🐧 Bootstrapping a 7-figure tech education business | Min Yan & Yu Ning

Spotlight: From Silicon Valley Tech Workers to Singapore Education Entrepreneurs
July 16, 2023

Min Yan and Yu Ning bootstrapped a fast-growing 7-figure tech academy while working full-time at Gojek and OKX respectively.

Today in 10 minutes, you’ll learn:

  • 🏫 How Heicoders tackled a market gap, their growth journey
  • 🧑‍🎓 How they found their first customers & brand ambassadors
  • 💸 Bootstrap vs raise funds: Why Heicoders chose the former
  • 😨 Why it was a mistake to outsource curriculum & hire academics
  • 🫶 6 pieces of advice for starting an education business


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🏫 Bootstrapping a 7-figure tech education business | Min Yan & Yu Ning

Min Yan is the co-founder of Heicoders Academy. She is also a full-time data scientist at Gojek. Her extensive professional background spans diverse roles, from working as a quant and software developer in the financial industry, to being involved with deep tech in Silicon Valley and multiple artificial intelligence startups.

Yu Ning is the co-founder of Heicoders Academy. He also currently leads the growth of a blockchain in OKX. Prior to this, he worked as a product manager and data scientist in various companies, and also co-founded another 7-figure tech education business. In his spare time, Yu Ning enjoys reading.

🧑‍💻 Tell us about your career journeys from working in tech to bootstrapping an education business.

Min Yan. Looking back, I wanted to make a difference in the education sector ever since my teenage years. Even before my college education, I was actively engaged as a Math Olympiad trainer, a volunteer teacher in Cambodian and Laotian orphanages, and the owner of a tuition centre.

While I worked as a tech professional in both the US and Singapore, I personally witnessed a tech talent scarcity in Singapore. I also observed a disparity between the theoretical approach to tech education in academia and its practical application in the workplace.

These observations inspired me to turn my interest in the education space into an ambition to leverage my tech expertise to cultivate local tech talent and bridge this gap.

After meeting Yu Ning, we discovered we shared a dedication to education and desire to create a meaningful impact through vocational training programs in the field of technology.

Two year later, this immediate connection turned into a partnership, where we co-founded Heicoders Academy.

Yu Ning. After returning to Singapore from my graduate studies at Columbia University, I co-founded a successful tech education academy, Hackwagon Academy, while managing a full-time job. Over two years, I built Hackwagon Academy into a 7-figure business with seventy employees.

However, while Hackwagon Academy was commercially successful, it didn't fulfil the societal impact I had initially envisioned. So I parted ways with my partners.

To make the impact I couldn't with my previous business, I established Heicoders Academy by teaming up with Min Yan. We leveraged on our connections in Silicon Valley to develop a forward-thinking Artificial Intelligence Nanodegree curriculum, marking the beginning of our journey.

In parallel, while I was building Heicoders Academy, I found my calling in product management, and transitioned from a data scientist to a product manager role in the fast-paced web3 industry.

🚀 What does Heicoders Academy’s growth look like?

Since its inception, Heicoders Academy has been on a rapid growth trajectory:

  • We managed to achieve 7-figure revenue over the last 12 months.
  • We've taught over 1,500 students in the past year. Many of these students came from corporate training engagements.

However, while these metrics are encouraging, we also really care about making sure our students are happy. We gauge this through:

  • 9/10 average net promoter score of instructors
  • 9.1/10 average satisfaction score of course
  • 5/5 (307 reviews) average rating on google

👢 You two decided to bootstrap Heicoders Academy. What went into this decision for you? What have been the pros and cons of choosing to bootstrap your business vs raising external funds?

We decided to bootstrap the business as a side hustle instead of raising funds for a few reasons:

  • Cash Upfront Business with Low Setup Cost. As an education business, we require primarily intellectual resources (eg curriculum development) as opposed to expensive physical assets. Further, during COVID-19, people preferred online learning, eliminating the need for a physical space. This low initial setup cost plus the fact that we generated cash upfront made it suitable for bootstrapping.
  • Maintaining Control. Bootstrapping allowed us to retain full control over our decisions. We were wary that bringing in external investors could result in possible misaligned expectations and pressures for rapid growth. This was important for us, as we had a clear vision for Heicoders Academy and wanted to be able to implement this without external pressure from investors.
  • Risk of Passive Investors. We also didn’t want investors that couldn’t value-add apart from their initial capital. The ideal investor should be able to provide well-timed advice and lend us their network to help us accelerate the growth of the business. As there wasn’t an investor who fit the bill, we decided to do without one.

Naturally, there were also downsides to not raising funds:

  • Limited Marketing Budget. Based on our research, our closest competitor spends 10x more than us on marketing. To address this, we sought to maximize the lifetime value of our students by offering advanced courses for them to progress through vs only standalone courses. This approach wasn't solely a business decision: we understood that true mastery of the skills we teach requires more than just one course, and so we committed that to our students.

🧑‍🎓 How did you find your first customers?

We started out by offering our courses for free to a selected group of learners who had a deep interest in AI from amongst our personal and professional network.

