Have you ever had one of those “when I retire and have enough money, I’ll change the world” plans?
Salman “Sal” Khan did. And if you look at his resume which lists work at tech & finance firms, you can see that he was on his way to making that money. But he didn’t want to wait.
In this interview you’ll see how Sal started recording short educational videos and built what is now a 1,500+ video educational academy that’s helping students all over the world.
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Hey everyone, it’s Andrew Warner, founder of mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. I’ve got with me today Salman Khan. He is the founder of an online school that’s launched and run largely through YouTube. Do I have that right?
Interviewee: Yeah. Well, it’s known mainly for the video library on YouTube right now. There’s 1500 videos. It’s had over 16 million views, 200,000 unique users a month. It is definitely the most used education platform on YouTube, and as far as I can tell, looking at the other open course initiatives, the most used library on the web right now.
Andrew: I went to the courses in preparation for this interview, and I saw that you teach math, basic math. You say that you started out teaching 1 + 1 = 2. I got so into a history course that I almost stopped working. I said, “Andrew, you can’t do this.” So, you know what I did? I used this program called Zamzar that’s going to rip your course. It’s going to put it on my iPhone. I’m going over to Estancia here this weekend. On the ride over I’m going to be watching you teach me history. It was that freaking fascinating.
Interviewee: Oh, cool. I’m glad. That’s actually really good feedback because there’s a lot of interesting discussion about how credentialed someone should be to teach a certain subject. And most of my credentials are computer science and in finance and math.
I did the history. I love history, but I did that: one, to kind of push the boundaries, to show that you don’t have to necessarily have a PhD. You just have to have a passion for the subject. So, I’m glad to hear that. And we hope you won’t have to rip it soon. It’ll be on iTunes by the end of the summer. It’ll be on iTunes the entire Khan Academy library.
Andrew: I’m going to come back to that point that you said you don’t have to have a PhD. I want to ask you about what qualifies you to teach all of these subjects because you’re teaching more and more of them. You’ve got a course on how IPOs work, on how to raise money for a startup, all that.
Let me start off by asking you a question that I ask a lot of my other guests here. How much money does the Khan Academy make?
Interviewee: Well, that can be answered on a bunch of different levels. It is a not-for-profit. That’s a decision we can talk about because there was a kind of thought process. I was being approached by some people in the venture capital and the entrepreneurial world about starting as either a social for-profit venture or a pure for-profit venture or a little bit of both.
But, it is a pure not-for-profit, and there’s a little bit of advertising that comes in. It goes to the not-for-profit, and we’re being very delicate about the advertising. We’re not too aggressive there. And when I quit my job as a hedge fund analyst in September, I was making nothing. So, it was essentially living off of savings.
Andrew: I’m sorry. Our video cut out right after you explained that you quit your job as a hedge fund analyst, and then can you pick it up from there?
Interviewee: Oh, yeah. So, after I quit, I was living off of savings until about, I would say, a month ago where we’ve gotten some fairly significant donations. So, now, I can , at least, take a salary to do this, you know, not a hedge fund salary but a salary.
Andrew: And the donations are coming from people who are hitting that donate button on top of your website?
Interviewee: There’s a ton of people who are hitting that little PayPal donation, you know, and that’s anywhere from – I’ve gotten donations as little as 50 cents all the way – but there’s a lot of people who just donate unsolicited 100, 200, 300, 500. I’ve even gotten a couple that were 2-3,000 just from that PayPal donation button.
But, more recently, we’ve gotten some pretty significant checks from people out here in the valley that get us to the point that I’ve ready to have a salary for, at least, several years. And, obviously, there will be other opportunities to go from there.
Andrew: What kind of people?
Interviewee: A couple of them are venture capitalists in this area. The one gentleman, he’s actually not in the valley, he’s in Europe. He’s a pretty prominent businessman in Europe. There’s another. A lot of the people are people that are in the tech space. They’re not doing it as an investment, obviously. It’s a not-for-profit, but I think they’re excited about the potential here, the potential for kind of disrupting and…
The feedback that I get from a lot of them is: look, a lot of people have talked about doing this type of thing. It’s kind of an obvious idea, taking videos from good instructors and put them on the web, and eventually do some analytics around it, do some self-based learning and everything’s going to be great. But, no one’s really done it. The best to date outside of Khan Academy is the open course ware efforts at MIT and Stanford and all of that. That’s essentially just been videos in classrooms and…
Andrew: Boring. Can I say that?
Interviewee: You can say it, and I feel the same. I’m a huge consumer of their open course ware, but you have to be really motivated and sit through a lot of things that you don’t necessarily want to pay attention to, to get to what you want. Sometimes, it’s delivered well. Sometimes, it’s not. It’s kind of inconsistent quality. There’s all sorts of other things that occur when you have the video camera in the classroom that make it a little bit weird. I think they appreciate the fact that Khan Academy is 99 percent execution and 1 percent talk.
