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Discover How Turing College is Revolutionizing Education in Lithuania

Lukas Kaminskis @ Turing College (YC W'21)

Turing College, a YC-backed startup based in Vilnius, raised $2.5M in funding, isn’t stopping just there. The vision is expansive, the plans are ambitious, spreading this innovative educational model to new frontiers. Learn more about their story.

Lukas, welcome! Let’s start by mapping out your journey. How did you decide to found Turing College?

I was interested in coding from a young age. After completing high school, I began thinking about my future plans and universities. I was considering applying to universities like King's College and Edinburgh University, but the second option was to stay in Lithuania and start our own company. This was the first premise of Turing College, a coding education school that would help people get jobs in IT through intense training programs. I decided to stay in Lithuania and just take that bet.

Life just happened, and I met Tomas, the current Turing College co-founder, as I was looking for one. We were two at the time, me and my other co-founder, Benas. We were in the same boat after graduation, and we decided that we needed to join forces with Tomas. He was a bit older than us, 3 years older, and he was in the Netherlands, studying and doing exactly what we wanted to do. Tomas was already organizing coding boot camps. So we joined forces with Tomas and started the first iteration of Turing College. 

Initially, the startup was called differently; it was called Turing School and Turing Studio. The problem for us was that nobody wanted to invest in the initial idea of Turing College. We were just a bunch of young guys starting a new type of 21st-century university. Everyone was saying that we were crazy and that we wouldn't succeed. So, what we did, we started teaching programming & creating software solutions to bootstrap the money we needed. And this is precisely what we did next; up to 2020. We hustled the money needed to start Turing College, and then, only after 4 years of hustling, we finally started it. So, we closed everything we've been doing for that four-year period. And then, as a new page, we have launched Turing College by bringing all the team that we had in prior businesses. So, this is the story.

Why did we do that? Two of the co-founders are self-taught developers, and we learned to code through those boot camps that we wanted to share as a concept with others. And we saw how amazing that concept was. I was born in a small city, with 10,000 inhabitants, in northwest Lithuania, and I didn't have many opportunities. So, you know, I was thinking that there are many people like us; young people don't know about such concepts, so we need to spread it and help people around the world get into it.

The same story can be attributed to Tomas and Benas. Benas was really about social impact all the time from his teenage years. So, we, as best friends, just joined forces and co-founded Turing College.

When you say nobody wanted to invest, what exactly do you mean? Did you try approaching business angels, VCs, or both?

Yes, both. I am not sure about the situation in Ukraine, Moldova, or Romania, but in 2016, startup investment wasn’t ‘a thing’ in the Baltics. It is only in the last three years that we have upskilled to a level where we now have more funds and more capital available. This tremendous shift occurred in just a few years. However, back then, there was little to no interest in this area, especially in tech.

It is difficult to fundraise in Moldova and Romania as well. The most likely path for early startups would be bootstrapping.

I think we've faced backlash from some of the 1st independent generation of entrepreneurs—those 40 and up—who have money and are, consequently, potential investors. They view education more as a philosophy and don’t recognize its potential as a serious, profit-making investment. This mindset is still prevalent among the wealthy in Lithuania. 

How did you go about validating the idea initially, since you had no users?

We have an interesting story on that. Investors were skeptical, saying, 'No, that can’t work.' Between 2016-2018, we were contemplating how we could gain validation and start bootstrapping our business, particularly in education. You need some kind of validation in this field, either a Ph.D. next to your name or years of teaching experience to validate your knowledge in education. Just being out of high school, we had neither.

So, we attempted to collaborate with Harvard University. Of course, our emails went unanswered. We decided to think more creatively about forming a partnership with Harvard. We approached the Ministry of Education in Lithuania and asked if the Minister could assist us by writing a letter of recommendation for college, hoping that would open doors to Harvard. We tried all the official channels but to no avail. No one responded.

Then, we had another creative idea: to message the Minister directly and ask for help. She replied instantly. It was evening, and she said, 'Yeah, no problem, come to the ministry tomorrow. I find this super interesting and want to learn more.'

So, we went to the ministry and spoke with the minister. She was super excited and told us, 'Just send me the draft of the letter you want, and I'll share it with Harvard.' She signed it without changing a word. Armed with that letter, we flew to Boston, Massachusetts, to Harvard, and met with the professor we wanted to partner with. We showed him the letter, and in about 30 minutes, he had gathered decision-makers, and they agreed to collaborate.

