When I graduated in 2014 with a 4-year marketing degree, I realized how little I learned that was directly applicable to the needs of employers. It wasn’t until spending an entire summer taking online courses that I landed my first job in the tech industry. Since then, I’ve been deeply interested in any novel approaches to education. From MOOCs to coding bootcamps, I knew there must be a better way. That’s why when I recently heard about Lambda School, I was intrigued.
If you haven’t heard of them, Lambda School is essentially a coding bootcamp with a twist: you don’t pay them anything until you land a job bringing in more than $50,000 a year, after which you pay them a portion (17%) of your income for 2 years. This makes a coding education accessible to people with less savings to spare and, more interestingly, makes Lambda fully invested in their students’ success.
It’s an interesting model with a huge potential for impact, sure. But can Lambda really become the next big alternative to higher ed? In this series, I will try to answer that question by deconstructing their potential for growth. Along the way, we’ll determine if Lambda is cut out to be a $100M+ business, see what growth loops could drive the business forward, and dig deep into their funnel.
Part 1: Can Lambda School Become a $100M Business?
To answer this question, I’ll be using Brian Balfour’s “Four Fits” framework, which elegantly breaks down a $100M+ business into four interconnected parts:
- Product-Market Fit: Does Lambda have a product that a particular market wants?
- Product-Channel Fit: Does their product fit well with a scalable acquisition channel?
- Channel-Model Fit: Does their business model enable this acquisition channel?
- Model-Market Fit: Will their business model combined with their market enable a big business?
Product-Market Fit (PMF)
Let’s start with Lambda’s target customer: people who desire a more lucrative career but lack the financial resources, support, and know-how to get there. Their founder, Austen Allred, claims it is a mixture of people who “got the wrong degree”, abandoned their degree, and never went to college at all. All of these groups share common problems: they’re in low paying jobs and may have debt to pay off. Hence, Lambda’s key value prop of not making you pay a dime until you get a high paying job is very compelling. But only if their curriculum (product) works.
Does their product deliver on its promise?
To start, we can look at customer feedback. Bootcamp ranking site Switchup has Lambda School at a 4.92/5 rating and it is among the top 20 coding bootcamps on the site. Not bad. There are also countless reviews like this one:
That’s not to say Lambda isn’t without its detractors (see Reddit), but on the whole, customer sentiment seems very positive. As alluded to by the student above, Lambda seems to be iterating on their product to strengthen PMF. They’ve also taken efforts to improve their filtering of potential students (i.e. refining their target market) which I’ll discuss further in a future post.
Next, we can look at student retention. If they’ve truly built a product that serves this market, a high percentage of students will make it to the end. Austen claims that while in the early days as little as 50% retained (not so good), they’ve increased that to 80-90% (May 2018). That’s much more sustainable. And with curriculum iteration a core part of their playbook, it seems likely they can push it further. Of their graduates, Lambda claims 83% get hiredwithin six months.
So, it seems like Lambda delivers. But there’s also evidence that they overdeliver. I’m amazed at how much their students advocate for them (Twitter, blogging, etc.) — and this word of mouth is a key growth amplifier for them (more on this later).
Even if students think Lambda has a great product, they’ll never make it to the big leagues if their product doesn’t fit well with a scalable acquisition channel. They don’t make the rules of the channels, so their product must be designed with one in mind.
Before we assess some potential channels, let’s consider a Lambda customer’s journey to becoming a student:
- Interested visitors come to their website
- They fill out an application form
- Lambda assesses the potential student’s fit
- An offer is made and an agreement is signed
Looking at it this way, Lambda has an admissions process similar to a B2B sales funnel. So their goal with an acquisition channel will be to generate student leads.
Given that, let’s consider some commonly used B2B channels.
In theory, this would work with their product because they could offer a pretty compelling 1:1 sales pitch to students this way. But this would be way too costly and wouldn’t scale.
This definitely has potential. Lambda could create high-quality content (blog posts, etc.) and try to rank for keywords that their audience is searching. There’s a strong fit with their product because the content would demonstrate Lambda’s expertise in web development and build trust with potential students. However, the problem with this channel is that it relies on people having search intent. Many potential students probably don’t even know a career in web development is a possibility for them, and the chances of them searching for a variety of web development terms is probably slim.
