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Ybor City startup Gr8code ready to start boot camp for coders

Gr8code founders, from left, Virginia Barnett, Phuong Nguyen Cotey and Deborah Neff recently received $5.4 million in venture capital from OmniElite Financial Group to help them expand their coding boot camp.
Gr8code founders, from left, Virginia Barnett, Phuong Nguyen Cotey and Deborah Neff recently received $5.4 million in venture capital from OmniElite Financial Group to help them expand their coding boot camp.
Published Nov. 12, 2014

TAMPA

The founders of Gr8code all met in the startup world, guiding entrepreneurs and helping launch new businesses. It was in that world that they discovered a glaring unmet need: startups could not find enough skilled coders to build apps and websites.

"There was such a gap between being able to hire the skills they needed," said Gr8code CEO Virginia Barnett, "and what was actually available."

So Barnett and her partners Phuong Nguyen Cotey and Deborah Neff did what came naturally: They created a startup.

Gr8code bills itself as Tampa Bay's first homegrown coding boot camp.

In nine intense weeks, the coding school said it can teach prospective Web developers programming languages such as HTML, CSS and Javascript. The first classes are set to start Jan. 12, and Gr8code hopes to start taking deposits next week.

The Ybor City startup has already received a major financial endorsement: $5.4 million in venture capital from OmniElite Financial Group that the startup will use to expand its boot camp as more students sign on.

That's believed to be the largest first round of funding for any female-founded startup in Florida, according to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Entrepreneurship Program.

Daniel James Scott, founding associate director at USFSP's program, said the amount of funding is impressive, and so is the source: institutional investors don't often fund the initial "seed" round. Usually the founders have to do that themselves.

"Seeing that much money go into a very early stage company like Gr8code is a signal of two things," Scott said. "The investors know the market, and they know there's a massive need."

Scott, who has founded his own startups, said Gr8code's initial venture capital funding is a good sign for Tampa Bay's tech startup community: "This really does help put us on the map."

Barnett used to be the director of operations at Florida Next Foundation, an advocate for entrepreneurs and small businesses founded by former state CFO Alex Sink. Cotey, a former reporter for what was then called the St. Petersburg Times, also works at Florida Next. Neff is the director of operations at Tampa Bay Wave Inc., a startup accelerator that provides offices and support to grow new businesses.

They met last year when Florida Next moved into Tampa Bay Wave's Venture Center, a communal space for startups in downtown Tampa. Barnett and Neff compared notes.

"One of the most common things we hear from new businesses is they need a coder," Neff said. "They need someone to create that website, to create that app, and that was a gap we were absolutely seeing."

So they started Gr8code in April. Their first classes were for kids this summer, and they plan to offer future programming classes for children to go along with the boot camp.

"We saw the opportunity," Barnett said. "So many employers were desperate to find quality coders."

Anyone can learn how to code, says Gr8code's Justin Davis, the veteran Web developer who designed the curriculum. He said learning code is like learning a new language. But the school will also teach coders how to work through the programming problems they'll encounter.

Gr8code charges $10,000 for courses in several programming languages. Students also get an Apple MacBook Pro laptop. Prospective students must successfully complete 18 hours of online and classroom work before they're allowed to start classes to make sure they can keep up.

Financing is offered by Climb Credit Corp. which charges 5 to 12 percent interest. The cost of coding boot camps across the country can range from a few thousand to as much as $17,000. Miami's Wyncode Academy charges $9,000 for nine weeks.

But Gr8code said there are plenty of coding jobs out there to justify the investment and estimated that the average starting salary in the local market is $55,000.

"We know we have the jobs," Scott said, "but we were always concerned about the pipeline."

Coding is a skill that many pick up on their own, often at an early age, and there's no shortage of free online instruction. So why pay five figures to learn how to code?

Gregg Hilferding is a self-taught coder who started his own Web design, marketing and consulting startup, GreenBarLabs, six months ago and is located at Tampa Bay Wave. His example notwithstanding, he said the quality of homegrown coders can be uneven. Building a website on the side isn't the same as being fluent in a programming language. Nor can startups afford to train coders. They need them to be ready to work.

A coding boot camp could be a way for recent college graduates to add coding skills to their resume, or for someone to learn coding without having to spend four years getting a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"You don't need to know how to figure out an algorithm," Hilferding, "to build a website."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.