Andrew: Let me ask you this, then. I’ve got your resume here. I actually went to the way back machine to see what you were up to before you did this, to see who you were. And you had your resume up and I looked at it and it’s pretty freaking impressive. In addition to three degrees from MIT which a lot of us have seen in news stories about you and the one from Harvard, you worked at Oracle. You worked at a venture capital firm. You were on a path to be one of these rich people of Silicon Valley. You’re not going to be that now, right? Not with this.
Interviewee: Unless they make a movie about the Khan Academy. Yeah, you know, it’s funny. When I was working at a hedge fund, the six years after business school, I was the senior analyst at a hedge fund, and it was doing well. And then, my manager retired. He encouraged me to start my own fund. So, I was on that track to kind of be a hedge fund manager and all of that.
But, the whole time I kind of rationalized that the only reason that I’m doing this is because I want to, one day, start a school. In my mind, I didn’t want to start a school, write grants and go to the Department of Education and get a charter and all of that. I felt the constraints. I just want to become really rich and just do it on my own terms. So, that was my rationalization for just trying to generate alpha day and night.
As the Khan Academy story goes, I kind of got an outlet for some of my ideas with my cousins, tutoring them virtually. And then, the YouTube thing took off, viral software app. A lot of people are using that, and a lot of the vision started to become concrete a lot sooner than I had expected it to. Then, it was just kind of a little bit of introspection, realizing that I got a lot more satisfaction out of it.
The hedge fund job, it is a great job even irrespective of how much they may or may not compensate you, but this was just ten times more fun, just the impact. Almost everything I did on a daily basis, it kind of added to this library that could be around forever. My son, who’s 15 months old right now, could use it when he’s 18 or 30 or whatever.
So, that idea got really exciting, and just when you think about it, and you see people in the valley like this. I think Silicon Valley is an interesting place because you do see this. It really isn’t about money. I think so many people, they view the money as kind of, “How important was my contribution to the world?”
I think with Khan Academy I get to do that without having to play the whole venture backed startup game, and what’s interesting about Khan Academy is even though it’s not going to make me any money and I’m not going to be able to buy a nice house in Atherton and all that type of thing. In terms of just impact, it is already kind of getting more notoriety than many already fairly successful startups. If I had a startup role and I had an exit for 10 or 20 million dollars, that’s a huge win. Those types of things are a dime a dozen out in the valley.
But, the Khan Academy I already feel has more impact than a lot of these. So, from that point of view, it was just way more impact, way more fun. Every day the things that I was contributing, I felt is contributing to a lasting legacy and it’s just the letters you get from people. I mean, this was also another realization. When you work at a firm, kind of the best thing that can happen to you is a pat on the back from the boss or a nice bonus.
But in this, I’m getting letters, like 20 or 30 a day, and these letters – some of them are just thank you, but some of them are like, “I was going to fail algebra until I started using these videos” or “Now, I want to be an engineer, and I thought I was bad at math my whole life.” So, when you get stuff like that, it really makes you say, “Hey, this is what I want to do.”
Andrew: How about this? I saw one letter on your website. Someone said – I don’t know where she was or where he was, but the letter went, “Where I live, black kids don’t really have access to schools, and my mother moved me so I’d have more opportunities, and my teachers weren’t doing it for me. And then, I discovered your videos. Essentially, that was the story and things changed.”
Interviewee: Yeah, that letter I actually put on my website, I view that as the letter that as someone that really convinced me to quit my job. I mean, there are multiple other moments over the last, I would say, over the last three years where Khan Academy got a letter or something like that. And I’d say, “Maybe, I’ll do this full-time or take time off from the hedge fund world.” And then, I’d look at my finances and say, “No, no. Maybe, I’ll do the hedge fund world for a little longer.”
I got that letter in August, late August of ’09. I got that letter in the same week that the Khan Academy got some notoriety from the Tech Museum, from the Microsoft Tech Award. It was getting a little press, and I just kind of viewed it as a confluence of events that were telling me that I should be doing this.
That letter, especially, I still think to date that’s definitely one of the top five letters that I’ve gotten. I mean, without me doing anything incremental for that person, they just consumed these videos over summer and they really changed their life.
Andrew: People in the chat room are just so inspired. I see Dan Blaine saying, “This guy is really inspiring.” We’re only ten minutes into the interview, and he’s already inspired, he says. So, it’s drawing integrity from Joseph Jacks, everybody here. They’re just loving it. “Holy crap” from Joseph Jacks, about your three MIT degrees. So, you’re blowing us away. Let’s do this.
Interviewee: Well, I’ll add this as another kind of thing about making it non-profit here is that the good will that comes out from this is just orders of magnitude greater than anything. I’m convinced if I did it as a for-profit, it wouldn’t have had the same level of good will. We could talk more about that in general, but I think people respond well to it. So, people are coming out of the woodwork to really help as well.
