Founders Interviews: Dimitar Vidolov of Sensei School
Dimitar Vidolov has started a live, online cybersecurity school that charges $0 upfront, and expects nothing in return until you land a job paying at least $60,000 a year.
Davis Baer: What are you working on?
Dimitar Vidolov: I’m Dimitar Vidolov and together with Sunny Pedeva we started Sensei School — a live, online school that takes people who don’t have a job or are not too happy at their current one, and trains them to become cyber security professionals. People don’t need to have any particular background or experience, and there are no fees nor debt involved. We work exclusively with Income Share Agreements (ISA).
We’ve had over 400 applicants within the last 30 days and we keep pushing the deadline as more and more people want to apply. From Uber drivers and Y Combinator’s Startup School participants, to network engineers and genetics research scientists have been applying. The reasons behind them wanting to attend vary, but most commonly it’s due to lack of prospects for growth at their current positions, no promotion or learning opportunities, and low salaries. The last one is rather obvious considering the average US salary is $42,000 annually, whereas average salary for entry level cyber security positions is $86,000 and there are over 300,000 job openings currently according to cyberseek.org — a project supported by the US National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE). Cybersecurity salaries for positions like cybersecurity analyst, incident responders and cybersecurity analyst are very competitive. Cybersecurity Ventures also has a summary on the job market that is a good overview with some forecasts.
The rate of growth for jobs in cybersecurity is projected to grow 28 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the average
What’s your background and what motivated you to get started with your company?
In January me and Sunny, who comes from this industry, started a new company. A rather straightforward business: providing technical training (read courses) to businesses and specifically GDPR. Our mission was to lower unemployment by providing training to professionals and for each person trained — we’d train someone in need. The problem was there were so many broken things around the normal model. From becoming an “approved supplier”, to long sales cycle, to competing with companies like big four consulting ones. They have much larger product portfolios and were delivering trainings to companies for “free”. Not to mention people attending these trainings cannot really see what the tangible benefits are. Sure, some certificates are well recognised and present on job posts in the preferred section, but some really good ones aren’t.
After a few months in this space, we had to step back and reconsider the whole thing. We took a few days off and I was reading an article on Techcrunch about new types of education models. Income Share Agreements. That instantly resonated with both of us we spend days conceptualising and discussing. That’s when it hit us:
“This can actually eliminate unemployment.”
More specifically, structural unemployment — this is when people actually want to and can work. That seemed like a good moonshot. Scratch that, it’s a mars-shot!* It’s like investing in startups for a percentage of the company, but for people. We’d spend time and resources training someone for a percentage of their salary — in exchange they would double, triple our even quadruple their salary.
Bringing corporate style training down to bachelor level education made sense, especially after talking to a friend who is an ex-Dean of a top US college. In her view, college degrees are an outdated product. They teach skills just-in-case as opposed just-in-time. “People are going around saying it’s a marketing problem, it isn’t.” The 21st century skills that people need are changing fast. This also seems to be the case according to some large companies like Google, Apple and EY that no longer require college degrees.
The US college debt at $1.48 trillion is higher than the US credit card debt by about 30%, and most people expect to repay theirs in their 40s. Companies have college debt subsidies programs as staff perks. On the other hand, the skills gaps preventing people from being productive members of our societies are staggering — it has forced many companies to start apprenticeship programs. They don’t have a choice, they need more people and are willing to pay for it — hire first train later.
What if people came in all trained up, ready to rock & roll?
The underlying fundamentals come from economics 101. The maximum possible output of goods or services an economy can be achieved when all resources are fully and efficiently employed.
The underlying pillars are technology, capital, infrastructure and labour. Harvard Business Review wrote about the super abundant capital available — “now stands at roughly 10 times global GDP”. Technology, new resources, and infrastructure are all being address by a significant number of organisations. We are addressing labour and the hardest part of it seems to be cybersecurity.
What went into building the initial product?
We spent about two weeks tweaking a template site in August, one we put together via squarespace.com. We were still running the other business on the side, among other gigs, but we were very focused on this new concept and were spending over 90% of our time on it, which was a bit of a stretch.
There are a few trends that have enabled Sensei School.
Cyber security job posts stay open the longest of any other across the IT industry — 27 days on average. Entry level positions have higher salaries than software developers: $86,000 vs $55,000, but we know some people start at over $100,000. Fortune 500 companies and cryptocurrency trading platforms being hacked every week does help, as well as the rise of ISA of course.
