A Silicon Valley Startup Aims High

Saul Costa and Lauren Wyatt believed their fledgling company, Codevolve, could transform online tech education. Some of Silicon Valley’s savviest investors bet the 24-year-olds could pull it off. A story of ambition, hard work, and survival from the frontier of the new economy.

Story and Photography by Sean Markey

A few years ago, fresh out of college, Saul Costa walked away from his six-figure salary as a data engineer at a Silicon Valley startup to launch his own startup. Initially called GradeTrain, the new company had no income and no revenue model, a prospect Costa found both exhilarating and terrifying. GradeTrain launched with a simple service — running on 200 lines of code, it helped computer science teachers automate the tedious task of grading homework.

It was an idea sparked by his former computer science professor Akhan Almagambetov. Costa wrote the site’s basic software engine in less than a month. A friend from college, Lauren Wyatt--at the time, his girlfriend and business partner--designed the interface. It worked, he says, “but it was really bad.” What happens next is the story of the intense learning, rapid growth, and seesawing fortunes that startups and their founders can experience in Silicon Valley — provided they have the drive, savvy, and luck to survive.

In less than a year, the cofounders overhauled their business plan to transform Codevolve into a technology company that powers online learning platforms. Their mission today is to close the technical-skills gap in the American workforce by helping people learn coding languages and other tech skills in a more intuitive way. Partnering with textbook publishers, coding academies, schools, and other businesses, the startup provides hands-on, interactive learning exercises that teach, test, and track users’ skill development. Costa sees a big potential market in other tech companies, particularly those that need to train current staff on emerging technologies and bring new hires up to speed on their coding stack. “As a developer, you’re always learning something new,” Costa says.

In President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address last January, he pledged $4 billion to support Coding for Everyone, an initiative to improve coding education for American K-12 students and better prepare them for the 21st century workforce. Writing in Harvard Business Review, economist James Bessen said the “skills gap” is real, noting that many U.S. companies struggle to fill open positions with talented workers. The World Economic Forum projects that technology will displace 7 million U.S. jobs over the next five years, while adding 2 million over the same period. “But those are going to be highly technical jobs,” Costa says. “The workforce, more and more, needs to be a technical workforce. But we’re not really set up to teach those things well right now. We’re still taking a book and expecting someone to learn to code, which has nothing to do with books… When you actually sit down to learn to code, it needs to be by doing.”

At its core, Codevolve’s technology is software that writes other software, giving it the power of scale. The platform can take static content from a programming textbook and quickly build out interactive, hands-on learning exercises. Among Codevolve’s many features, users can access a split screen, writing code on the left and seeing the results on the right. When users get stuck, a chatbot named “Codey” appears. Codey doubles as a teaching assistant, using a chat window to explain anything from basic syntax to overarching coding concepts.

“It’s a really good time to be in this space right now, because everyone is kind of waking up to coding education,” Costa says. “They’re realizing how big this market is.”

To launch a Silicon Valley startup is to make an all-but-inevitable appointment with failure. By some estimates, for every 100 startups, 95 will fail to secure venture capital. And of the five that do, four will still crash and burn. Despite those daunting odds, founders continue to launch new startups, leaving the security of well-paying jobs — or the security they could have — to spend months, if not years, investing time, talent, and money on something that might never come to pass.

And yet, for some it does. What had been a dream in the beginning gets recast, in hindsight, as vision. For the founders and teams of Silicon Valley startups that don’t survive, the final won-lost statistics fail to capture the true story and outcome of their experience. Things like the intense learning, innovating, networking, and making of things. And having done so in Silicon Valley, a place and time of epic technological change. What does that experience feel like?