Having the collaboration and the ability to teach the course and charge money, all under the prestigious brand of Harvard University CS50 course, helped us kick off our venture in Lithuania. That collaboration was all the credentials we needed.

That was quite a strategic move. Being in a small country with a smaller government is advantageous; you can reach the right people more easily. But how did you initially find users to enroll in the courses? Did you start monetizing right away, or were the courses initially offered for free?

We monetized right away. Once we had that validation, we could really differentiate ourselves in the market by focusing on higher-paying segments. We started with high school kids, charging them for extracurricular coding activities to cover our operating costs. We quite easily attracted the first group because that was unheard of, getting the Harvard CS50  supported course here in Lithuania. From then on, everything started with word of mouth. We did a great job, students liked it, parents liked it, and then we obtained B2B contracts with schools by offering extra IT teaching services.

Did you focus on getting people from the industry at first? I mean, now one of your strong points of Turing College is helping people find jobs, not just educating themselves. In the beginning, was the course oriented towards high school or university?

High School. We did start doing university teachings as well, but those weren't focused on employment at first. Of course, there were people who were landing jobs, but that wasn't the primary goal. Only from 2020, we started to focus primarily on employment and education as a tool, helping you to get a job.

Did you pivot because of Y Combinator, or was it because your final goal was to create a product oriented toward university?

We went to Y Combinator with Turing College already having an MVP and having first users. So, YC didn't have any impact on that. They had an impact on the direction that we took later. We had a huge governmental contract, and YC recommended we not take it because it was extremely risky for us to take such a huge contract. For many founders, that would feel counterintuitive. You have money hanging, just go take it and deliver the product. But we did as they said, and we didn't take the deal. And now we say that was a good decision.

Why did you decide to participate in the Winter '21 batch?

Firstly, YC has always been a principal resource for us founders, a place to gain knowledge and understand how to create a startup. It has always been an inspiration and aspiration for us to go to YC and elevate ourselves to the next level as founders. As young founders, the challenge is often not knowing what the right moves are, and lacking confidence and mental models to understand how to grow faster.

YC served as the school that helped shape our mental models, and now we feel quite comfortable and aligned with a robust mentality. When we attend office hours with YC partners, 95% of what they say is already in our line of thinking. In the beginning, everything was new and full of insights, but now we have a solid understanding and think the way they do. This alignment has been incredibly inspiring and aspirational for us.

Having credentials is crucial for a young founder. YC provided us with the credentials needed to raise funds. This is significant, much like attending Ivy League universities. It’s worthwhile to go to Y Combinator, even just for the confirmation and the stamp of approval that you’re from YC. It makes people look at you differently, which might not logically make sense, but it does because YC filters out many wannabe founders.

Of course, they aren’t always right, but more often than not, they are. About 7% of each batch become unicorns, which is a pretty amazing statistic.

I also believe that YC brings substantial value to entrepreneurs from this region, particularly for those of us who haven’t attended Ivy League universities and lack notable credentials. Typically, our degrees don’t hold much weight abroad, especially in the US. So, having a voice brings immense value and aids in navigating the challenging landscape of fundraising.

I believe this is what our college aims to address. Currently, in higher education, there’s a clear distinction between schools that attract employer attention and those that don’t. If you don’t have the stamp of a prestigious Alma Mater, it can be challenging to even get introduced, and this occurs frequently. However, this is slowly starting to change.

As Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, mentioned, he doesn’t consider one’s Alma Mater anymore, and sometimes being from a renowned institution like Stanford can signal more negative traits, like arrogance, than positive ones. It can bring along undesirable baggage, and a sense of superiority.

We aim to introduce data-driven processes in colleges. We collect extensive data about students and use it to demonstrate to employers that hiring decisions should be based on learning data, not on the reputation of the university attended. We believe this is a more accurate predictor of future performance. Employment and hiring should be based on one’s performance, not on irrelevant factors like appearance or nationality.

It's great that you are trying to change the mentality of the whole European region about degrees and skills. We've noticed that most of your members and users are from the Baltic region.

Yes, for now, 70%.

Do you aim to expand into different markets, let's say, to the west or to the east, or maybe somewhere else?

