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You Don’t Need to Be a Design Expert to Be a Great Frontend Dev

Your path after graduating from university is seldom straight. Without work experience, you might lack enough evidence of your newly acquired skills to convince employers you’re a valuable hire. It’s a well-documented problem. Most US surveys find that roughly half of college grads¹ struggle to find a job in their first year after graduation.

Matt Studdert noticed the website developers he trained at the coding academy scrambling to create proof of their skills outside of their certifications. They had the requisite skills but few portfolio projects to send with their job applications. In response, Matt created an online challenge tool called Frontend Mentor to help them learn while compiling well-designed portfolio pieces.

After testing a free version on his students, Matt added a subscription service and pushed his platform to the masses through influencer marketing. By 2022, over 2,500 people had signed up, making him around $380,000 ARR. Matt also revealed one feature that he thinks will bridge the gap between unemployed devs and their dream jobs.

A Personal Trainer Becomes a Dev Trainer

Matt started his professional life as a personal trainer in 2009, but by 2014, he’d reached an income plateau and was looking to switch careers.

“I always liked personal training, but I’d hit a ceiling where I was fully booked and couldn’t raise my prices any higher,” he says. “I’d started to refer clients to other trainers and take a commission, but they’d invariably run off with those clients. I thought about opening a gym, but it seemed high-risk.”

“But they would always say, ‘I’m a developer, not a designer. My projects look awful.’”

Brick-and-mortar gym aside, every other business idea of Matt’s always involved an online component and he didn’t know how to code.

“I didn’t have the money to pay anyone to build this stuff,” he says. “It was too risky to pay potentially tens of thousands of pounds to a developer to prototype something for me. I thought to myself, I should probably start learning to code.”

That year, Matt enrolled in a web development course in London’s General Assembly school, an instructional service training people who wanted to start new careers in tech. He was hooked. “I fell in love. I’d never done anything like it and it felt great.”

After finishing General Assembly’s three-month bootcamp in 2014, Matt took on a full time developer position and started working as an instructor for General Assembly in 2015. For three years, he balanced teaching with his full-time work. Then, while working as an instructor at a two-evening-a-week frontend development course in 2018, he noticed his students seemed lost once they’d completed his training.

“They would finish the course and ask, ‘Okay, where do I go now to build a portfolio of projects that I’m proud of?’ And my stock answer was to just build projects for yourself or something for your friends or family. But they would always say, ‘I’m a developer, not a designer. My projects look awful.’”

For their inspiration, Matt would usually refer these new devs to Dribbble, a social platform for digital designers and creators to promote their work. But his students were more interested in building the tech behind the designs. They told him they’d much prefer to download the art and use it for their projects, which is how they’d work in their later careers. 

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we take this stuff off everyone’s plate?’ I could build these challenges that emulate this designer-to-developer handover process. All a developer would have to do is choose the challenge and download the starter assets, which include all the images, starter content, and everything else. Then all they need to do is focus on the code.”

The Perfect Focus Group

Matt had the perfect audience for testing his product: twice-weekly classes of eager coding students. To begin, he created a website with a single frontend design challenge his students could access. They loved it and began asking for more projects.

“In the early days, I said if you mention us on Twitter, I will personally review your project and go through your code.”

Unlike most sites, Matt’s website wasn’t tutorial-based, it was challenge-based. “Tutorials are passive learning, whereas my website was proactive, project-based learning. It teaches you much better.”

Once he saw how much students liked the project, Matt added more challenges and began word-of-mouth marketing (a common tactic for personal trainers). He made it much easier to share completed projects on social media and used a special offer to encourage students to share their completed challenges on Twitter.

“In the early days, I said if you mention us on Twitter, I will personally review your project and go through your code. That was a good way to get word-of-mouth.”

Later, Matt would extend the power of word-of-mouth marketing through collaborations with coding tutorial services like Scrimba and online coding influencers on YouTube.

“We collaborated with an instructor called Kevin Powell who I got to know over the years. He does a lot of YouTube videos about Frontend Mentor challenges. It’s useful content for him because he doesn’t have to design it. He just downloads a project from Frontend Mentor and films himself completing it.

“It’s super useful for his subscribers because they get this insight into how a professional developer will break down a design and how they’ll tackle the challenge. We’ve also partnered with Jessica Chan and Brad Traversy. All well-known instructors with large followings.”

Soon Frontend Mentor attracted users from all walks of life. Some were students beginning their careers and others were professionals sharpening their skills. “I call it ‘just-in-time’ learning,” says Matt. “You’ll be partway through a project and learn you are short on knowledge in one area. You can use Frontend Mentor to keep going.”

Eight months in, one of Matt’s fellow teachers at General Assembly, Mike Hayden, asked if he could help with the project. After working together casually, they realized they worked well together and decided to make it official with Mike coming on board as CTO.

Making Frontend Mentor Into a Business

Matt and Mike worked on Frontend Mentor for two more years while Matt taught at General Assembly and Mike worked at an online education startup called Future Learn. During that time, growth was fairly linear, but the website was still free to use. Finally, in 2020, Matt saw how to turn Frontend Mentor into a profitable business. 

First, he added a subscription paywall. Free users would still get access to basic challenges while subscribers could access Figma files and premium challenges which Matt describes as genuine portfolio showcase pieces.

While today he has signed a total of 2,500 members and makes six-figure revenue, fewer than one percent have converted to premium accounts. “That’s fairly standard for freemium models,” he adds.

His biggest challenges of the past two years have been getting his users to do their first project and then converting them to premium plans.

Matt and his team have begun tackling the former in their onboarding process and post-signup emails. “We now have an onboarding sequence and welcome email with a recommendation to take our most straightforward challenge,” he says. “It’s the smallest project we have, so it helps people quickly reach the ‘aha!’ moment when they realize building realistic projects can help them progress their skills.”

Matt is still working to push more people over to premium plans. He believes he’s found a solution: “We’re aiming to add more recurring value to the platform to boost subscriptions,” he says. “For example, we’re adding different learning paths and letting people place bounty points on their solutions to increase the likelihood of receiving feedback from the community.”

The Future of Employment

One feature that’s helped Matt drastically increase engagement on Frontend Mentor is a point system for completing challenges and mentoring other users.

“Depending on the solution difficulty for a challenge, you get points,” says Matt. “We have a weekly, monthly, and yearly wall of fame for the highest earners. We’ve also got a Slack community where people chat, help each other, and get feedback. This lets you learn about some cool ways that other people solve problems.”

Matt and Mike understand that students primarily come to their platform for portfolio pieces to help them gain employment. Soon, Matt will turn his points system into a way for potential employers to judge a developer’s skill level before hiring them.

“Build your project as small as possible and keep on iterating.”

“We want to publicly launch a hiring platform for recruiters where they can sign up and search based on their filters,” he says. “Say they want a dev that works in the UK and knows React. We can say, ‘Here are the top people for that.’ As people earn more points, they move up the search rankings. That also benefits the recruiters because they can review a larger body of work.”

While the recruitment part of the business is still in the pipeline, Matt is already looking into marketing strategies to attract businesses. His advice for other founders is to do what he did: Build a small version of your project and get it in front of people.

“The smallest version of Frontend Mentor looked terrible because I built it myself and I’m colorblind,” says Matt. “But, with feedback, I made it an appealing platform. If you haven’t broken down your work, do it. Build your project as small as possible and keep on iterating.”

Sources

¹https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jobs-for-college-grads-economy/


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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdeckihttps://acquire.com
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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