Federal Hill-based incubator and coworking space Betamore will soon embark on its biggest project to date outside of its own opening last December: Betamore Academy.
Ten-week-long courses in four topics, such as mobile development and front-end development, will be taught by people working in each topic’s respective field. Classes in each topic begin Sept. 17, take place twice a week and are three hours long. The price tag for one 10-week track: $3,000, with a non-refundable $1,500 due up front to hold your spot. And the point of these classes: to teach locals the requisite skills to work for, or start their own, tech companies, without having to spend time in a university computer science program.
An informational meet-and-greet with the four teachers and Betamore staff is scheduled for today, Sept. 11, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Betamore cofounder Mike Brenner said he’s aiming for roughly a dozen people in each one of these “longform courses” once enrollment closes on Sept. 16, and he thinks he can hit that mark. “We think it’s a fair price,” he said. “Tell me where you can learn iPhone development for $3,000.”
A companion program, Betamore Works, is meant to funnel Academy graduates into positions with local tech companies. Digital agency Fastspot and startups Riskive and Woofound are among the partner-companies Betamore has signed up so far, with the promise of “early access” to Academy “rockstars.”
It was late 2012 when the for-profit coworking and incubation space opened on the fourth floor of a new luxury apartment building on Light Street to much fanfare, long before this new arena for Baltimore-based tech had done much of anything. (On this point, Technical.ly Baltimore must implicate itself — we championed Betamore’s 12 French presses, a rather jejune matter of fact, as “awesome.”)
That fanfare was most likely derivative of the cachet of Betamore’s three cofounders: Sean Lane, the CEO of BTS Software Solutions, Greg Cangialosi, an organizer of the Baltimore Angels who sold his e-mail marketing company in summer 2011, and Brenner, himself a developer who quickly made inroads in Baltimore city’s tech scene in the years leading up to Betamore’s opening by meeting and bringing together many of its bigger players at a series of different events. As we’ve disclosed above, Brenner is a partner with Technical.ly Baltimore.
The concept for Betamore’s existence was multi-faceted:
- Establish not just a coworking space, but a “community,” in Brenner’s telling, where members spend time not only in a physical space but also in each other’s company at regular monthly events.
- Set up a full-time, 24/7 facility for software startups, and allow them 12 to 18 months to grow a company, finish a product, push it out to the market and start banking revenue before insisting they set up shop elsewhere.
- Schedule and hold classes — what Brenner calls Betamore’s unique piece when compared to other incubators in town — that teach skills often found in the repertoire of startup founders and employees: front-end coding with HTML, CSS and PHP, back-end development via Ruby programming and supplementary courses on marketing and graphic design.
In establishing Betamore around these three tenets, Brenner and company were setting up what they claimed was a first-of-its-kind environment in Baltimore, a place that could act as a hub among startups in a relatively popular neighborhood from which smaller circles of tech startup-fueled innovation could develop — and a coworking space that viewed educating locals, technologists and non-technologists alike, as much a part of its mission as it was a part of its business plan.
“Where do new minds come and enter the ecosystem? That goal was achieved,” said Brenner. “We definitely established ourselves as a premier location for the tech community.”
In some respects, Betamore has done that:
- A total of 64 members have signed up for part-time or full-time Betamore membership. Half of those are part-time community members paying $200 per month. The other half are employees of startups working from the full-time space in the back of the facility. Startups there pay $400 per month per person, although Betamore has since created an “affiliate membership” for $200 per month per startup.
- It has played host to several events of some portent, including April’s Reinvent Transit hackathon, January’s unveiling of the state’s Central Business Licensing System by Governor Martin O’Malley, and Baltimore’s first Rails Girls event.
- One of its dedicated member-startups is Uber. Another is cybersecurity startup Riskive, which has raised more than $2 million in funding and employs 20 people, including three of this city’s seven Venture for America fellows.
