Hello Miha, thank you very much for taking the time to interview us! Please introduce yourself and your team to us at the beginning SmartNinja briefly:
I am Miha Fabjan, CEO and co-founder at SmartNinja, international coding school. Our team consists of 5 people who manage SmartNinja operations and 50+ instructors who teach SmartNinja courses.
Perhaps you would like to briefly introduce your startup to us at the very beginning of our interview ?
SmartNinja is a coding school present all across Europe (and even in Canada – Winnipeg). Besides Düsseldorf, we have units in Köln, Antwerpen, Wien, Kopenhagen, Lublin, Budapest, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Barcelona, Málaga und Lissabon.
We believe that within each of us are hidden talents, which are often neglected by the formal educational system. SmartNinja’s mission is to help people discover and grow their talents in the IT field. Skills that will help them find a job, get better at the current job – or even create a new one.
We offer coding and IT courses to mostly two kinds of people. The first kind is people who want to become IT professionals. The other kind is people who are not IT professionals (instead, they are marketers, project managers etc.), but they want to learn IT skills just to communicate with technical coworkers better.
Which problem do you want to solve with SmartNinja ?
SmartNinja is trying to bridge the gap between the supply and demand in the IT job market.
We offer IT courses on various topics (coding, databases, cybersecurity) that help people change their careers or advance in their current ones.
How did the idea for SmartNinja come about ?
The idea of SmartNinja was developed out of a side project that my cofounder and I did back in summer of 2014.
At that time a lot of people approached us to help them learn how to code. This is why we decided to do a summer coding week and we had people joining the course from all over the country.
A couple of months later we decided to launch SmartNinja. A company that teaches people modern IT skills and helps them get an IT job. The reaction from companies and potential students was amazing. We had more than 300 students in the first year and a lot of great IT companies supported us.
How would you explain SmartNinja to your grandmother ?
SmartNinja is a language school, but instead of teaching foreign languages we teach people the language of computers.
Has your concept changed in any way since the start ?
The basic concept did not change much since the start. We do regularly improve our curriculums, support and operations.
Also we were offering only in-person courses at physical locations until March 2020. Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we mostly offer online classes where we try to replicate the feeling of a classroom. So far students love it!
How does your business model work ?
Our business model is pretty straightforward. We charge an application fee that a student has to pay to attend a group course. That covers the costs of the instructor, curriculum, marketing budget and the operations.
How exactly has SmartNinja developed since it was founded ?
Since the start SmartNinja has always been focused on growth. Over the last few years we have grown to 12 countries in the EU and Canada. We know we have great courses that people love. Now we focus on making these courses available to as many people as possible.
How big is your startup now ?
SmartNinja currently has 5 people in the operations sector. We also have 50+ instructors who are teaching our course and around 50 people who support local SmartNinja franchises in different cities. Last year around 1000 students attended a SmartNinja course.
Please take a look back: What has gone really wrong in the past few years ?
With every growing business there are challenges. We bootstrapped our growth which means we invested our own money. Some markets were challenging to enter.
For example, expensive bureaucracy, high running costs, and strict laws were the obstacles when we did our first expansion to Austria. Later we thought a lot about how to find the right market-fit and made some changes which turned out to be the right ones. Now SmartNinja Austria is growing fast.
What did you learn from it ?
After completing our expansion to Austria, we started to think about how we can grow SmartNinja to other markets without needing too much capital to support growth.
This was the time we launched a franchising system. We have used franchising to grow to new markets ever since.
And where have you done everything right so far ?
We are bootstrapping our growth. Which was hard, but on the other hand is very rewarding in a way that you (as a founder) control the company directions, strategy etc. When we launched, we had an opportunity to get an investment from a big corporation, but the deal in the end hasn’t happened (due to some outside factors).
It turned out that this was actually great for us, because it forced us to be more lean and it allowed us to move more swiftly. Since then, we have been bootstrapping and we never looked back. Things worked out very well for SmartNinja in the end. 🙂
How is your startup financed ?
We are bootstrapping our growth, meaning we are financing ourselves through revenue. This means we had to be profitable from Day 1 – and we were! No VC money was ever raised by SmartNinja.
What are your plans and goals for the next 12 months ?
In the next 12 months we will focus on other German cities where we haven’t been present yet. So far we have a good presence in Köln and Düsseldorf, but since we’ve started with online courses, it’s easier to reach people from other cities in Germany.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people have experienced remote work. Programming skills are a perfect fit for anyone who wants (or needs to) work remotely. They enable you to be creative, independent, and able to build any digital product you want.
We have an amazing group of talented and experienced instructors from all over Germany and Austria who would like to share their knowledge and skills with other people. Anyone who wants to learn coding and other IT skills is warmly welcomed!
Thank you for the interview.