Andrew: See, here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to ask you about your vision long-term so I could continue to be inspired and inspire my audience. I want to find out how you got here, and then I want to ask you how’d you do it so well because you’re able to take subjects that you didn’t spend your whole life learning, but somehow you make it seem like they’re part of who you are. And then, you explain them in an easy to understand way. I want to learn how you do that.
So, let’s start off with the big vision so we know where you’re going with this. What do you envision in the future coming out of this?
Interviewee: Well, people know about the videos. I’m going to keep making videos. They’re probably the highest return on my time. I was talking to a foundation yesterday, and they were like, “What do you envision yourself in five years?” I spend, at least, 60 percent of my time. I’m still going to make videos and an infinite amount of knowledge, as you know.
I teach things that are not necessarily in my core expertise, but I make them part of my core expertise so I can teach them. Beyond just the video library, I see it becoming a free virtual school, and what I think that entails is you have a video library. You have self-paced adaptive exercise. You don’t need call them adaptive, if you like. I actually started building that before I starting working on the videos.
The videos are actually a complement to the software piece. People can log in at khanexercises.appspot..com. It’s all free. You can see the Google account. It’s on App Engine, and people started coming out of the woodwork. They started working on that. It’s an open source project on top of that.
Not only will Khan Academy be a virtual school, but that code can then be used for anyone else if they want to make their own island of education, if they want. But the idea is you have the videos. You have exercises that start 1 + 1 = 2. I’ll work you all the way up, and they’re dynamically generated. We take you all the way up. Right now, they go all the way through algebra, but we just go well beyond that. With the exercise, I want them to go through calculus, chemistry and those keep building out.
We collect data on everything. We know what videos you watch, when you watch the videos, what exercises you’ve watched. We’ll do histories on when you’re stuck, and then what I think would complete the picture in the virtual school is leverage the community.
Do actual peer-to-peer instruction. So, if I know that Andrew is having trouble with negative exponents and Sal who lives in Mountain View knows negative exponents and I know both of your schedules, I’ll set up a peer-to-peer interaction. And then, you and I will have a session, not too different than I was having with my cousins four years ago.
And then, we’ll also report it. It also becomes part of this library. Then, we can collect all of this data around. Was that a good interaction? I’ll rate you. You’ll rate me. And then, we can also see what the rest of the statistically significant outcomes on your performance.
I think there’s a lot to be said. In the for-profit world, there’s a lot of people doing video libraries. And they’re doing different ways to collect data and have the best videos. Then, there are other people doing exercises, and then, there are other people who are starting to explore the peer-to-peer learning.
But, I’m pretty convinced in order to do it properly, you want to have all of them together in the same place.
Andrew: OK. So, we got the videos today. You talked about what you have up on App Engine. I played with that game for a little bit. It’s interesting. You get to learn, and then you go into a place where you take quizzes, based on what you’ve learned.
So, to use the example that I played with, it was, “What’s 9 + 5?” And if I didn’t know the answer, I could press the button to see a hint, and the hint showed me balls underneath 9. And if I still didn’t know the answer, I would hit the hint again, and I’d see 5 balls under 5 and then I could answer it and you keep track of it. So, you’ve got that today, and in the future you’re going to add peer-to-peer.
You mentioned that there are people who are already doing this. What about people like Cramster who’s doing this already or who else? Who did I interview here? I interviewed the founder of University of the People Shai. He wants to create an online university. How does this fit in with what’s already out there?
Interviewee: You know, I think a lot of the focus so far has been on platform, but I’m not 100 percent. I’m somewhat familiar with both of those two efforts that you’ve had, and I think in order to make these work, platform matters. But the platform really has to have a core of really good content. That’s what’s going to make people use the platform, and I think right now the value proposition and I think that’s the reason why Khan Academy has a lot of attraction is because it has…
When people say, “What is Khan Academy?” It’s 95 percent content and 5 percent platform. But I think that’s what gives us the ability to eventually turn it into 95 percent platform, maybe, 50-50, 50 percent platform. So, I don’t know what these other efforts are, but I’ve even advised a few startups in the valley about education and that.
Without trying to be too blunt about it, I think a lot of their problem is that they’re a couple of MBAs. They have this big picture idea which is not an incorrect idea, but I think they downplay the value of good instruction, or they downplay the value of really good content which I think is super important in education.
Andrew: All right. Let’s go back to how you started this. I feel like everyone probably knows it already, but they can’t possibly. Can you tell people? The reason I feel that is because lately in our space, in the entrepreneurial space people keep talking about you. I saw you on Hacker News. I saw your story on Jason Freed’s site. Of course, a lot of us are NPR nerds. We heard your story there. For anyone who didn’t hear how it started, can you tell them?
