"Just get into tech!" As people move out of service industry or low wage jobs, becoming a programmer is seen as a way to future-proof your skill set. As demand from would-be career switchers grew, the coding bootcamp industry grew alongside it. Amongst them, Juno College (formerly known as HackerYou) is an anomaly. Founded almost 10 years ago and known for fostering an inclusive, community-minded environment and alumni network, Juno recently pivoted from a typical tech "growth at all costs" model to a more sustainable vision. This includes switching to a 4 day workweek, dropping major financial milestones, and giving investors (including Y Combinator!) their money back. I spoke to Juno's CEO, Heather Payne, about the night everything changed, and whether "ungrowth" is the new future of work.
Nora Jenkins Townson, Founder, Bright + Early: Thanks for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it. So, Juno has been around for 10 plus years now in various forms. What was the initial vision when you first started out?
Heather Payne, Founder, Juno College: It'll be 10 years in June next year. And I talk a lot about how, when I started, I actually didn't have a vision at all. The idea for Juno, or HackerYou, at the time really came from my first organization that I created, which was Ladies Learning Code [now named Canada Learning Code]. And that came from a personal problem I had, which was that I wanted to learn how to code and it was hard to find a friendly, welcoming place to do that. So first created the nonprofit to help people, and especially women, get exposed to coding. And then from there was this clear business opportunity to actually take people from just learning coding for a day and just getting exposed to it to actually taking them through a multi-month long experience where they could actually transition completely to a new job doing coding as their career.
And so in the very beginning in 2012, when we first got started with Juno, it was really just about helping our first cohort of students. I didn't have this vision of what we were going to do and what it was all about and all the impact we were going to have. I was just so focused on the customer. I was focused on the specific people that were coming and taking a leap and joining Juno, and then making sure that they got what they came for. I think because we bootstrapped for so long, I really wasn't forced to create a vision. Sometimes you're forced to do that in the early days because VCs are asking you, but as a self-funded company, no one was asking me those types of questions.
I think in some ways we were at our best back then, because we were just focused on the customer and doing what was right for them and what they needed. And that got us through for a pretty long time. It wasn't until 2018, six years into the business, when I started thinking, thinking, what am I doing here? Those first six years, it wasn't about that. It was just about serving people.
"...not every business can or should become a $100 million dollar company."
NJT: I remember around that time it seemed like you started to get a lot more ambitious about a vision. You went through Y Combinator and announced a goal of growing to a $100 million in revenue in the next decade or so. So what do you think changed around that time in 2018 to take Juno in that high growth direction at the time? Was it pressure or influence from some outside source, or a personal change?
HP: What it actually was, for me specifically, was family planning. I'm a solo founder and I started this business when I was 24. If wanted to have a family, which I did, I would have to figure out how to go through that experience and also ensure that the business made it through successfully too. I had my first kid in 2016 and I had my second kid in April of 2018. And I think up until that point, I was just focused on surviving, making sure I survive as a person and the business survives and that my team was okay.
After my version of a parental leave, which was sort of my own concoction, I came back to the job more fully in fall 2018. And I just felt the space that had previously been taken up by thinking about family planning was just... I had all this space now. I knew that my family would be fine. I had these kids, I'd made it through, we had excellent support. My husband is extremely supportive. And so I just could think about now, what exactly am I doing here? What can this be? And that was the first time that I was like, I actually think this can be something really big and impactful and that was when we initiated the name change, for example.
We realized that HackerYou was a bit limiting. Are we going to be a hacking type of school forever? Are we limited to coding? And the y-o-u was feeling a little bit sort of immature. So that's when we started to the rebrand, which took about a year to do. And that's when I started thinking, “I think we're going to do something really big here.” And at that point I was 30-ish or so. And I also had this thought of, well, “Why not me?” Why not be one of those people that can take the company to $100 million? And I think I just wasn't quite as far along as I am now in terms of really needing to understand that not every business can or should become a $100 million dollar company.