In early June, I visited Costa and Wyatt at their Codevolve office in Alameda, Calif., an island just across the Oakland city line in San Francisco Bay. That first morning, Costa met me at the front gate. We walked up to the second-floor condo that doubles as Codevolve’s office. Rent on the two-bedroom unit had recently increased to $2,600 a month, still mercifully low relative to the Bay area’s tech-fueled, superheated real estate market. Inside the living room were a large flat-screen TV, a trio of hybrid bicycles, and a gray sectional couch. Sliding doors opened onto a small deck, where a pair of snowboard boots, one laced with a spider’s web, sat atop two wooden stools. Costa said he left them there to dry a year and a half earlier and hadn’t moved them since.

The previous week, Costa and Wyatt had moved out of their master bedroom into the smaller, adjacent bedroom to make room for Codevolve’s office. The converted master bedroom modeled the spare décor of a pre-venture-capital tech startup: Beige walls, a whiteboard, four table-desks topped with flat-screen monitors, keyboards, 180 megabyte-per-second Wi-Fi. The room’s sole window overlooked a parking lot in the midst of a vague construction project and an outside world largely forgotten.

Costa introduced me to Michael Knight, Codevolve’s then-sales rep and its first full-time hire. “This is the Silicon Valley dream,” Knight said, breaking into a 1000-watt smile. Earlier that morning, Knight and Costa had been on a sales call to a coding academy in Ireland. Knight was now combing through a list of potential angel investors on his laptop. In typical Silicon Valley fashion, he met Costa and Wyatt through a startup. Knight and his wife were subscribers of Instacart, a grocery delivery service, and struck up a friendship with their delivery person, a mutual friend of Costa and Wyatt, who put them in touch. Knight had done some pro-bono financial analysis and market research for Codevolve over the past year and had joined the startup in April.

To his left sat Wyatt, dressed in a gray zip hoodie and puffy black slippers. That morning she was nearly finished with the build-out of a course on jQuery, a JavaScript coding library. Noticing that I had no place to sit, she paused to assemble a new chair stored in a closet, then returned to her keyboard. Wyatt grew up near Worcester, Mass., in a town called Holden and followed a high school friend to Norwich, where she majored computer science. After graduation, she landed a job with Hearsay Social, a San Francisco tech company that helps companies with social-media marketing. Wyatt quit after a year to devote herself fulltime to Codevolve, where she worked as a front-end engineer. The previous night, she had stayed up until 4 a.m., tweaking navigation and adding design elements in advance of a presentation to their biggest client, Cengage, the world’s third-largest textbook publisher.

Costa had also worked late into the night preparing for the presentation. He resumed brainstorming with David Harrison, a 19-year-old programmer dressed in a tan North Face T-shirt and jeans. Harrison had just finished his freshman year at Berkeley. The pair was mapping out technical solutions to create configurable environments on the Codevolve platform. Born near Oakland, Harrison still spoke with the accent of his English parents. (His father is a molecular biologist who did a postdoc at Berkeley in the early ’90s and now works in pharmaceuticals.) Harrison held an equity stake in Codevolve and worked full time at the startup over the summer. Measured and cerebral, Harrison says he likes the problem-solving aspect of computer science. “You get to build something very easily,” he added. “With other types of engineering there’s a lot of stuff that has to be there in order to make something. But with coding, you just need a computer.”

Costa and Harrison wrapped their session. The morning progressed with a series of meetings, sales calls, and long stretches where the only sounds were the clacking of keyboards and the hum of an outside water pump powering an ersatz stream in the development’s courtyard.

Late in the afternoon, the Codevolve team decided to take a break and walk to Garbage Beach. Leaving the condo, they picked their way along a sidewalk to a dirt path that trailed across an empty lot, while Costa and Harrison talked shop. The foursome skirted the edge of Encinal High School, past a soccer field and baseball diamond caged by hurricane fencing. Soon they arrived at a small crescent of rubble-strewn beach. Apt as it is, Garbage Beach isn’t its official name. Wyatt, who likes to collect sand and seashells, coined the name to describe the beach’s abundant clumps of green algae that litter it at high tide. The strand sits on the western edge of Alameda Island close to a former Navy base, overlooking San Francisco Bay.