Interviewee: Yeah. Well, it depends how early you want to go. If you go back to college, I always did have this vision of kind of creating a Holy Grail. At the time, I thought it would be a software-based education platform. but, obviously, my career got derailed in a hedge fund.
We’re in 2004 now. My cousin and uncle and aunt were visiting me from New Orleans. My cousin, Nadia, was having trouble – It came up in conversation that she was not placed into pre-algebra for seventh grade. And then, I said, “Hey, that’s a big deal. You don’t realize it. It seems like a harmless thing in middle school. But then, she’s not going to take algebra in eighth grade. She’s not going to take calculus when she’s a senior, and that’s when it’ll really limit her career opportunities, all these other byproducts and even her own self-confidence.”
And she is a really bright girl. She was a really bright girl then. It was pretty obvious. So, I made a deal with her. I was like, “Hey, if you are willing to work with me half an hour a day after your school and my work, I’ll tutor you mobily. I’ll be in Boston. You’ll be in New Orleans.” And she agreed, and we started doing it. We just used Yahoo Doodle and a conference call, and it ended up working out really well.
Even within a couple of months, she had not only done pre-algebra, she was working on algebra stuff. And then, I started working with her brothers and then other family members and family friends. A couple of things popped in my mind. One-on-one teaching can really work, even if it’s virtual. It might be kind of obvious, but I wish there’s a way I could make this scale a little bit or at minimum make it a little easier for me to logistically handle everything that I’m doing.
And so, I did two things. I started working on the software. I started doing that before the videos. When I started tutoring even Nadia, I would point her to random websites and I would say, “Hey, there’s some exercises there. Why don’t you play around with them?” And I didn’t know what she did, when she did the exercise. I said, “Well, I’m going to have to take her word for it” and how she felt about it.
So, I kept pointing her to different things, I said, “Why don’t you try my own little Java Script of scripts to generate problems?” And then, I put a little database behind it so I could track when she’s doing it, how long it’s taking her and all of that type of thing. And then, a buddy literally said, “Hey, why don’t you add some videos there?” because I was telling him about these kids. I keep having to do the same lecture over again, and it’s getting hard to schedule. I have five or ten kids that I’m working with, and I have a day job.
He said, “Why don’t you make YouTube videos? It might be useful for them.” So, I tried it out, and the initial feedback I got from my cousins was that they liked me better on YouTube than in person or virtually or live. I think the takeaway was that there was less stress. They could pause and repeat. They could do it on their own time. There’s none of this scheduling situations. So, I got that feedback from them.
Other people started watching the videos, and other people started sending these notes, like “Hey, I got an A on my algebra exam because of this.” At first, it was only one note a week or one a month, but it got me pretty excited, and the idea started to crystallize.
Gee, if I make this library, even if it’s just useful to my family, like my cousins who are using it now and I didn’t have a son at the time, but my future kids and anyone else. That’s like a huge gift to our family, and if other people end up using it, that’s even more neat. So, it kind of became a fun outlet for me.
We had moved out to Palo Alto a year after that. So, I was working East Coast hours. So, I was done with work by about 2 p.m. My wife was in medical residency, so I had a lot of time. This was a fun use of my time, and it was an outlet for me to get these educational ideas off my plate, and I loved mathematics. It was also a way to engage parts of my brain that I hadn’t engaged in a while. So, it was just a lot of fun, and it was actually having an impact.
And then, fast forward four years, September 2009, and take it from there. Now we have, whatever, 16-17 million views, and it’s the most used open course library.
Andrew: September, 2009, being the date you quit your work so that you could do this full-time.
Andrew: You know, what I’m wondering as you’re saying this, if I had a relative that wanted to learn math or wanted to learn anything, I might help them once. And then, after that I might refer them to a website where they can go and learn after that. Why would you spend so much time? You’ve got a job. You’ve got other things going on.
Interviewee: Well, it was fun. Well, look. If you work at a hedge fund, it was a great job. And I have to say, the hedge funds I worked for and I worked for one hedge fund in particular for six years. It wasn’t the typical, like, really high powered, Type A type place. It was a really intellectual, thoughtful type of firm. My boss was a really great guy, really focused on work-life type balance.
But, at the same time it was a really good job. But, there wasn’t a lot that you could say what have I contributed to the world today and even the nature of the hedge fund job itself. You could do really good analysis and the investment goes nowhere and you could get lucky. So, there’s a lot of that. You almost crave for something that you do every day where you feel like I did this for x hours and that x hours was a positive contribution to something. It made the pie a little bit bigger.
It gave me a little purpose, and it gave me an outlet, and it made me feel like I wasn’t… I talked to a lot of my friends who are roughly at my stage in my career, and I was like, it kind of dawned on me that, “Look, your life is pretty valuable.” And what I was doing at the hedge fund, I don’t want to demean it. I think it’s a great job, but I spent six years of my life.