NJT: I relate to a lot of that as well. One, being a solo founder that's really passionate about your business and you think, well, let's see how big we can take it. And I also feel like I got more ambitious after I came back from my parental leave. It kind of lit a fire under me to see how far I can go. One other connection here is that we're both in businesses that are kind of adjacent to the tech and startup world. And I feel sometimes that can have this impact on me where I feeI the need to operate similarly to them. When you're immersed in this world it can feel like if you're not focused on hyper growth or raising VC, you're not really doing The Thing.
That's why it's so interesting to me that now, a few years later, you're throwing out the hypergrowth vision and going in a new direction focused on sustainability. How did this come about? Are more people having these conversations?
HP: I would like to be having those conversations. Unfortunately, that is not what I have seen, but I really want that to be a conversation that people are having more. For me the change was driven by two things.
One was just straight up facing the facts. We went through Y Combinator in 2019, and when you go through something like that, there's a lot of questions about, well, how big can this business become? Show me the model that's going to make this a $100 million dollar business. And so I'd been thinking about that a lot back in 2019. And we even in our company, we used the EOS operating system and we had put $100 million by 2030 as our revenue target for the company.
After that, everyone in the company was pointed to that goal. And you can't have a revenue target like that and not grow fast every year. And so we put all this pressure on ourselves to grow fast. One of my biggest learnings as a leader over the past few years has been through the mistakes we made because of these lofty revenue targets. We would invest in resources and hire people that we would need in order to hit those targets. And then unfortunately, we still often would not hit those targets because we hadn't built out the infrastructure. Those targets were not based on any data. They were just based on dreams and ideals. So it was putting a lot of pressure on the company needlessly for a target that was just something that I made up.
Another thing was personal. This summer I just found myself in a moment with my husband, without the kids. We were doing some really deep reflection and I just had an epiphany where I was like, “Wow, life is about people and relationships and having time to prioritize those things.” And it just hit me that I wasn't focusing on the right things. And I was thinking about what I'm going to think when I'm on my deathbed one day. Am I going to be so happy that I grinded it out at work all these years? Or am I going to be like, wow, I'm really happy that I got to spend every Friday afternoon with my kids and pick them up from school early?
NJT: A thousand percent. So what happened next?
HP: I came back to my leadership team said, "Hey everyone, I think I've had an epiphany here and I think that we're pointed in the wrong direction." $100 million in 2030 is completely the wrong thing to point the company to because everything waterfalls from there. All of our annual goals come from there, our quarterly goals come from there, our culture comes from there. And so if I wanted to point this company in a different direction, I needed to change that target. And so we decided on a 10 to 15% a year target. We might grow faster some years, we might grow slower some years, but in general, we feel like that's sort of a good pace for our company to grow. And it's a pace that we can grow at profitably as well.
Once that was decided I thought about what else we could change. I'd been curious about a four day work week, but I didn't see how that could mesh with a $100 million dollar target in less than 10 years. Those things just don't seem to go together. Maybe they do, but I couldn't see it, and it felt like a really big risk. But as soon as we chose a more realistic revenue target, then it unlocked all these kind of “people-first” ideas. And now, I think we can actually experiment with some of this stuff.
NJT: And what was the kind of employee reaction to all that?
HP: I think it's important that people know that it's not going to be all smooth sailing and happiness necessarily, because first of all, anytime you change the company's vision and direction, you're going to for sure have some people that don't agree with it. That is basically inevitable. It was an exciting meeting to share all this stuff. Most of our team was blown away by these exciting things that we were sharing and totally on board. So it was really exciting to roll it out. But at the same time, we have had some attrition since then because we recruit super talented, motivated people. Some of those people aren't interested in being part of a company that only has a plan to grow 10 to 15% a year. They want to be on a rocket ship and have that experience and I can't blame them. So we have had some people leave. But we'll seek to replace those people with people who love this new vision for Juno.
NJT: That makes sense. It's not good or bad, it just depends on what you want from your career. I also feel like this will be great for recruiting and retention though, as a whole. Do you know if you got any particular extra interest from people who want to work at Juno after the announcement?
HP: We got more applications over a two week period around the announcement than we ever had before. So definitely.