Yeah, absolutely. Next year, we are expanding to Nigeria. Nigeria has one of the largest populations of young people, with around 150 million people aged 16 to 29—it’s comparable to the entire population of Europe. However, there’s a significant lack of educational institutions capable of educating this demographic and providing access to high-paying jobs.

We see an opportunity to bridge this supply and demand gap and assist Nigeria in fostering more IT-focused and applied individuals. But our vision extends beyond Nigeria; we also aim to address reskilling and upskilling needs in Europe. With the rise of technology and automation, many jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete, and there’s a pressing need for reskilling and upskilling to adapt to new technologies.

Our plan is to intensify our focus on scaling in the German and French markets next year. We already have a presence there, but we intend to systematically expand our operations in those regions in the coming year.

Nigeria is a fascinating market. We also noticed that their economy is booming and have lots of new startups and very cool ideas as well as great founders.

Yeah, certainly. There’s a lot of noise, but that’s because of the sheer number of people. We are all familiar with the stereotypes, like the ‘Nigerian prince’ scams. However, scams exist in Europe as well. It’s crucial to view Nigeria not just as a country, comparable to those in Europe, but more as a whole continent, given the number of young people there. When you consider that, it starts to make more sense why there’s so much activity and dynamism in general in Nigeria.

Besides looking for tutors or credentials, did you face any average challenges in the early days of Turing College? Are there any particular ones that were daunting and difficult to overcome?

As many of us are young managers, I would say, being the youngest in the company, we often face a set of problems. It’s imperative to know what you’re speaking about and to earn the trust of people, as they are continually questioning if you are right or not, if you understand what you’re doing or not. It becomes quite challenging if you’re not well-versed in a particular topic or if you lack the public speaking skills to support your viewpoint.

We now have a large number of employees, with 33 people full-time and 60 part-time, amounting to almost 100 people. We’ve faced many challenges, simple things like fundraising, finding a business model, and retaining employees were tough. And yes, finding a market fit, we’ve wrestled with that too but are finally getting close to it and are now profitable.

The last three years have indeed been hard for our team, and I’m really thankful to our managers and first employees, assembled during our college days, for their remarkable support. It's because of them that we are here today.

Hiring is also pivotal, especially when you’re young. You need to hire people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you, and knowing who will be a good fit is one of the hardest things, given that you don’t have much data or experience in managing people at a company level. You might have managed someone in high school, but managing in a company is a different ball game.

Things have somehow worked out. We’ve had mentors, and they've helped us a lot. We weren’t ignorant people; we wanted to learn quickly, be open, make mistakes, and improve on them. It's been a journey of challenges and learning, and yeah, it's been quite the experience.

How did you "convince" your industry specialists to come to Turing College? I’m asking this because you have lots of people from Vinted, Meta, Google, and other companies. How did you negotiate with them to be part of it?

I would say there are essentially two phases we need to distinguish between; acquiring the first individual and then securing the rest of them. Most content you’ll find about onboarding people typically explains how it’s done, with everyone discussing how they secured their second, fifth, or sixth person, but the real challenge for young companies lies in attracting the first one.

In our experience, we were fortunate to find someone whose values and virtues resonated with ours. This individual wasn’t particularly interested in gaining social status or financial rewards from collaborating with us; instead, he had a genuine interest in solving the problem and making an impact. Our first content creator, who also holds the position of president of the AI Association in Lithuania, is not only an incredible individual but also a phenomenal mentor and colleague. He believed in us passionately, eager to create an educational solution that could potentially aid millions.

Once you secure a person with such credible credentials, attracting the second one becomes significantly more manageable, as you can leverage the reputation of the first person. Currently, we have members from elite AI organizations like META AI and Google Brain, which can be attributed to having highly esteemed AI professionals already within our company.

Having such high-caliber individuals has not only validated our efforts but also eased the process of attracting similarly talented and committed individuals, all keen to solve problems and make a tangible impact in the field of AI.

What's your vision for Turing College's future? And for online education in general, do you think there's any chance that at some point, maybe in 5 or 10 years, this type of education could become as relevant as college education, or even more relevant, maybe even replace it in some ways?

Absolutely, you cannot hide from the evolution of the system. However, I don’t see informal, online, intense education replacing higher education in the upcoming 10 years. What we are trying to do at Turing College, being accredited, is to issue master's degrees for our students that are recognized in the European Union. We are one of the first such institutions in the world that has a quite different methodology compared to traditional universities, focusing heavily on practical application. Our goal is to scientifically prove that our methods are more efficient and produce better outcomes for the same amount invested in a person. This could potentially solve the current higher education problems on a huge scale with quality, considering around 300 million people in the world don't have the opportunity to study in universities.

