Khan Academy founder Salman Khan on why his education technology startup succeeded where others failed.

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
Aug. 1 2011 12:52 PM

A Q&A with Khan Academy Founder Salman Khan

The online entrepreneur on the secret to making educational videos.

Slate's list of the 25 Americans who combine inventive genius and practicality—our best real-world problem solvers. Read more about how we chose them.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Salman Khan. Click image to expand.
Salman Khan

Why has Khan Academy succeeded where other educational video services have failed?
A lot of the ideas or even individual technologies behind Khan Academy are not novel. I tell my wife on a weekly basis that it boggles my mind this hadn't been done until now, and it took some slightly eccentric dude in his closet to do it. If there was a differentiating factor for Khan Academy, it's the focus on execution, the focus on cutting to the chase of what's really meaningful to students and learners—as opposed to the very top-down mechanisms in most educational software, where they're catering to the curricula, catering to the standards, catering to the district and all the stakeholders. Somewhere in that whole process they lose sight of what it's about.

What advice would you offer to other would-be entrepreneurs who want to focus on education?
I see a lot of people with ideas that are good from a top-down level. There are ideas not that different from our ideas: analytics, videos. What they really underestimate is the importance of having good content. I've had people say to me, "I've looked at your content. It's not that good." In their mind good content means that it's polished, that it looks good. They really can't contain their derisiveness. But they didn't watch my videos saying, "I want to understand thermodynamics." They said, "I want to see if Sal's videos have any good computer graphics, or if they have the next new whiz-bang technology." But that's all beside the point.

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The other [pitfall] is trying to monetize something right away. Four or five years ago when I showed my buddies what I was up to, they said, "How are you going to make money off of it?" I told them I don't need to do that. If there's something new, give it away to people so they realize there's value there before you start putting up walls. It's amazing how quickly people put up barriers to their product, so that you have to pay $19.95 before you know what it can really do.

I think the gist of it is, not to infringe on Nike's trademarks, but literally, just do it. If you have an idea that seems worth doing, don't wait to hire other people and get funding and all those things. Just start doing it, wait to see what happens, and then iterate on that.

Return to Khan's profile.

Watch Khan's TED talk on "flipping the classroom," as well as Khan Academy videos on calculus and the origins of the Earth.

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