A cheerful casual businessman sits on the phone and smiles.
For almost a decade, bootcamps have offered practical training for anyone who wants to work in the technology industry. Most of these programs focus on coding while neglecting other skills that could be just as useful. Some less reputable bootcamps have been criticized for saddling students with debt without finding them work, but the business model succeeds under the right circumstances because it solves a significant problem for recruiters.
Meanwhile, a more sensitive and deeply rooted issue has gained the attention it deserves. Systemic discrimination at multiple stages of life has resulted in a severe lack of socioeconomic and gender diversity in tech, which is as bad for the industry’s culture as it is for already vulnerable and afflicted communities.
Shaan Hathiramani, founder of Flockjay, wants to leverage the existing bootcamp model to fix diversity in tech. By offering sales training, he provides access to under-represented groups and improves the industry’s culture as a result. I spoke with Shaan about his fresh take on the bootcamp model, the recent pivot to revenue-first thinking in Silicon Valley, and the emerging debate surrounding income share agreements.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What problem are you solving?
Shaan Hathiramani: The guiding mission of Flockjay is to empower upward mobility, specifically for people from non-traditional and underrepresented backgrounds because we’re in an important phase of cultural development in tech. Ben Horowitz just put out a book on culture. People are talking about culture and diversity differently, but there’s still a lot of lip service that’s paid to diversity and it gets manifested in top-down attempts.
Some tech companies pay a quarter-million a year for a Head of D&I (diversity and inclusion) to develop and implement a strategic plan. For that same money, you can hire 25 elite Flockjay sales reps from diverse backgrounds and groom them as the future leaders of your company.
In my experience, sales training is quickly done in-house as part of an onboarding process. What sort of training do you provide your students?
Shaan Hathiramani: There’s a whole hidden language to tech — how to set up a Zoom call, how to cold message people on LinkedIn. It’s natural for you and me to reach out to someone on LinkedIn and say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing and would love 10 minutes of your time.” But that might not feel intuitive if you haven’t come from a background where you have a computer at five years old.
So we’re thinking about things holistically. Yes, we offer best-in-class training for a profession that’s incredibly valuable to most tech or tech-enabled companies. We also offer a way to think about the lifecycle of someone who’s entering an industry and the re-skilling crisis in this country. Beyond just giving them skills, we give folks the support they need to succeed and rewrite their own stories.
What does Flockjay mean?
Shaan Hathiramani: Birds fly further and faster together. So everything we do is flock-first, and there’s a quirky and cool Flockjay culture with Flocktinis and Flockjay Fridays amongst the students. That’s something that has organically come up. The whole idea is to do things as a flock first, and that’s reflected in how we approach education, placement, and outcome transparency.
It sounds like you have the foundation for a unique brand that has a different tenor than most startups.
Shaan Hathiramani: It’s a cultural thing. We’re all realizing hustle-mania, like “crushing quotas” can be toxic and lead to burnout. We want to integrate work and life and be empathetic to single moms who are badass sales reps. This is the future of work, and it’s part of our brand and our culture and our name.
You won’t find stuff like “hustle harder” and “crush quota” on our website. We want to raise the consciousness of the industry and work toward great outcomes.
It’s no longer enough to aggressively acquire users if you have no revenue. Investors have been burned too many times. Do you see Flockjay as part of this current shift from product-led to sales-led startups in the Valley?
Shaan Hathiramani: Yes, we are making a very conscious bet. We see the sales cycle is moving earlier and earlier in the lifecycle of a company. And so, every three months, there are 200 companies that come out of a program like YC that need to learn how to sell.
If you think of the history of software, we went from on-premise to off-premise, we went from a hyper-outbound model to a self-serve model to the Dropbox model. As the barriers to entry for software development get lower, competition increases, and businesses need to figure out enterprise earlier and mid-market earlier. You can’t just count on everyone downloading Dropbox at home and bringing it to work.
With that, there is a renewed focus on contribution margins, gross margins, LTV — just the life cycle of the customer that you just hadn’t heard of at the early-stage before. This means there is a rush to understand how to build go-to-market functions and it’s actually pretty straightforward. There are four levers: the number of your sales reps, the productivity of your sales reps, how fast you ramp them up, and your retention. Flockjay accelerates each one.