As Brenner explained to PandoDaily last December, he and his cofounders were giving themselves 10 months to prove the need for such a location in Baltimore — and become profitable. Money to start up what is itself a startup came from Brenner and Cangialosi, and Brenner said Betamore, nearly nine months in, is “almost cash-flow positive.” (The space for Betamore is rented from BTS CEO Sean Lane.)
This growth, however, hasn’t been without hiccups, shortcomings of the vision Betamore’s cofounders adopted prior to its opening.
The permanent, full-time area in Betamore, initially solely reserved for web- and mobile-focused startups, has since been opened to services companies like digital agencies. Brenner, who said he was hoping universities in the area would push students Betamore’s way, is now contending with the fact that university administrators that have seen or heard about Betamore hope to open similar spaces on their own campuses.
“We haven’t executed all the objectives we set out to do,” he said.
That includes the educational component with a focus on teaching people how to start their own tech companies. What Betamore has not yet done is offer classes that could truly transform people from casual hobbyists, dabblers and enthusiasts into skilled coders with a knowledge base that could get them a job, and a potentially higher-paying position than they have now, or help them form a startup, which might turn into a steady means of employment. The first classes, rolled out in February, were 90 minutes long, but weren’t turning students into “experts” on the course material, Brenner said.
Academy is meant to be that next step.
As the final piece in Betamore’s tech education initiative, Betamore Academy is intended to produce a workforce of experts, in addition to serving as another avenue toward the coworking space’s goal of financial sustainability. Whether it will do both is, obviously, impossible to know right now. But the team assembled to teach and organize the classes indicates Betamore thinks Academy will fulfill its dual mission.
- Mobile development, with a particular focus on developing iPhone apps, covers Cocoa, Objective C and more, is taught by Back Forty developer Flip Sasser.
- Back-end web development — object-oriented programming in Ruby, SQL and other subjects — is taught by Paul Barry, a LivingSocial software developer.
- Digital marketing and sales is taught by marketing consultant Len Markidan, and is meant to teach people how to find customers.
No doubt it will be argued that $3,000 for 10-week courses in the above topics is too steep a price. (The prices for the first run of 90-minute classes were quarreled over by members of the city’s tech scene.) Why pay before trying out Codecademy? What about scouring Coursera for a massive open online course on coding? How about attending a Meetup where programming skills are being taught? What about trying out for startup Staq, which will pay you to develop Ruby programming skills as you work temporarily for the advertising-tech company?
Brenner believes there’s a difference with a distinction here. For one, Betamore advertises these classes as friendly to ignorant programmers, saying no “specific programming or tech experience” is necessary aside from knowing how to access e-mail and the Internet. To work at Staq, you’ll need to know, at least, what “working at the command line” entails.
And $3,000, even with the additional expense incurred by anyone signed up for the mobile development class without an Apple computer, is cheaper than some local offerings.
This reporter, a 24-year-old eligible for in-state tuition, would pay around $12,000 to earn a graduate degree in computer information systems from Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). Enrolling in the computer science Engineering for Professionals program at the Johns Hopkins University presents a chance to learn Ruby on Rails development, web development and programming in Java, but you’ll need good GRE scores and, more than likely, a sophisticated understanding of how algorithms work (among other things).
Not to mention that Betamore is ensuring Academy grads who enrolled in the hopes of scoring a new career a tuition reimbursement of 80 percent, provided they land a job with a Betamore Works company.
While free programming courses are available on Codecademy, that $3,000 is buying students a small class size and an experienced teacher in a discrete topic for an extended period of time, plus the access that comes from rubbing elbows with local technology business owners who seem intent on hiring Academy graduates.
One who has given Academy his vote of confidence is Josh Spears, cofounder of one of Betamore Works’ early partners, Woofound. He said the Academy “is aiming to prepare students to become attractive candidates for startups.
“Part of that is because the program is being constructed by people who deeply understand the needs of the community and know — or at least are willing to experiment with — how to fill them.”
If successful, it would be Betamore’s grandest experiment: turning Betamore Academy into something that’s profitable not only for Betamore, but also for Baltimore city’s tech scene.