In the distance, three large cargo ships plied the deep shipping channel of the bay, its waters the brown-green hue of hamburger gone bad. Behind the bay rose the drought-burned foothills and skyline of San Francisco, draped in its bathtub ring of smog. The Codevolve team scuffed around the beach for a bit, loitering in the harsh California sunlight. Aside from Costa’s trip to fetch me at the front gate earlier that morning, it would be Costa and Wyatt’s only foray outside that day. After a few minutes, everyone turned around and returned to the office, eager to get back to work.

During my visit, I asked Costa about the high and low moment of his Codevolve experience. “A startup is kind of like a rollercoaster,” he replied, adding that there were many highs and many lows. Early in Codevolve’s evolution, Costa and Wyatt applied to Y Combinator, easily Silicon Valley’s most prestigious startup accelerator. Accelerators serve as investment vehicles for their creators and boot camps for the startups they accept. In exchange for rights to a small percentage of the company, startup founders receive seed funding, three months of weekly one-on-one coaching, and networking opportunities with potential investors, among other benefits. Codevolve, still called GradeTrain at the time, didn’t get a slot with Y Combinator. “We really thought that we had a solid chance of getting in,” Costa said. “It was an extremely low point for us.” In hindsight, he sees that they weren’t ready.

Several months after being rejected, Costa and Wyatt tried their hand with Imagine K12. A top accelerator for education startups, Imagine K12 was founded by Tim Brady and Geoff Ralston (and, as it happened, was soon acquired by Y Combinator). Brady was the former chief product officer for Yahoo. Ralston had also served in that role and as the company’s vice president of engineering and the creator of Yahoo Mail.
Imagine K12’s application, which Costa completed in about six hours, included “a lot of strange questions,” he said. One asked founders to describe a nontechnical system they hacked (Costa wrote about his education). Others asked about the problem their startup aimed to solve, how the world might change if their company succeeded, and how well the startup’s cofounders knew one another and worked together. Costa hit “send” and hoped for the best. Soon afterward, he and Wyatt were invited to come in for an interview.

At the time, it felt like much of what they dreamed of doing hinged on that meeting. They didn’t own a car at the time, so they rented one to drive the 45 minutes from Alameda to Imagine K12’s offices in Redwood City. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts (anything else in Silicon Valley is nearly an act of career suicide) they walked inside the plain, two-story office building and met with Ralston and Brady, along with operations manager Catherine Uong and director Karen Lien.

Their interview was scheduled to last 15 minutes. The Imagine K12 partners asked questions designed to “learn not only about the company and what the potential [was] for the idea, but really about [us as] founders,” Costa recalls. They felt tremendous pressure. Costa had been drinking a lot of caffeine. Normally relaxed and voluble, he felt tongue-tied at times during the meeting. When he seized up, Wyatt jumped in to help the conversation. Ten minutes after Costa and Wyatt sat down, Ralston and Brady abruptly ended the interview.

They left, certain that they had blown it. The next day, Ralston phoned Costa. “We’d love to have you,” Costa recalls Ralston telling him. Imagine K12 wanted to invest $100,000 in Codevolve and help the cofounders make their startup bigger and better. Costa immediately told Wyatt. The validation, he recalls, felt like surfacing after being under water for a long time. “It was a very small glimpse of like, We’re on the right track. We’re doing something here. This is not just in our heads.”

During the three-month coaching period, the Codevolve founders met often with Brady and Ralston, spending half an hour to an hour talking through problems or sharing their hopes and dreams for their company. “It was an absolutely amazing experience,” Costa says. At times the investors gave them conflicting advice. Costa and Wyatt found that confusing at first. But they realized that the Imagine K12 founders were just trying to walk them through their thought process. “To the point where we made the decision. They were not making the decision for us. They were just trying to give us all the factors [so that] we could.” On Thursdays, Imagine K12 held a weekly dinner for its startup class, during which they hosted talks by visiting thought leaders in education and tech. Among the speakers was New Jersey senator Corey Booker, a Silicon Valley darling and self-professed education reformer. Driving home after these talks, Costa and Wyatt would discuss what they learned.

