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Gregg Pollack on building Code School

Antoine Meunier's profile picture Antoine Meunier on

This post is part of our Customer Interviews series. Every now and then, I dig deep into the confines of our database to find the most interesting projects, products and companies built on top of DNSimple by our customers.

This week, I got the chance to connect with Gregg Pollack the guy behind Code School and one of the main reason I'm with DNSimple today – thank god for Rails for Zombies.

I must admit there was something special with interviewing Gregg. I remember back circa 2009, back then, I was this guy who would have a bazillion startup ideas (a week) and who would be asking the 'how do you find a technical co-founder' questions on Clarity or Quora. It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that HTML & CSS wouldn't cut it anymore and that it was time for me to step it up and checkout that Ruby on Rails thing. Luckily, I stumbled upon these guys obsessed with zombies that also happened to teach Ruby on Rails in a cool way.

Thanks to Gregg and his team, I was part of those tens of thousands of to-be developers who cut their teeth with Rails for Zombies.

The early days

About ten years ago, Gregg moved to Orlando where he thought he would work remote for the same company he was working at back in San Diego. Turns out, they didn't need him and just like that he didn't have a job anymore.

Rather than hunting for jobs he decided to pursue an idea: build a product management tool in Java.

Every developer at some point of their career needs to try to build their own because they get fed up and just decide to do it themselves… so that failed BUT it was around that time that I learned about Ruby on Rails.

He recalls being at a conference and seeing Dave Thomas selling a room full of Java programmers on this hot new language called Ruby and a framework called Ruby on Rails. The audience could not believe how easy it might be to create these websites (and this was before Rails 1.0). He wanted in.

Around that time, a friend of his came up with the idea of blogging about Ruby on Rails to improve on the lack of documentation on the then new framework.

So he started writing about Rails caching and other stuff.

It was great because it led to consultant work. I went to writing blogs, to doing a podcast, to speaking at conferences. I would take conference talks and I'd put them into videos and publish them online… and this was before the Youtube days - back in then it was a bit harder to do. But I got a lot of traffic. A lot of people watched the videos and that led to more consulting work which led to me taking more time to create online videos.

Enter Rails for Zombies

Around that time he created Rails for Zombies, which was just another free thing for the community from Gregg's perspective. Fortunately, it had the dual effect of generating more traffic to the consultancy while showing more of what he was awesome at.

When it got out there, it was clear that high quality video with coding in the browser was resonating with the audience.

People like that so much that we thought: "Hey we can make a business out of this and we'll, you know, charge for it!" and that's how Code School started.

It wasn't an overnight success. During almost four years, they built the brand with blogging, podcasting and speaking at conferences.

By the time we got around to release Code School, it was easy to market it because people saw "Oh wait, this is Gregg Pollack's content, I know his content, I'll go ahead and buy it."

They began with a single paid course that paid for itself in less than a month. So they put out a second one and got their money back again, and it started to repeat and repeat.

Gregg praised the value of teaming up with a great co-founder – Eric Allam – who, right from the beginning, came up with a lot of great ideas. He's the one who initially pushed them to go towards a recurring revenue model and decided after plenty of validations and testing to go for that $25/month price point.

When we switched to the paid subscription model, do you know how many courses we had? We only had like four! So we had the guts to charge $25 per month for access to just four courses! Which if you added together, it was probably something like 14 hours. "Who did we think were for doing that, right?" I look back and I'm like "holy #*@! Jesus, really? We got away with that?"

Facing the ugly truth: spam works.

The first realization they made in the early days was how important a good mailing list can be.

I cannot emphasize this enough! We had the mailing list for Rails for Zombies – people would create an account if they wanted to see progress on their free course. So we took all these emails and threw them into Mailchimp.

Then when they launched the subscription service, they emailed out to the list. That was their means to really get the word out and holy crap, it worked well! But…

To be honest, it's really discouraging the first time you realize that spam works. It really sucks. It's like the first time you craft an email and it feels like spam. It even gives you the creeps a little bit and you're like "I wouldn't want to receive this email, it's just advertising a deal. Then, you send it out to people and you're like "OMG, it works. Awww this sucks, this is what we have to do now…"

When they first sent it out, the list had around 20,000 emails and out of that at least 1000 signed up in the first week. So at $25 a month, they were making $25k per month right out of the gates.

Leading into our talk, I knew that Gregg had met Anthony back in the early days of the Orlando Ruby Users group. However, I didn't know *exactly* how they met. Well if you don't know, now you know (ha!):

"You know how when you're giving a talk somewhere and you're standing in front of the group and there's always one guy in the audience. Like THAT guy who raises his hand and asks a question because you said something 90% correct that is also 10% wrong and so he needs to tell everyone in the room how smart HE is because you are slightly wrong?

Well, that was pretty much Anthony.


He came over to the Ruby Users group and spent a lot of time with us. So it was so cool to see that he launched DNSimple and obviously I've used the service since."

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Antoine Meunier

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