This strategy served to help us (1) create brand ambassadors and (2) validate our curriculum. Here is how it worked:

  • Inaugural course was mission-critical. It was an all-hands on deck situation where both Min Yan and myself personally instructed and TA-ed for the class. We also weaved in gamification elements (like mini competitions) to make the course interesting.
  • Learners’ positive experiences turned into glowing reviews. The word-of-mouth endorsements caught the attention of prospective students. This helped us validate the course quality and create brand ambassadors who spread the word about our courses. Example: One of our learners persuaded his company to enroll his entire department in our future courses.
  • Moved from free to paid offerings as demand increased. To determine our pricing, we benchmarked against two of our closest competitors, deciding to match their price points. We believed this pricing strategy would be appealing to prospective students, considering we provided more contact hours and highly qualified instructors at the same price.
  • Invested in digital marketing strategies. This, coupled with our strong reputation, fueled our customer base's exponential growth.

😨 What mistakes did you make in bootstrapping an education business? What would you have done differently?

Outsourcing our core competencies. We attempted to outsource the entire curriculum development, which we believed would expedite the process. It ended up compromising course quality. The third-party entities, despite their expertise, struggled to create a top-notch curriculum that aligned with our mission of delivering impactful, industry-relevant education.

  • Solution. We have since rectified this by avoiding full outsourcing. Instead, we adopt a collaborative approach. We leverage third-party expertise while also ensuring that our team has significant input into the curriculum.
  • How. First, we discuss the curriculum outline with the developers before they make it. Further, we maintain weekly syncs to ensure that the curriculum stays aligned with our vision and plans. Lesson: It’s crucial to stay directly involved in critical areas of your business.

Assuming academic experience = good outcomes. In the early days, we assumed having years of academic teaching experience meant someone would be a good fit for us but this did not turn out as expected. The first instructor we hired was a computer science lecturer with 20+ years of experience. Despite his background, his constant usage of technical jargon and lack of empathy towards beginners created a learning environment that was more daunting than encouraging.

  • Solution. To fix this, we implemented an iterative approach that ensures our teaching quality continually improves and stays aligned with our students' needs.
  • How. We instituted a structured interview process for potential instructors with emphasis on their ability to break down complex concepts in a learner-friendly way. After each course, we also hold a debriefing session with the instructor to discuss any areas of improvement identified in the student feedback.
Graphical & geospatial visualisations done by AI100 students

🫶 What advice would you give to someone looking to start an education business?

As trite as it might sound, education is heartwork. It is essential to have a deep passion for the subject you're teaching and a genuine desire to help your students grow. After you have identified an area which you are passionate about, then:

  1. Identify your unique value proposition (UVP). With so many education providers out there, it's crucial to determine what sets your business apart. Is it a unique teaching methodology, a particular subject area expertise, or an innovative learning platform?
⚡️ Example: Heicoders’ UVP

We identified a gap where many AI programs were heavy on theory but lacked practical relevance. With our extensive industry experience and robust network of AI professionals, we were uniquely positioned to bridge this gap. So, we centered our UVP on providing a comprehensive, industry-oriented AI education crafted and delivered by seasoned AI practitioners.
  1. Understand your target audience. A deep understanding of your prospective students, their needs, learning styles, and challenges is essential. This will guide your curriculum development, teaching approach, and marketing strategy.
  1. Quality over quantity. As we learned from our experience, maintaining high-quality teaching and course materials is more important than rapidly expanding your course offerings. Always have someone on the team intimately involved in curriculum development to ensure consistency and quality.
  1. Choose the right instructors. It's not just about the years of teaching experience. The ability to empathize with students, especially those starting from scratch, is a valuable quality in an instructor. Implement a rigorous hiring process and regular review system to ensure your teachers meet your standards.
  1. Embrace feedback. Regularly collect feedback from your students and be open to making changes based on this input. This will ensure you continually improve and adapt to your students' needs.
  1. Manage Your Cost Levers. In an education business, even though the initial setup cost is low, variable costs, can escalate quickly, particularly if you're scaling up.
⚡️ Example: Heicoders’ Cost Levers

For us, we had to keep a careful watch on our spending on digital marketing. Be mindful: the goal is not just to minimize costs but to optimize them for sustainable growth. Always analyze the potential return on investment before committing to significant expenses.

🏡 Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can check out Heicoders Academy’s course offerings here.

If you are interested in engaging us to conduct corporate training for your company or organization, feel free to reach us here.

Find us on Linkedin: Min Yan & Yu Ning

🌐 Beyond your borders

🇸🇬 MAS Singapore recently announced stock and flow caps for personal e-wallets (Grab/Revolut) will be raised from SGD $5k/$30k to $20k/$100k. Hooray for e-wallets competing with deposit accounts!

🇭🇰 Hong Kong relaxes mortgage rules for the first time since 2009, making it easier for upgraders and first-time home buyers. Allows homes of up to HK $15M (US $1.3M) for the owners’ own use to get up to 70% mortgage financing. Time will tell if this impacts home sales.

🇻🇳 Vietnam E-Visa duration will increase from 30 days to 3 months (and allow for multiple entry) starting 15 August. Stay longer without the visa runs.

🇬🇷 Maldives, Greece, El Salvador, and Mauritius are exploring plans to offer new Golden Visa and Citizenship programs. If you’ve always wanted to retire on an island, this may be your chance.

👉️ How I can help

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Dexter Zhuang

Dexter is the founder of Money Abroad, a website and newsletter on building wealth for global professionals. Over the last 10 years, he's been a product leader, product manager, consultant and coach at companies like Dropbox, Xendit, and growth-stage startups across the US, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. His work has been featured in global publications like Business Insider, CBS, US News & World Report, and Tech in Asia. He graduated from Dartmouth College.

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