Here’s my recent interview with Alister & Paine…
Tell me about your background in education and how it inspired you to launch Praxis.
Isaac Morehouse: More than a decade ago, I was a frustrated college student. All the best things I was learning came from working, and from my own study, not from my expensive accredited classes. I discovered that getting good grades and gaining valuable knowledge were totally separate in the college experience. I disliked the antagonism between students and their universities. If it wasn’t tuition, fees, parking permit and textbook costs going up, it was poor quality instructors or new PC rules and bureaucracy. You don’t see this in most industries; this thing where the producer of the good is not at all accountable to the consumer. As long as the subsidized student loans and aid keep flowing in, the university does whatever silly thing it wants. It all struck me as kind of a big joke. I got paid on the job to learn amazing things that shaped me and stuck with me, meanwhile I was paying to sit in fluorescently lit cinder block cells where many of the people complained, half-assed the work, and didn’t want to be there – I’m not talking only about students.
I dreamed of one day starting my own college where work and class weren’t so starkly divided, where the relationship (and hence accountability) between the producer and the consumer was direct and immediate, where learners took ownership of their experience and didn’t pay for things they didn’t want or found no value in.
I spent the intervening decade working in and around college, nonprofits, and various educational andcareer preparation programs. Most of these programs were free, and many of the students would say things like, “This is what I wish college was like!”
With the emergence of MOOC’s and the declining value of the college degree (it’s the new high school diploma), I decided it was time to revisit my old dream of a different kind of educational institution. I put the pieces together – experience with dynamic businesses, a powerful collection of online resources and in-person discussions, mentoring, and self-guided projects, certified with oral exams (no multiple choice or memorization) – and crammed it in to the most compact and cost effective package possible. A ten month-program with a net cost of zero (tuition being equal to earnings).
Explain the concept to me; what does it mean to ‘break the mold’?
Isaac Morehouse: Degrees are a dime a dozen. No one cares any more. What can you do? What have you created? Those are the questions that matter, and simply saying you bought yourself a degree from a university no longer signals those things. There are plenty of reasons people go to college – as a consumption good (a four year party), to get knowledge, meet people, gain skills, find out what they like – but every one of these can be had better and cheaper elsewhere. The real reason people keep paying to go is to get that coveted credential. The degree is supposed to be a ticket to a good-paying job.
There are two problems with this. First, the market is inflated. Everyone has one and it doesn’t really guarantee you much more than a least common denominator kind of signal. The second problem is, frankly, making a job the goal is kind of boring and not that secure any more. You are not your job. You are your own brand, whether you want to be or not.
You’ve got to think like an entrepreneur, whether you ever start your own business or not. I think humans are born entrepreneurs and the education system beats it out of most of them. You’re rewarded for conformity, following rules, not questioning the purpose, not innovating around problems, not suffering big failures or benefiting from huge successes. It’s a rigidly controlled environment that looks nothing like the market.
To break the mold is to take your education into your own hands. Do what works for you, not the easy, well-worn path.
Why do you think alternative education programs like App Academy & Dev Bootcamp have such higher job-placement rankings than traditional 4-year universities?
Isaac Morehouse: Employers don’t know what they’re getting anymore if they hire based on a degree. They look for experience and evidence of actual value created. If you’ve got the courage to do something different from the herd, and you’ve done something specifically that demonstrates your abilities – like built a website or programmed some software – that’s tangible and valuable to employers, co-workers, investors, customers.
The VC firm Andreessen Horwitz says that, not only do they not frown upon entrepreneurs who have skipped out on the college conveyor belt, they actually see a positive correlation with dropouts and all the attributes they look for in a founder. Soon, lots of people will be crafting education experiences for themselves outside university walls, but today there are first mover advantages to breaking the mold.
Talk to me about how you are single handedly redefining the concept of a ‘college dropout.’ What does that phrase mean at Praxis?