Does the Lithuanian government support your venture?

Yes, we have a particularly fruitful partnership. The Lithuanian government assists some of the applicants financially. Similar mechanisms are now in place in many EU countries; for instance, some started this year in France, while in Germany, such programs have existed for many years. There are pathways into these markets, but they require time and navigating through numerous accreditation processes, especially when dealing with government entities.

I would say the situation is quite positive in the EU, but it’s more challenging to secure similar deals outside it, like in Africa, where knowing the right people is crucial as that’s how business operates there. Asia is more akin to Europe in this regard, but we’ll see. A shift is occurring, with governments realizing the need to invest in upskilling their populations to avoid significant social exclusion, leading to stark divisions and internal social and political problems, as seen in the United States.

Addressing these issues primarily involves enhancing education and expanding the middle class.

You're also kind of betting on the fact that AI will replace most conventional jobs.

Yes, AI will impact every industry, much like the internet did. People will need to reskill. We believe that people won't be replaced by AI itself, but those not using AI will be. To secure your future, you need to leverage these technologies.

Do you think Turing College would be different today without Y Combinator?

We would definitely be in a totally different position. I'm not sure if it would be worse or better. We wouldn’t be so certain and comfortable being founders without Y Combinator. We would have reached the same level through practice over maybe four years, but Y Combinator teaches first principles and rules that work, which could be learned through practice as well.

If bootstrapping is not an option, what would you recommend? For instance, would you advise people from edtech startups to pitch directly to you? In the US, it is often the case that new founders attempt to pitch and secure funding from seasoned founders within the same industry.

I wouldn’t say we are at a level to be angel investors yet, so we’re not ready for pitches. However, my advice is to first explore opportunities for funding through governmental grants or EU grants if you’re in the European Union. These are often alternatives for equity-free funding, which is fantastic. Approach VCs once you’re ready, but understand that success with VCs can be unpredictable and is often based on relationships and gut feelings, although it’s becoming more data-driven now due to economic downturns.

When raising funds from VCs, it’s more about whether they like you or see potential in the industry, rather than just analyzing the stats. Fundraising is a complex topic and can be quite different from what one might expect without experience. A good recommendation would be to watch the series about WeWork (WeCrashed) to understand the nuances of fundraising. It provides a vivid, fact-based narrative of how fundraising can work. Of course, it’s an outlier story, but it helps to understand the hype of VC firms.

For us, having some credentials made it somewhat easier to establish connections, but generally, it’s quite challenging. There are many who are willing to invest, but introductions are important.

I completely understand. The only reason it worked for the Baltics was because of Skype being acquired by Microsoft. However, that acquisition created many millionaires among the employees, who then started their own ventures. This is how Estonia has around nine unicorns, thanks to the ‘Skype Mafia.’ The way to replicate this success is, I believe, through leading by example. Having unicorns that exit or are acquired generates capital. Without such examples, it could take many years to see progress, which is why Lithuania was lagging behind. It all started with a small group of people who had millions in their pockets and the knowledge to use it.

Learn more about the founders:

Lukas created his first coding bootcamp at 16 years old. At 22, he became a lecturer in software engineering at ISM international university. Lukas has been the CEO of Turing School since 2017. He has continued working with the Harvard CS50 team and several top-tier academics on various EdTech projects up to this day.

Tomas started his first company at only 17. At 20, he joined his first startup at its founding as a core team member and quickly grew to become a CTO. He is a self-taught engineer with a background in business & economics who studied engineering at the prestigious tech university 42 in Paris, France. At only 27, Tomas already has a decade of management & founder experience. In Turing, Tomas leads product & operation. He also serves as a chairman of the board.

Ben created a leading global tech network for the Lithuanian diaspora at 19. He organized an event that received attention and Twitter coverage from Tesla and Elon Musk. He also co-organized the biggest alternative investment event in the Baltics. As a CEO, he bootstrapped a startup studio from zero to 350k USD in revenue over one year at the age of 21. Today, together with Lukas & Tomas and the whole team, Benas is accelerating the transition to data-driven IT learning with the EdTech startup.

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