Lambda’s best chance at large, affordable audience is paid acquisition. Facebook ads, for example, are a perfect fit for their product for a few reasons:
- Facebook’s interest and demographic targeting allows them to reach their latent target audience of lower-income people who desire a career upgrade
- Lambda’s “don’t pay until you get a job” pitch makes for a compelling ad, and
- Photos and video allow them to deliver this pitch in a captivating way
Where ads could break down in terms of fit is trust. Clicking on an ad and immediately filling out an application for a school you’ve never heard of is a bit weird (when exactly is this company going to steal my identity?). To prove that they’re the real deal, Lambda needs a way to provide value right away.
How they’ve chosen to solve this problem is a perfect example of adapting your product to fit the channel. Instead of directing ads traffic to an application form, Lambda offers free intro courses so students can test them out. As a bonus, these courses act as an important quality filter to see if incoming leads have the potential to succeed as full-time students.
Okay, so paid channels sound like a good fit for Lambda. But is spending all that money for leads sustainable? Can their business model support it? Let’s take a look.
This will depend on two things: their average annual revenue per customer (AARPC) and their customer acquisition cost (CAC). Time for some quick math…
- AARPC = $70,000 (Lambda grad median starting salary) * 17% income share agreement = $11,900
- This is a sizeable amount of revenue per customer and leaves the door open for more costly acquisition. And it will be costly because getting a student to commit to a 9-month course is not an easy task. As leads come in from ads, they’ll need the hands-on attention of the admissions team not only to help move prospects down the funnel but to ensure these students have a high chance of success.
- As I alluded to, their CAC is on the high end of the spectrum because of the friction involved:
- Bring traffic in with a compelling offer —> Ads ($ for clicks)
- Deliver value and assess fit —> Nurture and score mini-bootcamp leads with a CRM ($ for labor)
- Close with high potential students —> Schedule phone interviews with admissions staff (more $ for labor)
- Okay, that’s starting to sound pretty expensive. But here’s where it gets interesting. As mentioned before, Lambda seems to be benefitting from a ton of word of mouth. This means for every customer they pay to acquire, they can expect them to bring in more for free. Every dollar is amplified and their CAC decreases as a result. If they can keep their product quality high, they’ll continue to reap the benefits here.
Given the above, Lambda looks like it has a channel-model fit that can sustainably support their acquisition strategy. However, as they scale they’ll need to be mindful of their cash flow, given their lengthy payback period. From lead to employed software developer is a 12+ month road.
Everything is fitting together well so far, but none of it will matter if there isn’t a sizeable market willing to take the Lambda plunge. So, the question we’ve been waiting for: can they reach $100M? Time for more math…
First, let’s determine how many customers they’d need to reach $100M:
- = $100,000,000/$11,900
- = 8,403 paying grads needed per year
Now, let’s see how feasible that is:
If students can’t get jobs, Lambda doesn’t get paid, so there needs to be a demand for developers in the future. This one definitely doesn’t seem to be a constraint. We’re good here.
They also need motivated people who can spend time learning to code. That could certainly constrain the market. Time for some more math…
- There were 20,000 code bootcamp grads in 2018 (US and Canada), coincidentally who paid $11,900 on average. Not a huge market.
- But — given that the median American household savings account balance is $4,830, traditional code bootcamps have a comparatively teensy market compared to Lambda. The percentage of the population with $12k to spend up front and potentially move to a city for a bootcamp just isn’t that big.
- So, if 20,000 grads are coming from (I’m being generous) ~10% of the total potential market (200,000), then Lambda is left with the other 90% (180,000). So Lambda only needs to capture ~5% of the market (=9,000 annual paying grads) to have a $100M+ business. Not a cakewalk, but seems doable!
It’s also worth noting that the above analysis only considers their software development bootcamps for the US market. There’s potential to expand into adjacent markets (they’ve already started to do this with design and data science), but this would require assessing all of the four fits again. For example, a data science bootcamp is a new product for a new market (would-be data scientists) and it may require tweaks to their channels (maybe would-be data scientists don’t hang out on Facebook) and business model (the job market could be quite different for data science).
Can Lambda School Become a $100M Business? I think so. And I really hope so. Because everything that makes good business sense above also helps students. If they do hit $100M, that’s 9,000 grads who have unlocked a new future and are creating more innovation. That’s pretty cool.
But if Lambda really wants to become the future of education, they’ll need a strong growth engine. Next in the series, I’ll see what growth loops could drive the business forward and dig deeper into their funnel.