But really what I had to show for it was I had experience. I learned to analyze securities better, and I saw a lot about how businesses work and all that. But, what I really had to show for it was just some numbers in a bank account some place. Like, I really had no actual, tangible contribution to show for it, and this gave me that outlet where I felt like these years weren’t wasted.
And I feel that more and more. Every day I almost feel like my day is wasted if I don’t make a few videos or I don’t write a little bit of software. If I just sit the whole day in meetings or if I’m trying to fund raise or whatever else, I feel like I’m not doing what the Khan Academy is supposed to be doing.
Andrew: Did you think at the time that this might help you prepare for the school you’ll launch some day, or did you think that, maybe, this would lead to a school or software that I can create and sell? What did you think it was going to lead to?
Interviewee: Once the Java Script modules, once I had about, I would say, 20 of them and I was using it with my cousins and family friends and they were using it, it really was teaching them and you combine that with the videos. So, the video library got to about 100. The combination of it really was pretty good at teaching people pre-algebra through algebra.
I started thinking very seriously. You know what? The school of the future needs to have something like this as its operating system. It needs to have something like this as DNA. So, I did and actually I do view this virtual school that we talked about earlier. It is a virtual school. It can stand on itself. People can go to that virtual school and use it to learn things independent of anything else, but it can also be used as the operating system or the DNA for a physical school where you have a one room school house, kids of all ages.
It’s actually a very bizarre way that people can age with different concepts. So, you have students of all ages in a room together. They’re working on, for part of their day, not their full day; for part of their day, they’re using technology to kind of get their core skills going. If they don’t understand something, there are other people in the room that are going to help them. So, you have a lot of peer-to-peer occurring in the room. It can occur cross site.
And then, the rest of the day is spent doing real project-based learning. There’s a lot of talk about project-based learning, but not much of it is substantive. I mean, real project-based learning, kids are actually learning to program, like they’re really working, building things. They’re actually writing things that are being published. They’re actually composing music, instead of just learning to play music.
So, that’s the whole aspect. I definitely wanted this to become eventually and it does seem like it is becoming the DNA of a possible framework in school. I know I did a couple of summer camps, and the teachers wanted reports; can I see where all the students are. And we pretty quickly settled on a kind of paradigm where the teacher would walk into the room. All the kids were working at their own pace, and the teacher just gets a spreadsheet that says everyone is fine, but those two kids are having trouble with adding and subtracting negative numbers.
And so, instead of the teacher giving a lecture and all of that type of stuff, the teacher takes those two kids aside, does a very intimate session with them and let everyone else work at their own pace. Then, who are the next two people that need help? Then, even before the teacher gets involved, you can have peer-to-peer help and all that type of thing.
So, as you get more and more technology, you get more and more data on it. It can make everyone’s life a lot more streamlined and be able to do much more intelligent things on where you point people’s energies.
Andrew: I can so see the passion as you talk about this. I can’t imagine you were this passionate about hedge funds or venture capital or any of the previous work.
Interviewee: Yeah. No, I was.
Andrew: You were?
Interviewee: Now that I’m not working in those industries, I can say it. [laughs] I think outside of the Khan Academy my job in the hedge fund was probably the best possible job. What was fun about it, as you mentioned earlier, I teach out of my core competency, so a lot of what I do is I really learn new things, and I try to learn it at a really deep level.
And that’s really what I had to do at my hedge fund job where every day we talked to an oil company. Then, the next day we talked to an Internet marketing company. Then, the next day we talked to a chicken egg company. So, it was this kind of process where you’re always learning new things, and you have to become a quick expert.
Andrew: I see. All right. So, you get these videos online. I understand how today when you have – how many videos do you have?
Interviewee: A little over 1500.
Andrew: A little over 1500. I understand when you get to even 500 to 1000 videos, it starts to feel like something. When NPR comes and interviews you, when the BBC has you on, it starts to feel like something. What about when it was just 100 or 200? Did you ever feel at those moments, “I’m just a YouTube producer, me and the guy who’s creating the cat videos” and he’s got more viewers than I do.
Interviewee: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think in the past year a lot of friends and family are saying, “Yeah, what Sal’s doing is great.” You can go back three or four years ago, and I was kind of just going into sometimes the guest room and then eventually a converted closet and making these YouTube videos. “What’s Sal doing? Why’s he spending all his time doing this?” I had a lot of friends who thought it was kind of weird.
Andrew: Tell me how that felt. It’s easy to look back and say, “You know, that’s what happened and we got through it.” Tell me about how that felt so that when I have that situation in my life or one of our listeners has it in their lives where they’re just like 100 videos into a million video project, the way you were back then and no one believes in them. And they doubt themselves, and they can identify with you. So, what was it like for you?
Interviewee: I think what allowed me to kind of keep up the high level of energy and stay motivated and want to do it is that I didn’t care if it ever got to where it did get. I was pretty happy with the, I guess you would call them, small successes. I was excited that 20 people a day were watching, 20 people who I didn’t know were learning math from me. And the idea that, even if I were to get hit by a bus, 20 people a day even if it didn’t grow at all, would still learn math from me. That, to me, was a pretty profound concept.