NJT: That's amazing.
HP: It speaks to a lot of people and it resonates with a lot of people. And I think it particularly will resonate with folks who don't want work to be their entire lives, which could be people with caregiving responsibilities, could be people with major hobbies that they're very passionate about, or side projects that they're passionate about. I like that idea of having really dynamic people at Juno who have other things on the go. I think that makes you a really interesting person. And of course there's still space for very ambitious people at Juno. It's still an incredible learning experience. And I've been really happy to see that the places that people go and work after Juno are unlimited in terms of their options. They’re working at the best companies in Toronto and Canada after working at Juno. So it can be a really wonderful stepping stone for really anybody. But I think the people who stay long term will be the ones who are really passionate about the combination of benefits that we can offer.
NJT: It's cool that you decided this so quickly.
HP: I did literally zero research before making all of these decisions. It just sort of seemed like the obvious right answer. And now my part of the team is working on what's the roll out plan going to be and how 4-day workweek going to work. And they're doing tons of research now to find out the best practices. But I actually made these decisions completely on my own, essentially in a vacuum based on just knowing my team, the business, the world, etc. I just decided that this was the right path for us. And I haven't had any doubts about it since then. It's been several months and this is still exactly how I feel.
NJT: Yeah. I actually love that. I've had a few moments like that myself, where you just have some epiphany and you're like, no, this is the way, and this must happen. That was actually how I started Bright and Early as well. I had this big idea and half an hour later I knew it was it for me. And I literally met with my boss and quit my job that same day.
HP: Wow,that's cool. Yeah, I'm a super decisive person. It's really easy for me to make decisions. Sometimes you make the wrong one and then you just have to do some work to fix it. That's more my way of operating rather than to ponder a decision for a long time and ultimately make sure you only make the right one. For sure, I made some bad ones, but no time is wasted at least. I get to learn really quickly.
NJT: I know that you did have some investors in the company too. So how are you structuring this change for them?
HP: The idea of returning the company to 100% employee ownership comes from the realization that the company that these investors, for the most part, invested in is very different from the one that I'm going to be running going forward. We were sharing promises of rapid growth back then and this was going to be a $100 million dollar company and these kinds of things. And so it feels, first of all, like the right thing to do to go back to those investors and say, “Hey, we've kind of changed direction here. And we would like the opportunity to buy you out and, you know, basically offer people their money back.”
And I've also been really touched, all of my investors, including YC, that I've brought this to and said, “I think we're not going in the same direction as before we're going to be this sort of evergreen, sustainable growing company, growing profitably, etcetera. Are you open to being bought out?” 100% of my investors have said yes, including YC and every one has been so incredibly supportive. I can't even believe it. So I'm really grateful to all of them, YC included.
NJT: What advice would you give to other founders based on this journey?
HP: I mean, I think the biggest piece of advice I have is that’s it's so important to point your company in the right long term direction. Until I was ready to admit that a $100 million target wasn't a good fit for us, I felt shackled. I felt like something like the 4-day work week wasn't possible. I didn’t know how we can get out of this zone of having to grow at X rate every year. And there's some implications there for how you choose to set up your company in the first place. If you take VC funding, you have to grow fast because you have to become a $100 million business because that's how these investors make their returns. And so, in general, I would love to see more businesses bootstrapping. I don't officially have any regrets, but if I could go back in time, I probably would choose to not have done the YC thing and not have raised some money and continued on bootstrapping instead.
Also, I'd say there's lots of ways to have an impact. You don't have to be the biggest in order to have an amazing impact on others. For example, if you can actually build a family business that you can then have your family work on over several decades, that can become a massive player in space. It just doesn't happen overnight. And I think more patience in business is what I would like to see because things just take time. Things take more time than you think, and to do things right, it takes time. And I think that's one of my biggest learnings going from what I was like at 30 to what I'm now like at 34. I'm just a much more patient person with a way longer term view.
NJT: I think these are incredible changes. I'm excited to see them roll out and progress and see Juno grow as a company. Thanks for talking to me about it!