Jonathan Cornelissen is an entrepreneur and angel investor. In the past decade, Jonathan has been mostly focused on financial econometrics, education, and data science, by starting the education company DataCamp.
Jonathan holds a Ph.D. in financial econometrics, during which he published several academic papers in peer-reviewed journals and developed the highfrequency R package for quant finance.
As a student, he started a non-profit educational organization focused on matching students with good and affordable tutors. In his hometown Leuven (Belgium), this non-profit helped over 1,000 students to date.
As a co-founder of DataCamp and its CEO, he helped the company grow to over 4 million students, 100k+ subscribers and from $0 to $30,000,000 in ARR (Annualized Recurring Revenue). He more than doubled the team and revenue every year (5 years in a row). During his tenure as CEO, employee engagement and satisfaction was in the top 10-15% percentile. He was also the author of an introduction to R course taken by over 1.5 million students.
Jonathan started angel investing in 2018. He has invested in multiple early-stage startups, including, perch.fit, Kyso.io, Clever Girl Finance, FlyThere, constrafor, and Two Front. As an angel investor, he is curious about many sectors but particularly knowledgeable and excited about data science/AI, online education, and blockchain.
How did you get started in this business?
At the start of my PhD, I initially struggled to learn the statistical programming language R. After gradually learning it, I ended up teaching R and intro to statistics as a teaching assistant at university. As a teacher, I was looking for an engaging learning experience online that would allow students to learn at their own pace, whenever they wanted. To my surprise, there was no online learning platform delivering an effective and engaging learning experience for data science. That’s how the idea to start DataCamp was born. I’ve written more about the high-level context and reasons why we started DataCamp on my website.
How do you make money?
DataCamp offers a simple subscription model that gives access to a large library of data science and data fluency courses, practice labs and projects. For consumers, it’s as little as $25/month and for enterprise clients $500 per person per month.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
DataCamp has been very cashflow efficient and often cash flow break-even during its growth trajectory. My expectation would be that DataCamp will become profitable at some point in the next 2 years.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
How did you get your first customer?
The first DataCamp courses we built were available for free. It wasn’t that hard to convince the first 100 people to start learning on DataCamp for free :-). As we were bootstrapping, it took us about 1.5 years to get to 100,000 students. At that point, we decided to switch to a low-cost subscription model. Our first clients, therefore, were the early adopters who had joined the platform for the free content.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
In the first 18 months after starting DataCamp, we built complements to existing courses on Coursera and Edx. At the time, these platforms were super popular and we were able to gain a lot of visibility and students by collaborating with them. We also partnered with Microsoft to devel several courses on EdX, which gave a significant boost to our visibility.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
It’s hard to pin-point one specific moment. In general, there are 2 things I have truly enjoyed.
First, the fact that we were able to solve the problem that we set out to solve in a scalable way, and hearing from students that they enjoyed learning data science and got ahead in their career. Secondly, as a manager, one of the most rewarding feelings is seeing people grow in their roles and exceed even their own expectations.
What business books have inspired you?
Reading books and listening to podcasts is how I try to keep up and learn as an entrepreneur, so there’s a long list of books and podcasts that have inspired me. One of my all time favorites is “the hard thing about hard things” from Ben Horowitz. In contrast to many business books, this book is brutally honest about the hardest challenges you face when running a company. Another classic is Principles from Ray Dalio, the founder and initial CEO of Bridgewater Associates. This is a great book for entrepreneurs who are starting to think about the culture they want to create.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Only hire people you’d want to work for. Hiring excellent people and building the best team is what truly matters. It determines whether the organization achieves its mission as well as allows you to enjoy the journey. Almost all the costly mistakes I’ve made were related to bad hires.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
Yes, I’m currently mentoring several early-stage companies and entrepreneurs. It’s one of the things I enjoy the most.