And so, for me just a couple of notes a day and that idea were enough for me to say, “Hey, this is a project worth my time.” At minimum, knowing no non-relatives watched it, but if my son when he’s 18 years old is able to learn a little bit of algebra or calculus from me, that by itself makes it worth it. That by itself makes it a neat project.
And so, I think in those early days I was just excited by that small impact. That was enough. Now, in the back of my mind it was growing. I said, “Well, if it keeps growing at this rate – Right now, there’s 20. Next month there might be 30, and boy, in a year, we’d have a couple thousand. In two years, you know, exponential growth. It happens pretty fast. So, that would just be gravy on top of everything else that happened.”
Andrew: Did you have a moment where you doubted it, where you were down on it, where you said, “What am I doing here in the closet or on my computer, wherever it was?”
Interviewee: You know, I never did. I never doubted it. I’ll tell you one thing. I’m a bit of a stubborn character, and I did early on have people say, “Who do you think you are?” Like, I have friends who are school teachers, who are academics – not all of them. Some of them were very supportive. They thought it was cool. In general, I got kind of a negative pushback from people who had never experienced the videos.
I think there’s two camps, people who actually experienced the videos and said, “Wow, this is kind of a cool way to learn. And it was strangely engaging and strangely addictive, and it kind of got me excited about things. And it was kind of entertaining.” And those people were almost universally supportive. But, a very small subset of my people who are close to me actually did that. They actually took the time to experience them.
A lot more people I know were like, “You know, there’s billions of dollars being spent on education. There’s thousands of people with PhDs, spending their whole life on fixing the education system. Isn’t it arrogant of you to think that you and your YouTube videos are going to have any type of impact?” That’s essentially the summary of what a lot of people would tell me.
I would defend it a little bit at first. Well in the back of my mind, I would say, “Well, a lot of those efforts, they’re just spent on bureaucracies and people talking about things”, but I wouldn’t say that. My response all along was, “You’re right. I just want to do my own little small thing. And if it has any effect, it has any effect.” But, in the back of my mind, it made me really angry. It motivated me even more to make more and better videos.
To some degree, that’s what – like the history of videos you’re talking about. I mean, every time I make a small set of videos which are algebra and pre-algebra. It always gets, “Oh yeah, that’s nice and cute what you have there, but this won’t work for calculus or this won’t work for differential equations or physics.”
You may be right. But then, I’m going to go home and show that person. I’m going to make something of calculus, and then immediately you get the pushback. This might work for that, but it won’t work for humanities. You won’t be able to do that. You’re going to have to get other people.
It’s amazing how many people still tell me, “So, you’re going to have to get more people.” I mean, I’m open to it. I’m not like a guest. In fact, when I started I thought that’s how this would happen, that there would be 20 of us doing it. It was actually hard to get – a lot of people would say, “Yeah. That’s awesome”, like at parties. People were like, “I want to make videos, and that would be so cool.” But, actually when it comes to sitting down with a tablet and recording YouTube videos, no one really did it.
And so, even now there’s a lot of assumption of like, “Oh well, you’re not going to be able to do all of K through 12.” Part time for four years, I was working at the hedge fund for most of the time. It’s pretty much 90 percent of K through 12 math has been done, and you can extrapolate that whole time. It’s not going to take long to do it.
I’m not going to say that I’m the only person. I actually want other people to do this, but they’re not doing it. So, if they’re not doing it, and I want to do it anyway, so I’m going to do it. It is a bit of a motivating force when people kind of question your validity or your ability to execute on something. I think it ignites a fire in your belly a little bit.
Andrew: Yeah, I’ve seen that. I felt that in myself, too. How do you do it? How do you do it so well? Actually, why don’t you start out by describing it? Maybe, I should have done that earlier in the interview. Why don’t we start out by you describing it first?
Interviewee: The videos, you don’t see me. They’re a black background, almost universally. Some of them don’t have black backgrounds, but they have black backgrounds and I’m just writing in colors that I think look nice while I talk, while I marry the video.
The forum factor, there’s two things. This is essentially a non-experience even when I was doing it, it was an initial line of virtual obsessions with her. She didn’t see me. We just had a conference call going, and she saw what I was writing, and so it worked with her. I sensed that that will probably work.
I didn’t have good recording equipment. I didn’t have a video camera. And even if I did or even thought at one point about buying one, it’s really difficult. Even if you get a nice video camera, you have to get your lighting right. Then, you have to get your own microphone. There’s all sorts of crazy things you have to do to make it look professional, but if you just do screen capture with a USB headset and I started with Microsoft Paint. And now, I’m using a little fancier stuff. I’m still using Smooth Draw 3. It’s a piece of freeware. It comes off a lot better.
