Interview with Ariel Camus, Founder and CEO of Microverse
Editor’s note: In today’s Startup Interview, EdTechpreneur Ariel Camus shared with The Total Entrepreneurs how his personal experience traveling the world and the challenges of immigration led him to start an online school for software developers where students pay nothing until they land a life-changing job.
Ariel Camus is the Founder and CEO of Microverse, a school that trains software engineers all around the world and connects them with life-changing international and remote jobs. Previously, Ariel founded TouristEye, a travel startup that Lonely Planet acquired in 2013. Ariel grew up in Argentina, went to school in Europe, built a business in San Francisco, taught in Africa, and lived in Asia. He’s now based in Barcelona, Spain. In his life’s journey, Ariel has seen that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Nowadays, the Internet makes it possible for anyone to connect with global jobs regardless of where they were born or live. However, paying for a great education is incredibly difficult for most people. Ariel started Microverse to change that. His vision is that the place where you are born shouldn’t determine your opportunities in life. I encourage you to read this inspiring interview as he shares about his life’s journey, challenges he encountered setting up a tech startup, how he raised funds, his achievements, and advice to prospective entrepreneurs
Let’s get to it…
Please can you briefly introduce yourself?
Ariel Camus, Founder Microverse
My name is Ariel Camus and I’m the CEO and Founder of Microverse. I grew up in Argentina, went to school in Europe, built and sold a business in San Francisco, taught in Africa, and lived in Asia. Now I am based in Barcelona, Spain. In my personal journey, I’ve seen the disconnect between talent and opportunities in the world, and my own immigration story has inspired me to help bridge that gap.
What is Microverse?
Microverse is an online school for remote software developers where students pay nothing until they land a life-changing job — no matter where they live. We believe the place where people are born shouldn’t determine their opportunities in life and we provide access to global opportunities by offering a world-class education that is accessible and focused on helping people start international careers.
At Microverse, students learn to work remotely and collaboratively with people from around the world. That gives them the experience to apply and succeed in international and remote jobs. More than 1,500 students from 140 countries have gone through our program since our launch. After the program, our alums increase their salary by 300% on average.
Microverse is backed by amazing global investors including Northzone, Y Combinator, General Catalyst, Rubio Impact Ventures, and world-class angel investors such as Paul Graham, Paul Buchheit (the creator of Gmail), and Kevin Hartz (the founder of Eventbrite).
We are a passionate and fast-moving team of global citizens working remotely from 20+ countries.
What is unique about your company?
At Microverse, students learn using a very unique approach — by building projects collaboratively and remotely with other students from around the world, just as they would if they were part of a distributed team in a real company. Our innovative approach to learning not only provides students with peer-to-peer accountability and a global support network but also helps them learn remote workflows and acquire the collaboration and communication skills necessary to join — and succeed at — a global company.
Microverse focuses on training people from places that historically have been disconnected from joining the global economy through international companies and opportunities. Many of these places are in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, where traditionally, they have been isolated in their markets, working locally, without much connection to the global job market. In this context, we provide our training at no upfront cost. We’re the only education institution in the world who offers an Income Share Agreement worldwide. That means that, no matter which country the student comes from, they only have to start paying their tuition once they land a high-paying engineering job after the program.
On top of that, our work does not stop with helping our students develop technical skills or getting their first job. Throughout the program, we also help them improve their portfolio, resume, and online presence, as well as prepare for job interviews. Then we help them find and apply to competitive web development jobs worldwide and negotiate job offers. After that, they continue having access for life to our career coaches and network of hiring partners to continue progressing in their professional careers.
What led you to start it?
The first “aha” moment happened while I was in Burundi in 2013, teaching Computer Science in a local university. There I saw an extreme example of people who were on the opposite side of the professional opportunity spectrum compared to what I could see in San Francisco where I had just sold my previous business. Once I came back, I met Sid Sijbrandij, the founder of GitLab, now a public company, who introduced me to the world of remote working and how to make it work at scale. That was the second “aha” moment. Looking at Sid’s work, I realized that remote work was inevitably going to become the bridge between talent and opportunities. However, in order to work for a remote organization like GitLab, technical skills were not enough. You also needed the skills to thrive in a multi-cultural and asynchronous working setting. Education has been my passion since I was 10 years old, and I realized I could leverage that passion to help connect people and opportunities with a training specialized in remote and multicultural work.
What experience do you have prior to your startup?
Before founding Microverse, I founded TouristEye, a travel startup that Lonely Planet acquired in 2013. I worked for Lonely Planet as a Senior Product Manager for a few years while I was exploring what to do next as an entrepreneur. The result of that search was Microverse.
What is the impact Microverse has in the lives of its students?
Quantitatively, we’ve seen students’ average salary increase almost 3x compared to what they were getting paid before, and that’s not including the people who didn’t have jobs before Microverse. About 20% of our graduates have noted a salary increase of 10x compared to their previous jobs, and that’s just an entry-level job. The average salary increase from our students’ first job after Microverse to their second job is about 40%, and it keeps going up.