Enterprise sales strategy can be complex stuff. It’s much more difficult than people often realize. At the highest level, it’s distinctly intellectual. Yet salespeople have a stigma like they’re hawking used cars, relative to how exalted designers and engineers are today.
Shaan Hathiramani: As sales gets more technical and more enterprise, you can’t fake it with the steak dinner anymore. You have to think about who the stakeholders are, what value you bring to the table, and how that value solves real business problems. You have to be an industry thought leader, a trusted advisor, and navigate an intricate machine that no one teaches you how to navigate. It’s a very specific skill set that is broadly applicable in many different companies and contexts.
That’s why the demand for top tier sales talent leads to a lot of false positives. Managers are trained to hire the guy who has VP of Sales on his resume because they think that solves for what they want. But really, they’re hiring a previous generation into a new and evolving role. I think that’s a huge opportunity for myth-busting as well.
Like other bootcamps, you offer ISAs for financing as an alternative to student loans. Why have income share agreements surged in popularity recently and do you believe they can achieve widespread traction in the United States?
Shaan Hathiramani: A well-implemented ISA program can broaden access to high-quality education. Yet even if you’re providing a premier educational experience, the baseline in American society today is students pay upfront and there’s a broken promise in the end.
Shaan Hathiramani: Yeah, no accountability and unending liability. The only time you hear from your college post-graduation is either asking for charitable donations or asking for payments on your debt, right? So ISAs change the conversation around owning the outcome of the program.
We have the lowest ISA I’ve seen for a program of this quality. It’s 10% on one year. We don’t want to earn the upside of what you earn. Most of the earnings in sales come after the first year, so we want you to keep all of it. We just want to service the cost of running the business.
You run into trouble when the marketing hype starts to outstrip the actual function. That’s when ISAs are structured in a way that feels predatory and doesn’t feel completely transparent. When graduates look at their paycheck stub every two weeks and have a sinking feeling that they’ll be docked for years. And ISAs are so nascent that we haven’t actually seen how that experience affects people. So for a lot of bootcamps, which are built around three or four-year programs with 17-20% interest, I’m not surprised there is a political backlash.
Some presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren say it feels predatory.
Yeah, she’s trying to tie it to Trump too.
Shaan Hathiramani: Right, so that’s where the narrative disconnects from reality.
The reality is that most big companies have absolved themselves from the training costs for their employees. That didn’t use to exist in this country. Companies used to own a lot of the investment and risk in their people. And you’ve seen companies basically outsource most of the responsibility of training people. They just cherrypick people based on an online job listing. They can reject 99 people and take one. And so any business that has to keep itself afloat like education has a real cost as it builds toward and prizes an actual outcome for students where they are set up for success.
It’s really important and something that we focus on, along with involving companies in this equation. We lower the upfront cost to students and make ISAs as untaxing as possible. That’s how I think these programs should function because otherwise, you’re setting people up for future heartache.
Do you offer other forms of financing?
Shaan Hathiramani: So you can either pay the whole thing up front at a discount, or you can do an ISA, which is also substantially reduced. We’re also starting a 501(c)(3) to fund scholarships for folks who can’t do the ISA as a form of need-based financial aid.
Students must be appreciative. What sort of feedback have you gotten?
Shaan Hathiramani: The outcomes are inspiring and the people are inspiring. We have 101st Airborne veterans and bartenders and middle-school math teachers doubling and tripling their incomes. They are launching careers at companies they choose where for the first time, they see upward mobility. I didn’t expect so much personal transformation. Folks record little video clips about how the week went, the skills they’re learning, and how Flockjay flows into different aspects of their lives.
Students notice their interpersonal relationships change — the way they conduct themselves and their conversations change — because they’re practicing life skills for sales: active listening, asking open-ended questions, reading people better, researching folks before they meet up with them at a networking event. There’s this confidence unlock that happens, where you see people as one thing in week one and something entirely different weeks later. Sales is incredibly conducive to growth because of how personal it is.
- Tech sales are more complex than people realize. Training students to perform such a specialized function increases their earning power, while creating consistent value for the companies where they are placed.
- The pivot to revenue-first thinking is very real and Flockjay is well-positioned to maximize the potential of this shift in groupthink amongst investors and corporate officers in Silicon Valley.
- Income share agreements are practical, but the current iteration of ISAs hasn’t surfaced in mainstream culture, so there may be a thorny adjustment period.