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Lane Wagner for

Posted on • Originally published at

Why is Not Completely Free

A few days ago I received an email regarding where the sender informed me:

I am ideologically opposed to charging people for online education.

I mean fair enough right? I certainly understand this viewpoint, and perhaps I even ideologically agree. That said, let me explain why isn't completely free - though quite a bit of it is free.

The lifeblood of a good learning platform is ongoing development

My current goal with is to provide the most effective path to a career in backend development. Some key points regarding how I plan to do that include:

  • No "what should I learn next"? Or "tutorial hell" traps. A simple and straight-forward curriculum.
  • No skipping CS fundamentals. You're going to spend some time learning algorithms, data structures, and different programming paradigms.
  • You'll write real code, and a lot of it.
  • The whole experience should be as fun and engaging as possible. Achievements, XP, levels, all the fun stuff.
  • The content will be extremely up to date. We won't have you learning Python 2 in 2022, or using the var keyword in JavaScript.

You'll notice, I can't really accomplish these goals by, say, spending a few months of my spare time writing content, then putting it out for free while I get back to work at a full time job. The content wouldn't remain up to date, wouldn't be gamified, and I simply wouldn't have the time be able to write all the material I want to. I want this thing to be as thorough as a CS degree (but more streamlined) when its complete.

This project, if it's actually going to accomplish its goals (which I believe are aligned with the student's goals) requires that myself, and maybe even a few others are able to continuously work on this thing full-time.

Right of the gate I'm bound by the constraint that I need to be able to earn a living wage through this thing.

So what is's current business model anyways?

I don't think I've gotten this right yet, but at the moment we have a simple way to fund ongoing development: our "patron plan".

Signing up, reading all the content, and even playing in the code sandbox is free for everyone. However, after the first few chapters of any individual course, if you want to continue to "pass off" assignments, and get your answers checked for correctness you need to become a patron. There are 3 pricing options:

  • A monthly plan of ~$29/mo
  • A yearly plan of ~$192/yr
  • A lifetime plan which is a one-time payment of $500

Obviously I play with pricing a lot, so if you're reading this in the future it may have changed, but that's what it is today. In a nutshell, you pay a subscription for access to all the features.

Charging the learners isn't the only way to monetize the platform

Let's take a look at a few alternative business models. I want to optimize for a few things when choosing:

Model #1 - Totally free, ads


  • Students get everything for free
  • I could probably make enough money to support the business


  • My incentives are not aligned with those of my students. The students become of the product. My incentives wouldn't be to provide the most effective education, but simply to keep eyeballs on the product.

Model #2 - Totally free, donations


  • Students get everything for free
  • While my incentives are not super financially aligned with my students, they're somewhat aligned. At the very least, my altruistic incentives are aligned.


  • I'm skeptical I would make enough off of donations to support a full-time team. I would almost certainly need another job (I know I would need one today at least). Maybe this could happen after we've grown significantly. Kahn Academy does a great job.

Model #3 - Charge businesses for career placement after students graduate

I actually looked into this for a couple months, and based on my research, I don't think this will work for a platform built primarily for entry-level developers. If I was providing career education to junior or mid level developers, I'm sure I could charge a "recruiting" fee to businesses or something like that. Unfortunately, companies simply don't pay to find juniors.

Model #4 - Charge students for career coaching

This is an interesting one I've been thinking about recently. The idea is that I could open up the entire curriculum for free, then charge "lambda school"-style pricing for optional career coaching sessions for graduates. We would meet once a week on a video call to help you find a job, then if you get a high-paying job you pay us back over the first year of employment.

I think we'll experiment with this, but I'm a little skeptical, because the incentives become too focused on "weeding out" the students who are less likely to be placed in a career, rather than just educating everyone as effectively as possible.

There could be a hybrid model where the career placements subsidize the education platform, making the learning portion cheaper while still incentivizing us to provide an amazing experience.

So what are we going to do?

Well, for now we're going to keep monetizing the way we've been doing it - simple monthly subscriptions. For students who can't afford the price, all of our content can be read for free, and hopefully that's a decent middle-ground solution until we have the bandwidth to try other things.

My priority right now is just getting this thing to a level where I can pay my server costs, my mortgage and my family's expenses without going into the red.

A final note on the "ideological opposition"

I am ideologically opposed to charging people for online education.

Again, I agree in my heart - but there are a few facts that I think are important to keep in mind:

At the moment, anything can be learned online for free. The problem that platforms like are solving isn't access to information. It's organizing that information so that it can be consumed in easy, fun, and effective ways. Again, that's why I allow people to access all the information on for free.

There is a reason that people are still paying for expensive university and bootcamp tuition. It's not because they can't find the information online or in a book. People are paying for content curation, for degrees and certificates, and for the external motivation that deadlines and teachers provide. I think we can do all that for less than 1% of what people are paying currently.

Anyhow, as usual, if you have any comments or think I've erred in some way, feel free to let me know on Twitter.

Top comments (3)

donaldsebleung profile image
Donald Sebastian Leung • Edited

Wow, that is one entitled sender - some people just want to have everything without giving back. Most learners probably wouldn't mind paying a reasonable fee to unlock full access to a quality course that objectively plays a role in advancing their career.

Also, I agree that the problem with learning from free (no-cost) resources on the Internet isn't the lack of such resources (quite the contrary - just see how many Hello World tutorials are out there) - it's the complete lack of structure and (consequently) the effort required by the average learner to distill useful information from it within a reasonable timeframe. Theoretically, one could master C++ programming given enough time, by going through the entire language specification available over the Internet at no cost. But then, why do millions of learners worldwide pay a hefty sum to universities every year just to be enrolled in a CS curriculum to learn C++ programming?

erikwhiting88 profile image
Erik • Edited

I'm the sender in question and what Lane forgot to mention was this email was in response to him asking me to provide him with free labor to make his for-profit site better. I have a blog that is free to read, has no ads, and doesn't require a login to visit. I'm also active in the OSS community helping make free software better for no reason other than i want to help. so your assumption that I'm not "giving anything back" is incredibly insulting to the work I put in for free to help the community.

wagslane profile image
Lane Wagner

I mean this as sincerely as possible, because sometimes things come out wrong over text: I genuinely appreciate your email.

That said, I never asked for what I would consider to be "free labor". I asked if you could provide feedback on You said you didn't want to because you consider that to be free labor, and that's totally cool! I really don't mind. I've provided tons of for-profit and non-profit companies feedback and don't consider it to be "free labor" if it's just a quick look.

Anyhow, no worries at all, wish you the best Erik!