Isaac Morehouse: Who is in the driver’s seat when it comes to your goals, skills, ideas, interests, and experiences? You can either move forward under your own direction, or get pulled wherever the current takes you. Those who are conscious of this fact and are explicitly setting out to do the things of most value to themselves rarely find college to be the only or best choice. If you go to college, I can’t really tell whether you’re actively in control of your journey. Everyone does that. It’s actually harder to not go that route today. Doing something different sends a strong signal that you have taken ownership of your life. That’s exciting.
I meet so many young people who look a little ashamed when they tell me they quit school to build apps, or start a marketing business, or learn to code. They have paid a huge social cost to pursue something more valuable, and they’re still a little insecure about the fact that they don’t have an easy answer at networking events for, “Tell me about yourself.” Guess what: I don’t really want to hear your major or educational status. That tells me nothing about you. I want to hear what you’re pursuing, what you value, what you can do for yourself and the world. It’s hard to hone that in a classroom.
College is kind of a personal development moral hazard problem; young people defer the hard work of self-discovery and ownership of their professional lives because they think a credential will do the heavy lifting for them. It won’t. The sooner you learn that the better.
It’s not about being a college dropout, which implies you fell flat somehow, it’s about being an opt-out. You opted out of a system that wasn’t built around you, and you crafted your own educational experience out of the best of what’s available to you.
How grueling is the Praxis application process?
Isaac Morehouse: About 10% of applicants get accepted. We’re looking for work ethic and drive above all. I call it the “sleep in your car” test. You’re either willing to sleep in your car to achieve what you want or you’re not. We don’t actually make you sleep in a car, but that’s the quality we’re looking for above all. We have a short application on the web, and then a few phases of supplemental material we request if you make it past stage one. There are two interviews, and if you make it that far, some interviews as we work to match you with a great business partner. A lot of smart applicants don’t realize it’s not just about shipping off your application once and being done with it. It’s a process, and we want to see the same promptness and professionalism throughout the entire thing.
Who are a few of your entrepreneurial heroes and why?
Isaac Morehouse: I’m going to get old-school here. James J. Hill is one of my favorites. Hill refused any government subsidies, eminent domain land seizures, or special favors that all the other railways were lobbying for and getting. He built a better railway and outcompeted them purely on the market, while they all squabbled over tax dollars and made cozy with regulators and squandered money. It’s a classic case of what happens when you’re focusing not on your customer and their needs, but on big political interests and their needs (not unlike what we see in higher ed.). Hill was accountable to customers and investors, the others were accountable to Washington power brokers. He created value, they created corruption, graft, and waste. I’m a fan of Cornelius Vanderbilt for much the same reason.
There are a lot of others I really respect and have learned from, but the danger of mentioning those still living and active is that they’ll go on to do something really stupid or offensive, then I’ll be asked to defend them! In general, I love entrepreneurs who work around stagnant status quo solutions the way Uber works around taxi cartels, or Bitcoin works around a screwed up banking and financial racket.
What value does Praxis provide to businesses that they can’t get anywhere else?
Isaac Morehouse: Businesses are hungry for good talent. It’s hard to find. Specialized skills can be taught, but raw drive, reliability, values, determination, and teach-ability are rare and hard to identify. Praxis does that for you.
We send businesses top-notch young people who are ready to come in and help in any way they can. These are individuals who don’t want to merely perform tasks, they want to understand the vision of the company and help you build it. Many baby-boomers are getting close to retirement or slowing down and they want someone to grow into a leadership position. They may not have a child who’s able or willing, but they want someone to pass their company and their vision off to. Those are the kind of people we’re sending to our business partners.
Unlike interns, who are typically there for only a few months, and for whom it takes a lot of time and effort to find and manage, Praxis participants spend ten months in a business, we vet them and mentor them along the way, and many end up with job offers from their business partners after the program. It’s a great, low cost way to get young talent in the door who can both create immediate value and get a ten-month test-drive for future compatibility.