And the feedback I get from people, it’s kind of obvious. Now in hindsight, it’s actually a much more intimate forum factor. It doesn’t feel like I’m on the other side of a room, lecturing to you. It only feels like we’re either beside each other and we’re looking at the same blackboard and the same piece of paper, or it even feels like what my narration is your thoughts on some level.
So, the forum factor both is compelling to a lot of students, and it’s real easy for me. I really just have to press record, start the screen capture going. I don’t have to comb my hair. I don’t have to shave. I don’t have to do anything, and I just start talking and start teaching. And, you know, the question of how I do it – things like, a lot of the algebra content. I do a lot of that real time, very conversational.
A lot of the example problems I do. In the early videos I actually made them up on the fly which I realize that kind of wastes a little bit of time. But I always do them on the fly, and I think that gives students a lens into concepts that they don’t normally see.
In the textbook or the traditional lecture, you always have a finished product. The teacher has seen the example. They’ve done the example. Maybe, they’ve done it six times that day for the last 20 years, and you never see the art of the problem. You never see it solved in real time, and I get a lot of feedback. Students like to see me go down a little path and say, “Oh, wait. That’s not right. I did it because it looked like that. Let me back up and go down this other path.”
So, they really appreciate that informal, conversational kind of thinking out loud style. For the more kind of preparation intensive topics, I did cellular respiration or the French Revolution. These aren’t things – I was exposed to them in my education, but they weren’t something that I would like, if you bumped into me two years ago and said, “Sal, tell me everything, tell me how many APTs are generated by the stage of cellular respiration.” I would have been like, “Well, it was a long time ago.” So, those type of things I do spend a lot of time immersing myself in the subject matter.
Andrew: Tell me about that. Tell me about the process. How do you absorb that knowledge, and then we’ll get into how do you share a tough topic with someone else. How do you teach it? How do you get the knowledge in your head so quickly?
Interviewee: Well, I just try to read as many things as I can. To some degree, I don’t know. Obviously, Khan Academy is dependent on the web. It needed YouTube and all of that, but it also needed the web for my own preparation because in the old days you only had one source. You had your textbook or whatever, and that’s very limiting.
Now, you literally have textbooks. You have things like Wikipedia. You have random professors. You have random people on the web, explaining concepts. You know, 90 percent of them are explaining it the same way, but that 10 percent, they’ll say something and it just clicks in your brain. Oh, why didn’t everyone just say that?
And then, you have all these others. I’m actually a big fan of – well, this is actually a commentary of the publishing industry. I think textbooks are written, not to teach. Textbooks are written to impress school boards and to be these impressive weighty tomes, as opposed to something that a student could digest.
I actually think a lot of the whatever, a teacher sells books that arein the library for $10 or the “Barrons Calculus” or the easy way, “Biology the Easy Way.” These are actually really good text. They shouldn’t be downplayed. You start with something like that, and then when you have questions, OK, that kind of gave me the overview. But I still don’t understand exactly what happens at this stage or that stage.
Then, you can use texts as reference, dig deeper, use Wikipedia as a reference. And when I really get to some really core question, I was doing immunology which I’m not an expert in. In one part of my wife’s immunology textbook, she’s a doctor, so she has her immunology textbook from medical school. And I was leafing through it. In one part of it, it was saying, “B cells, they need to be exposed but they need to be exposed to the antigen to be activated.” And in another part it says, “Oh, helper T cells activate B cells.”
I was just like, “Do both have to happen or just one of them? And I couldn’t find it anywhere. I couldn’t find my answer, so I just literally called up a friend who’s the professor of virology at Duke, and I asked him. Look, I know this is a really stupid question, and you’re going to judge me because why does Sal – I should be doing immunology because if I don’t know the answer to this question, and I asked him. He said, “Actually, that’s a very interesting question. There’s certain types of B cells. It’s an area of research and why that is and this and that. It’s completely not in the textbook.”
And so, very quickly as long as you’re really kind of asking yourself the right questions and you really are focused on getting down to a distilled intuition of a subject, it doesn’t take long before you can really get to kind of fundamental questions that even experts in the field say, “Hey, that’s interesting.”
This is another. I talk to a lot of friends who have PhDs, are professors, or doing pieces or whatever, and sometimes – I’ll meet them at a party and I’ll be do a video on this probably next week, and I have this one question about this, like a fundamental concept, something that a first year grad student should know.
And they’re like, “You know what? That’s something I always wondered, but I really didn’t have time to address it in my education. And I had qualifiers to pass, and I was probably embarrassed to bring it up inside of my department. And so, I really don’t know the answer to that.”
One, I mean, it makes me feel a lot better. But, then we would come on a mission combined to get that question answered, and I would be kind of their lay person to say, “Hey, this guy’s wondering.” I don’t know.
