If you chat with Matt Brimer ’09, Jake Schwartz ’00 and Brad Hargreaves ’08 for a bit, you’re likely to hear some business jargon. Reference might be made to the “digital ecosystem” — networking, itself jargon, might become “connectivity.” But given the way General Assembly has taken off since the trio founded it in 2011, it seems there just might be something behind all that mumbo jumbo. General Assembly, or “GA,” as its three founders call it, is a New York educator and incubator for other tech start-ups. From simply providing the physical space and amenities necessary for start-ups to grow — office space, in other words — General Assembly has expanded to offer a host of courses for aspiring entrepreneurs at locations across the globe, winning over $4 million in seed funding and a spot among Forbes’ “Top 30 Under 30″ in the process. The company reports that 96 percent of students enrolled in the most immersive programs go on to find jobs within three months. WEEKEND gave the three Yalies behind GA a call to find out how they made it all happen.
Q. Jake Schwartz was quoted in a Yahoo! News article about you guys saying that in today’s job market, it’s not enough to “write and think and figure out what you need to do.” How does what you learn at General Assembly relate to traditional higher education?
Brad: We look at General Assembly as a complement to liberal arts education, not as a replacement. Liberal arts has an incredibly important role in the American education system, and that’s not one we’re looking to replace, but 98 percent of our current and previous students already have a college degree. Our audience is not coming to GA as an alternative to traditional education. Many of these are students who went to really good schools. I’m sure we could find Yale alums who have been through our program. It’s really students who are looking for a very specific skill set, whether they want to become a user experience designer, they want to become a web developer, they want to get into digital marketing: Those are the profiles of the students we’re seeing.
Jake: I almost think of [GA] like the last mile. I loved my Yale experience. It was a great education, but I didn’t come out with any way to just create economic value for my employer. So I really had to hustle and leverage whatever else I could find to even get someone to hire me. If you want to go off the beaten path, you need to be able to hit the ground running. All these companies aren’t just looking for people who are smart — they’re looking for people who can do things.
Q. How did Yale prepare you guys for what you are doing now?
Brad: When I look at what I’m doing today, the biggest thing that Yale provided me is connections to my co-founders. Matt and I have known each other since he was a freshman at college and I was a sophomore. Matt met Jake through a Yale alumni event. The connectivity that Yale provides is incredibly important. Part of what we are trying to do at General Assembly is not just take the educational content and deliver it but also deliver that connectivity and that brand imprimatur that you get from going to an institution like Yale.
Matt: I also think Yale provided a certain sense of magic to our undergraduate experience. When we think about what we’re creating at General Assembly, being able to surprise and delight and provide serendipity is important, because I think that’s what creates long-term success: when you can create very memorable but also impactful experiences for people. When we think about what learning means at GA, a lot of our experience originates from Yale.
Jake: When I got out, I experienced firsthand the major letdown of getting into the real world and realizing that there were a million people just like me. Yale has this way of building you up to think that you’re special, and then I had that very long, hard letdown that, in a lot of ways, is what inspired me to start GA. I had a great experience at Yale in many ways, my best friends are from there, and I think Yale did a really great job with the way it approaches this idea of a big idea with a bunch of little details that make up the big idea. The interplay and the tension between those two levels of thought is really the same way I still think about strategy and tactics in a start-up, in a business.
Q. That same Yahoo article had Jake saying that there was a sort of stigma in American education around purely vocational training. How do you guys hope to change that?
Brad: It’s really about delivering a lot of the non-educational value that has traditionally been associated with, say, Ivy league schools — for instance, providing a strong alumni network and incredibly high job placement rates. Obviously, education and skills are a big part of it, but for us it’s really skills plus community equals opportunity, and that has not traditionally been part of the vocational school value proposition. That’s one of the ways we think what we’re doing is unique.
Q. One of the things that makes GA stand out is its connections to the established tech industry: You have guys from Facebook and Google teaching classes, and then when people complete your class, you’re able to launch them off into the tech world. How have you guys managed that level of integration?
Matt: In many ways, General Assembly began in a very community-oriented, grassroots way. It began with a series of conversations and ideas between myself, Brad and Jake, and a number of the members of the tech and start-up community in New York City. A lot of it was about not only getting interested but also involved, getting people who we wanted involved in our greater vision. A lot of it is about being out there in the community, going to events, creating goodwill, facilitating introductions and favors for other people in the tech community so that we can get great karma around us. Doing those favors eventually comes back to us. It’s about playing an active and participatory role in the communities we are in.
Jake: A lot of that is that we’ve now been around for three years, and we’ve worked really, really hard. That’s the other thing: There are no shortcuts — there was no magic bullet that got us there other than hustle. We all went to as many events as we could, we met everybody, we probably gave hundreds of tours of the space before we launched the original GA. It was through all of that and having a mission and a set of values that people believe in, that allowed us to have that presence today. We’re still working on it — it’s not something that ever stops.
Q. How daunting is it to start a company from scratch? What does it feel like when you realize, “This is going to work”?
Jake: It’s the wildest ride of your life. It’s hard to describe. A friend of mine describes starting a business as one of the most psychedelic experiences in life because your reality is constantly shifting around you. I always liked that.
Q. When someone walks into GA with an idea for a start-up, can you tell if they have what it takes to make their idea work?
Jake: A lot of people think it’s about the quality of the idea, and they get very defensive about the idea, and one of the things that can help me know if an entrepreneur is going to be successful is how un-defensive and eager for all sorts of feedback they are. A good entrepreneur knows it’s not the idea — it’s the ability to get it done that matters, and they look for any kind of feedback or gaps or holes or vulnerabilities in how they’re thinking. Whereas somebody who is a little defensive and a little closed off to that, they may think that means they have a strong vision, but typically what it means is that they’re not open to the data that the world is providing, that could help them make their idea stronger.
Q. Any brief, pithy advice you guys would give to a Yale student who wanted to found a start-up, tech or otherwise?
Brad: I would say, failure is OK. Failure can be a learning experience. The start-up that Brad and I founded before General Assembly, it was in the social gaming space. We ran that for a couple years, and it never ended up working out in the long term. But the failure and the lessons learned from that company really allowed us to create General Assembly and allowed us to be a lot more successful the second time around. The first company you start as a Yale student very well might not work out, but getting that experience — getting that education — is absolutely paramount for being successful in the future.
Jake: Well, I would say there’s no time like the present, right? Just do it. But I think, more importantly, don’t think that just because you’re smart you’ve got something to add. It’s going to take hard work and constant learning to really be a valuable member of a start-up team.
Q. And maybe a class at GA to boot?
Jake: Of course.