How have you attracted users and grown your company?
We never actually launched. We crawled our site on a Friday evening and decided to leave it as is for a while as we focused on the product and how we are going to launch it. We didn’t actually think it will get traffic.
On Monday morning I had an email notification that read “Form Submission — Application Form-Sensei School”. I was sure this was a friend trying to be funny, especially because we hadn’t done much for SEO.
It was a networks engineer from Chicago.
And we have no idea how he found our site.
It was on. We started experimenting with the site and acquisition channels, and talking to as many people as we can. Any feedback regarding the site at this point was crucial, because it’s hard to determine what works and what doesn’t with a small sample of users/applicants. Lesson: if it works, don’t fix it! Or at least A/B test it instead.
Most of the things we tried to perfect on our site failed. Some were because Squarespace updates your sitemap (this is what Google’s crawler bots use) every 24 hours or so. We had days we had no organic traffic whatsoever as we were changing something every 2.5 minutes or so. Tweaking pages’ names or URLs can lead to lower rank and/or relevance for Google as it sees them as broken links on your sitemap. Messaging Squarespace’s Help twitter account asking to force update your sitemap does help, especially if you are in the US. Europe time zones don’t usually have customer service peeps online when you need them.
We had given up on Google Ads. The message “low relevance” was etched in our brains. Facebook doesn’t have that problem, but what it does have is an anti-”get rich quick schemes” policy, which flagged us in the beginning. It states: “Ads promoting income opportunities must fully describe the associated product or business model, and must not promote business models offering quick compensation for little investment, including multilevel marketing opportunities.” We did have close to 90% conversion rates. I would’ve flagged us too.
What’s your business model?
We don’t charge students any upfront fees. In exchange for attending our program which includes soft skills, cyber security training, career coaching, accredited certificates and some warm introductions to their potential employers, students share 14% of their post-graduation salary for 3 years if or when they start making $60,000 or more. That way they don’t accumulate debt, there are no interest rates and they no need any money to apply.
Some schools require you wear pants, have money and background.
Sensei School doesn’t:
Our goals are aligned with theirs — getting them hired in a position with lots of opportunity to learn and grow, and with a rather good salary. We also have our own social network where students learn from one another, connect with their instructors, guest speakers, and even recruiters.
What are your goals for the future?
Our next goal is to close our seed round in November as we and our first cohort will start off in Q1 2019. We’ve had to push the start date due to the number of applicants and the need to ugprade the company infrastructure in terms of software, as well as staff. We are focused on perfecting the program syllabus and on increasing the number of students we accept, as well as more hiring partners. We are also planning to introduce a part-time program and to expand into another field around spring time, scaling up the number of students we accept significantly.
Our ultimate goal, or mars-shot, is to eliminate unemployment.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Definitely not having breaks and time off is a mistake, as well as have time slots for exercising. Getting that first applicant blindsided us both into working without time for reflection and missing the big picture could be lethal to a startup. Everytime we were stuck on something and had a quick break, we’d come up with a really decent solution, following the 90/10 rule YC preaches as much as possible. Take more breaks, the opportunity cost is too high not to. Especially in the beginning when every decision has such an impact and you have to prioritise all the time.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Y Combinator’s videos, essays and talking to users. Build an MVP, test for market fit and talk to users. Repeat. Also, Marc Andreessen's piece on product market fit being the only thing that matters. It really gives a perspective of what any founder should strive for: building a product that they end up unable to make enough of to satisfy the demand. If one thinks about it, how else would you, David, conquer Goliath unless your user acquisition rate is ridiculously better? Key metric(s) might differ for some, but the point doesn’t. Test what works for your model and double down.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
The only thing you need to focus in the beginning is product market fit. Don’t think is it perfect, the brand, how it looks, the big launch. Launch now! Get feedback and iterate your product/offering. It’s scary at first, but what could you lose? You can always get a new domain, launch with a different brand. We had no syllabus, no company and no idea how we were going to pull off Sensei School. Note that even Airbnb launched several times before it got traction.
Read some of the essays by Y Combinator’s staff to see why and learn more from good failures that came before you.
How can we learn more?
We’d be happy to answer any questions from the community — please feel free to ask away in the comments.
Founders Interviews: Dimitar Vidolov of Sensei School was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.