finally – don’t try to satisfy your VCs. They will want “names” “trophies” and the like. Satisfy yourself. Find people, ideally peer CEOs, you like respect and want to spend time with who you know can and will add value.
A great company deserves a great board. And a great board has bunch of people on it, ideally a bunch of people who are experienced at running a business, growing a business, and dealing with all the stuff that comes with that. Do yourself a favor and build a great board for your company.

Video Of The Week: The Bubble Question

Since the LeWeb video I posted on wednesday was so long (>40mins), we are going with short and sweet today.

In late October, I did an event with City National Bank. For those that don’t know, City National is one of the banks that are active in the tech startup sector, banking and lending to startups. We did a “fireside chat” format which is really my favorite way to do a public appearance. And, of course, I got “the bubble question.”

Here is how I answered it in less than three minutes: