Xconomist of the Week: Q&A with General Assembly’s Brad Hargreaves

I hate New York sports teams. But I don’t mind New York startup incubators. Especially when they have a growing presence in Boston and other cities.

General Assembly is much more than that, of course. The company runs a network of startup schools dedicated to entrepreneurship and education, primarily in the fields of technology, business, and design. It opened its workspace in Manhattan’s Flatiron District in January 2011, and has since expanded to Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and also to Berlin, London, Toronto, Melbourne, and Sydney (with different types of offerings and setups in each city).

Earlier this month, General Assembly said it raised $9.8 million in Series B funding from investors including Tony Hsieh (through Vegas TechFund), John Fisher, and Mousse Partners. The company’s previous investors include Jeff Bezos (through Bezos Expeditions), Yuri Milner, and VC firms Maveron and Learn Capital.

General Assembly, which has raised more than $14 million in total, has said it plans to offer classes in Las Vegas in 2013. And it is currently ramping up in the Boston area (within the Cambridge Innovation Center space in Kendall Square), with classes starting last month.

I recently exchanged e-mails with co-founder Brad Hargreaves, an Xconomist since 2011, about General Assembly’s expansion and plans, and where it fits in the evolving ecosystem of entrepreneurship. Here are his thoughts:

On the new fundraising, and General Assembly’s expansion: “During our series B, we raised $9.8 million. This gives us the resources to increase our course offerings offline and online, scale our enterprise education offerings, and to potentially open new locations.”

On how GA is working to differentiate itself from other startup schools and workspaces: “We believe that having actionable skills in technology, business, and design empowers individuals to succeed professionally. We focus our offerings on providing high-quality, practitioner-led educational programming in these areas. We also believe in developing curricula for our long-form courses that emphasize hands-on experiences [and] deliver the most value for our students and community. Our core belief is that the best way to gain basic proficiency in specific topic areas is to surround yourself [with] the best practitioners, to work alongside equally motivated and like-minded peers, and to learn by doing. We bring this approach to everything we build.”

On GA’s latest challenges: “Our biggest challenge is prioritizing the requests that we receive for new long-form course offerings so we can remain ahead of the demand. Right now we offer 12 different courses. Over the next year we plan to introduce several more.”

On interesting trends across the company’s network of cities: “General Assembly now offers ongoing educational programming in nine markets on three continents. What we have learned throughout this process of expansion is that every community is distinct, but they each have a deeply entrepreneurial and enthusiastic core. These tech communities also face a common challenge: a shortage of high-quality talent, particularly in the areas of technology, business, and design. With so many smart and innovative ideas, companies are struggling to find developers that can build the sites, marketers to take the products to market, and designers to create memorable user experiences.”

On how startup education has evolved as entrepreneurship has gone (almost) mainstream: “We see a lot of people who want to get as far as possible on their own without raising money or simply never raise outside capital at all. People realize that it’s often a bad idea to raise a pile of VC money to hire a team of developers and designers to build their first product. They are building that first product themselves, which for many, requires learning the basics of Web development and design. This doesn’t apply as widely in the hardware, biotech, and cleantech fields, but it’s certainly a trend in consumer and B2B software.”

On an important issue in startups and community-building that isn’t getting talked about that much: “There is an attitudinal shift away from early fundraising to bootstrapping and self-sufficiency. Consider the gaming industry as an example. There has been a huge shift from a publisher-dependent studio model requiring tons of capital and time to a community of smaller, independent developers building games for relatively open platforms like mobile and social. In this new model, building a successful game just requires an idea and the skills to design and program it.”

On his biggest lesson learned at General Assembly: “Community is the key. We’ve always made our community the center of the General Assembly experience, but it’s remarkable how this has been reinforced. From finding instructors to building a local brand—all of this is so dependent on the strength of the General Assembly community.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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