The capstone event for Imagine K12 participants was an accelerator staple known as Demo Day, in which startup founders gave short two- to three-minute presentations on their companies before a large audience of potential investors. Costa tried rehearsing his speech ahead of time, but Ralston and Brady said it still sounded wooden. As luck would have, shortly before Demo Day, Wyatt and Costa closed a six-figure deal with Cengage, the textbook publisher, to build interactive coding environments for several of its software-language textbooks. The deal gave Costa’s Demo Day pitch some added luster. A natural salesman, Costa spoke without a script and nailed the presentation. There were roughly 200 people in the audience, many of them techies and venture capitalists, easily putting the room’s net worth over several billion dollars. Costa explained how Codevolve could help transform online tech education and make the world a better place.

Costa said Codevolve’s clients, which ranged from two-person code schools to multi-billion-dollar education companies, were just the tip of a $500 million U.S. market for his company’s platform. “So why now? Why come talk to us?” he said in closing. “This is a big, important and fast-growing market, and Codevolve has already created the technology that we need to sell directly into it…If this sounds interesting to you, we would love to talk to you.”

Unfortunately for Codevolve, the previous business quarter (Q4 2015), had been the worst for venture-capital investment since the economic crisis of 2008. Coming out of Imagine K12, the Codevolve founders pitched several potential investors, all but one of them venture capitalists — but to no avail. “They [were] essentially all like, yeah, the market just collapsed,” Costa recalls.

“Everyone was like, what the hell just happened?” While Codevolve was booking revenue from sales, it was burning fast on server space and modest salaries. Their startup needed investors to help it grow, if not survive. Costa and Wyatt sold their extra PlayStation.

Costa wrote an essay, which he posted on the website Medium, titled, “How to Survive 80+ Hours of Coding Every Week.” Costa doesn’t blink as often as most people. During a marathon programming hack, he once tied a sock around his head to rest his inflamed eyes and keep coding. These days he stores a Tupperware container below his desk, which he refers to as his “box of horrors.” Inside are an eye patch, elbow pads, and wrist braces, among other items. Costa also keeps eye drops, ibuprofen, and an oversized bottle of Tums antacids on his desk. They help him continue working when his body fails his will. When Costa and Wyatt were building the startup, they maintained a relentless schedule. They often worked from 9 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, pausing only on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Sunday was the day that Costa liked to play Minecraft on a shared server with a younger brother and sister back home in Vermont.

One evening during my visit last June, I asked Wyatt and Costa about their workaholic schedule. Wyatt was in the kitchen preparing chicken pot pie from a recipe she Googled on her smartphone. For her, the long hours had nothing to do with the fear of being eclipsed by competitors, she said. Rather, it was about seizing the moment to create something new. “Why would we want to wait to build something? If we can push ourselves to do it in a day, why would we have it take a week?” she said. “I’m young. I’m not going to need to work the hours we work forever. So it’s not a big deal if we just do it now.” Costa reflected that there were things he’d like to have more time for in the future. Things like painting, hiking, traveling, even just extra reading time. But that he just didn’t have room for them at the moment. Distraction was a luxury startup founders couldn’t afford. “I think for me, it’s more like I love what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s the biggest challenge by far, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Musing further, Costa said, “As a person, I’m a rather — what’s the right word — obsessive?”

“Intense,” Lauren corrected.

“Thank you. Intense person.”

For him it was “all or nothing,” he said. “Either we build this startup and work our butts off and we succeed and we’re able to help others learn and benefit. Or we fail and nothing ever becomes of it. For me, there is nothing else that I’d rather be doing.” After Codevolve, he said, there will just be the next startup.