We’ve also witnessed a lot of intangible benefits. For example, students who’ve graduated and received a big salary increase are paying for their brothers and sisters to go to school, they’re renting a better place for their parents to move into, and they’re becoming an inspiration to other members in their community. These are real stories that many can relate to, and they’re really powerful.
What countries would you say most of your students come from?
Africa represents around 40-50% of Microverse students, with Nigeria being the top country by far. Nigerians have an amazing energy which is something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world! Africa as a continent has a lot of potential and momentum.
The other majority of students come from Latin America. They have the massive advantage of being in the same timezone as the US. As a result, we see much higher employability and much higher salaries than in Africa.
How did you raise funding for your startup?
I first leveraged my connections with investors from my previous startup to raise some initial capital. Soon after that, we got into Y Combinator which led to the closing of our $3.2M Seed round. Last year, in 2021, we raised our $12.5M Series A led by Northzone, which was extended this year with $4M more in capital at a valuation twice as high as that of the Series A.
Can you describe some of the challenges you faced starting up Microverse and how you dealt with them?
As expected in any entrepreneurial journey, challenges become the bread and butter of every day.
One of the main ones, being a mission-driven team, has been accepting that we can’t help everyone today. There are, for example, applicants to our program who have great potential but can’t join full-time. Initially, we let them join the program, but that ended up affecting the experience of other peers negatively. Once we realized that we could only help people who could join full-time and that had the financial support for 12 months of dedication to the program, the quality of the user experience improved dramatically, with our NPS being around 75 every week right now. Not only that, the human suffering of our team members who work directly with students and applicants become much lower. Saying “no” to people is not easy, especially when you care a lot about them, but it’s the only way to stay focused on validating things today. Saying “no” today doesn’t mean that you’re saying “no” forever. You’re just taking things one step at a time.
Another challenge of our business model is that, while we have high margins, we invest thousands of dollars in each student upfront, and we don’t start seeing a return until after 12-18 months. This is the challenge of offering an Income Share Agreement. That means that, while the margins are there, we need to find a way to finance the working capital of the business. In order to do that, we had to create investment vehicles where impact investors of all sizes can provide the upfront capital to invest in the education of our students. That way, we are able to upfront the working capital, while investors get a very competitive return on their investment once students start getting jobs and paying back, all while contributing to making the world a better place.
“Saying “no” to people is not easy, especially when you care a lot about them, but it’s the only way to stay focused on validating things today. Saying “no” today doesn’t mean that you’re saying “no” forever.” – Ariel Camus
What is your proudest achievement with Microverse so far?
Each student who goes through the program and changes their life for better is what makes us feel proud of our work every single day.
From a product point of view, our most important achievement has been figuring out how to create a program that provides massive amounts of support and accountability, driving a completion rate that is 10 times higher than those of online courses, all while offering students the flexibility to deal with the lack of predictability in their lives, without charging anything upfront. If you ask any educator about this, they will tell you this is incredibly hard to achieve. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that students’ income increases, on average, 300% after going through the program.
If you could turn back time, what would you love to do differently in regard to your business?
There are many things that, in retrospect, could have been done differently. However, if I had to choose two, I’d have better planned our capital needs given our long validation cycles (something we got much better at already), and I would have been more strict reminding ourselves that “we can’t help everybody” as I was mentioning before.
What’s in store for the future of Microverse?
We imagine a future where every single human being has the possibility to develop their potential and connect to global opportunities. Better yet, it will be possible to achieve this regardless of physical or geographical limitations, all while allowing people to stay close to their families and communities, spending and paying taxes locally. I have no doubts this will help us shape a much more equitable world.
Where is your team based?
Our team is completely remote with our team members based in over 20 countries and 6 continents.
Any tips on building a remote-only company?
I think the key skill here is communication. When everyone is in the office, communication happens organically. When you’re remote, a lot can be lost in different time zones which is crucial in the startup world where timing is essential.
The three pillars of remote work are Autonomy, Trust, and Transparency.
At Microverse, we’re ridiculously obsessive about documentation transparency in general. This is what drives the autonomy of each team member, and what helps build more trust so that we can be even more autonomous. Around that, having transparent objectives (e.g. through OKRs) guarantees that everyone is aligned while working autonomously.
“The three pillars of remote work are Autonomy, Trust, and Transparency.” – Ariel Camus
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs wanting to start a company?
The usual Y Combinator advice is incredibly simple to understand (although hard to follow if we’re not conscious about it): talk to your customers, start by building things that don’t scale, and build something people really love.
What are your thoughts on entrepreneurship for those in the Edtech sector?
EdTech didn’t receive a lot of venture capital 10 years ago. Things have changed, and the pandemic has created more opportunities than ever before for education to go digital and for technology to make education much better. The time to go “all in” is now.
Can you share a prediction for the future of work?
Companies (and countries) that don’t adopt best practices to embrace remote work will be at a huge disadvantage when it comes to attracting talent. That will make them less competitive and will eventually die. Soon, remote work will stop being a buzz word and it will just become something normal that companies support.