John Katzman ’81, founder of standardized test preparation company Princeton Review and CEO of the education-based Noodle Companies, spoke to The Daily Princetonian about his life and career as a Princeton student and alumnus.
The Daily Princetonian: What did you study at Princeton? How did your time at Princeton influence your choice to work in education?
DP: What inspired you to found Princeton Review and Noodle?
JK:I enjoyed teaching, thought it was a pretty good business. The hardest part of teaching is motivating students and getting paid, and when you're talking about test prep, everybody is very motivated and they're willing to pay anything, so now, you have a much easier problem. You're just trying to channel that energy into constructive behavior. So it was totally a fun thing to do, and my feeling was I’d do it for a couple years and then I'll sell that and start a tech company, and then Princeton Review took off and I went with it. [Careers in education are]critically important, socially as well, both to the overall health of the country and to the kids involved, and it's utterly compelling. You can change somebody's life. So as you know it better, you tend to stick in it.DP: What did you do after your work with Princeton Review?
JK: I left there to start a company called 2U, which works with universities like USC, Georgetown, Yale and WashU to build large and great online programs. We actually raised $100 million dollars of private money, and those people had a pretty strong opinion that we should take it public, so I left. The company is now public and doing very well, but I'd sort of had all my fun. So then I left to start Noodle Companies. There are three Noodle Companies right now. One of them is trying to be TripAdvisor for education. Can I help you to find the right school, the right college, the right French tutor, the right after school program. The second is more like 2U actually. Can I help universities to lower their cost and raise engagement, raise student faculty engagement, and raise outcomes, using technology. The third is Noodle Markets, which is, can I help K-12 school districts do procurement more effectively. The way they buy things makes it very hard for innovation to win.
DP: What is your best Princeton memory?
JK: A couple roommates and I, a couple friends and I, would go running and throw around a football. Basically if anybody said, ‘I really feel like a run,’ everybody said, ‘Okay, we’re in.’ And we'd head out. And ditto for if I needed to throw a football for a couple minutes. And that feeling of like, you feel like being outside doing something, and one minute later you have a bunch of good friends doing something, you'll never have again. You couldn't really have it during high school, your time wasn't your own in the same kind of way, and you don't really have it in work in real life because people are busy. So that was always great.Somebody asked me the other day, ‘If you owned a bar, and if you saw education as a bar and you're running it, what is the bar you want to create, the environment you want to create, the food you want to serve? And my answer was, nobody’s here for the food. They're here for each other. They're here for the faculty. A great university is a convening of smart, curious people. The courses are really just to give you something to talk about. A lot of the most important conversations you have aren't in the context of a course.
DP: Are you still in touch with connections you made at Princeton? If so, how has Princeton remained a part of your life in the years after your graduation?
JK: I think because I stayed in education, Princeton has been more in my life than it would have been, and having gone here and getting to know over the years some faculty and administration has afforded me some insight into how universities think and what the problems they're wrestling with are. I think Princeton stays with you more as a mindset than as an institution.A great university will have more effect on you than you have on it, and that effect is on the way you perceive problems, on the way you solve problems, on your worldview. It's more subtle, but the decision to go to one college or another, which seems to be about SAT scores and whatnot, is actually about, who are the people here, and all of them walk in as individuals and walk out as individuals, but they bend towards the ethos of the school. And Princeton bends you in certain ways that are important and good, and it's hard to bottle that, and to quantify it, but it's enormously impactful.
DP: What advice do you have for Princeton students who are trying to determine their career paths?
JK: People think sometimes that you get passionate about something so you do it a lot. And it's of course the opposite. You do something a lot and you start liking it, because if you don't like it you start doing something else. So if you start liking it, you do it more. And that's what choosing a major is all about, and it's what choosing a career is all about, and it's what choosing a relationship is all about. It is allowing yourself to immerse and not worrying about the fact that the thing you're immersing in may not have started out to be a passion. You don't love someone and then start to date them; it's the other way around. So, the notion of ‘I haven't figured out my calling yet’ is a false concern. It is, what do I like doing at all, and why don’t I do more of that and see how it goes? Again, a very iterative approach, a la architecture.