Costa’s intensity and ambition appear rooted in several places. He grew up in a strict, religious household of modest means, the eldest of six siblings. His father was an entomologist who taught at the University of Vermont, while his mother, also a biologist, homeschooled Costa and his siblings. His parents banned popular music, movies, and video games on mostly religious grounds. But one day, when Costa was about 7 or 8 years old, his father brought home a floppy disk with a few computer games written in QBasic. He told his son that if he wanted to play video games, he’d have to learn to program them himself. So Costa began teaching himself to code. Homeschooling did provide many advantages. One was the freedom to focus on single projects for long periods, such as building an addition on their house or writing a 500-page fantasy novel. (In fact, Costa wrote two as a teenager, the sequel in about six weeks.)

By the time Costa entered Norwich after a year of community college, he was a skilled enough programmer to tutor classmates and skip a number of intro computer science courses. Yet, it wasn’t until he took his first database class that Costa knew that he wanted to be a developer. His sense of purpose and urgency amplified around his sophomore year, when his father died unexpectedly at the age of 55. Costa said the loss made him “realize that life is extremely short, and if we’re going to do it, we need to do it big and have a really positive impact on the world.”

Costa has a hard time remembering certain facts. Movie titles or people’s names can elude him, as if a fog has descended on that part of his recall. But what doesn’t escape him is the ability to visualize, recognize patterns, and problem-solve. He can, for example, picture the entire code base of Codevolve in his head.

Costa began his Norwich career as a rook, but he said he knew within two weeks it wasn’t the right fit for him. In part, he didn’t find the physical training sufficiently challenging. He says two words explain why he chose to stay at Norwich as a civilian student: Jeremy Hansen. The computer science professor was a brilliant teacher and mentor to him, Costa said. Similarly, Costa initially thought he might want to work for a federal agency. But an early job interview convinced him otherwise. Casting around to see “what else might be interesting,” he quickly landed on Silicon Valley. Scanning Angel List, the Tinder for job seekers and Silicon Valley tech startups, he applied for several dozen internships. One of the first interviews he landed was with MixRank, a competitive data analytics startup in San Francisco, founded by Scott Milliken.

Milliken was a math whiz who graduated from Berkeley at age 19. He had grown up on a farm and, like, Costa, had also been homeschooled. During their interview, Milliken and Costa logged onto a virtual desktop, talked, and wrote code. Milliken challenged Costa to write a program that would take a numeral — 3,478,621, for example — and write its word equivalent (“three million, four hundred seventy eight thousand…”). They hit it off, and the two of them wound up talking for five and a half hours. Not only did Milliken offer Costa the internship, but later that summer, Milliken invited him to drop out of college and join MixRank as full-time employee. Costa says it was a hard choice. But in the end, he decided to return to Norwich; he accelerated his program to finish his degree a year early. After graduation, he and Wyatt moved to the Bay area, where Costa signed on with MixRank as a full-time data engineer. His annual salary was over $100,000 a year. He was 22 and earning more money than anyone he’d ever met growing up. The moment says a lot about why Costa believes learning to code has the power to change lives.

On Friday morning, my second-to-last day in Alameda, Costa told me about an email he received the night before. It was from a private investor who had written him at 2 a.m. The angel investor had checked out the Codevolve platform, liked what he saw, and wanted to meet face to face. Costa got back to him immediately and the two arranged to meet later that day at a Starbucks in Palo Alto that was a popular spot for deal-making. By noon Costa was behind the wheel of his black Volkswagen Jetta, heading south in six lanes of traffic on I-880 and Highway 101, his HTC smartphone navigating the way. Costa had no trouble filling the hour-long drive talking about Codevolve, its technology, and business. “I can talk to people about this until they want me to shut up and, like, never speak again,” he said, navigating the lurching lanes of fast-then-slow traffic. “It has been years of my life that have led up to this, and now it’s just what I want to be doing every minute of the day.”

Soon we passed the sprawling, Mars-colony white expanse of the Tesla factory, followed by the concrete-and-glass, mid-rise headquarters of Seagate — a hard-drive manufacturer — and other Silicon Valley tech giants. Costa found his exit and pulled off the highway. He parked and walked to the Starbucks, which occupied a storefront on the corner of First Avenue and Matrix across from a casino and was one of the chain’s more unremarkable outposts. The angel investor called to say he was running a few minutes late, a not-uncommon occurrence in Silicon Valley, Costa said. Finally, the investor arrived with a small entourage. He was a successful Malaysian techie. His wife, who was Chinese, had worked in venture capital and now served as his business partner. They brought a developer friend of theirs, presumably to ask the technical questions. Shaking hands all around, the foursome sat down at a window table, and not bothering to order anything, got down to business. During the meeting, which lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, the developer played the role of bad cop, trying to find holes in Codevolve’s technical platform and business plan. The angel investor, meanwhile, wanted to know how hard it would be to translate Codevolve into other languages. At one point, he asked, “Do you think you could become a unicorn?” The meeting broke up; the investor and his wife said they’d get back to Costa soon. On the drive home, Costa reflected on how the meeting went. “I could probably pitch this” — meaning Codevolve and the coming wave of coding education — “better than why I should be alive.”

That night, a friend, Colin Heilbut, stopped by Costa and Wyatt’s place for dinner. Heilbut seemed to encapsulate the tech worker of the moment. Heilbut and Costa had met on a private, invitation-only Facebook group for young, up-and-coming tech workers, archly called Ballers (the hip-hop term that loosely describes a neighborhood ball player with game who has made it to the pros and is now living the high life). Born to South-African parents, Heilbut was raised in Toronto and attended graduate school in Paris. He is fond of using Uber for off-license tasks, such as delivering legal contracts across town or picking up a teapot at a Manhattan boutique and driving it to a local FedEx store to ship overnight to his parents in Canada. Heilbut had just moved from Toronto to San Francisco to pursue work opportunities with high-risk startups. “I worked out with LeBron James today,” he said, explaining that his new gym was connected to the Four Seasons Hotel.

Wyatt was broiling steaks in the oven, interjecting from time to time, while Costa and Heilbut spoke rapidly about internet security and hacking. Listening to them talk was like overhearing two high-speed servers exchanging data. Heilbut said he had grown bored with the marketing and public relations work he had been doing in Paris and was ready for something more challenging, which was why he moved to San Francisco. Heilbut was a proxy for not just the technological change sweeping the world, but some of its frothier applications. He had helped launch Bistro, a crowd-funded project that harnessed the face-recognition work of a Singapore research lab, which designed a high-tech cat feeding station to dispense precise amounts of food calibrated to each cat in a household, thus averting the risk of overfeeding. That work, in turn led him to appear on “Startup U,” an ABC Family reality television program that profiled startup teams from Draper University. Heilbut was paired with teammates that wanted to market “Pretty Litter,” medically diagnostic (his idea), scientifically researched color-changing cat litter. Heilbut’s other coup in advance of its Demo Day presentation was to place a Craigslist ad advertising an “Uber” service for cat boxes to create buzz for the product.

As the three friends shared a beer and chatted under the spare fluorescent light of the kitchen, it was hard not to think that I was witnessing an important moment in their lives. Three smart, driven, young adults on their way but not yet fully arrived, talking with their fellow tribe members about what they loved to do most. After dinner, Heilbut returned to the city. Costa and Wyatt, meanwhile, went back to work, trying to build something new.

Reporter’s note: A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the 2017 Winter issue of the Norwich Record, the alumni magazine of Norwich University, under the title “Code Revolution.” Wyatt and Knight have since left the company. Wyatt, who parted on amicable terms from Costa and Codevolve, returned to work for Hearsay Social in Seattle.

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