If you want to know where I think I’m heading now, beyond people who have spent more time in the field is that I have the luxury of spending as much time as I want on core concepts. And I think core concepts are the most important because that’s where you build your intuition level on the subject.
When I started doing chemistry, before I even started, I just played with the periodic table for, like, a week just to make sure I understood the nuance of why was it structured that way, why is the pattern. How did it come about as opposed to it’s just there and how do you interpret it? How did the first people even think of making a periodic table, things like that? I get that luxury, and PhDs and grad students and professors don’t have that luxury of really understanding.
I haven’t done mechanics videos yet, and I have a friend who was explaining to me a little bit. He’s like, “Oh yeah, if you have this electron, it’s moving in this chamber, this theoretical chamber.” I was like, “Why is it moving? What is it changing directions?” And he’s like, “That’s a good question.”
It’s like one of these fundamental examples that every first year quantum mechanic student learns, and the teacher doesn’t go over that. They just say, “Oh, you get the equation. You learn to mimic it” and so on and so forth, but everyone’s afraid to ask these very basic questions. I ask them. Eventually, I get an answer to them. And I think when I teach it, I’ll answer those questions and then people won’t have those gaps in their heads.
Andrew: It seems like the Khan Academy is great for teaching Khan, for teaching you because you now are going through the ideal university. Can you talk about how knowing that you’re going to teach what you’re learning, the facts which you’re learning, how it impacts?
Interviewee: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, it puts the bar so much higher. I’m going to start organic chemistry pretty soon, and when you’re taking organic chemistry and I took organic chemistry in college, your goal is really to get an A. And if you’re especially intellectually inspired, maybe, you’ll get another level of understanding. But there’s all these other pressures that are going on in college, your grades and social pressures in other classes and all of that.
Now, I know I’m going to explain it, and I know from the math videos, there’s a certain brand, there’s a certain standard that people expect, that I’m not just going to throw something at you and say, “Memorize this.” Or I’m not just going to say, “This is beyond you. Don’t try to understand it.”
The standard people expect from me is that I will give them an intuition, and I will distill it down to a concept where people say, “Oh, wait. That’s obvious. That’s all that thing is saying about the universe.” And so, that’s the standard I hold myself to when I learn it, so it doesn’t take long actually to learn something of a level where you can get an A on most exams in most schools.
But, it’s a whole other level where you’re getting to the really deep why is this intuitive, or why does that expression look the way it does? Or how is it related to another expression? And so, it’s usually motivating while I’m learning. It keeps me going a little bit deeper than I think most anyone would, if they were just doing it for getting a credential.
Andrew: Don’t medical schools teach by showing, doing teaching method where the student gets to learn it, gets to do it and then has to teach it to someone else because when you teach it, you really absorb it?
Interviewee: Yeah. No, I’m a huge believer of that. When I talk about the virtual school, that’s why I think the peer-to-peer is huge. I think mastery comes, not just from being to do a lot of problems, it really comes from that exercise of teaching it. I found it with my own experience, but if you have kids all over the world teaching each other, that’s why you have that one room school house all of a sudden. I think you’re just going to have a whole other level of mastery that doesn’t exist right now.
Andrew: All right. So, how do you teach? How do you teach tough topics? Teach us how to teach because we’re all going to have to teach our employees, or we’re going to have to teach people who we work with. We’re going to have to teach others online.
Interviewee: Right. Well, I think that there’s a couple of things here. You brought up an interesting point because now when you talk about teaching employees and teaching others. I’m actually advising some tech companies where they want to build Khan type applications of their platform and this and that.
At first, I was writing traditional specs, like you would expect a product manager or whoever would write at a company. This is silly. I do YouTube videos. Why don’t I just do YouTube specs? So, I went and literally made a screen shot and played with what the interaction should look like. It’s ten times better. So, I think to a large degree, just the forum factor makes it way better than if I were to write a white paper, white a spec or even if I were to stand at a white board and use my hands and face.
So, one, the forum factor, the screen capture, hand drawn writing is pretty powerful. Some people told me that cognitively just seeing typing or seeing a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t really stimulate the brain. But seeing someone write something out, handwritten, it actually does. I kind of feel like that. It’s actually easier for me to produce.
Beyond that, what I do is just get as comfortable as you possibly can with the subject, but once you get that comfort, don’t script the video. Make it as relaxing as possible. Have fun while you’re doing it. There’s actually a gentleman who’s going to start translating some of the videos to Urdu.
In my one feedback, he did some great videos, but I was like, “Have more fun.” Our energy carries over in our voice, especially when you don’t see the face. You really have to have a lot of energy in your voice, and if you’re not having fun, the student won’t have fun. And so, have fun. Be relaxed but really know what you’re talking about. Like, don’t throw out buzz words without really knowing what is going on behind it.
So, if you’re at a company, I actually think the way that Khan Academy teaches, it’s actually the ideal. Instead of white papers, instead of a lot of what goes on inside of companies to teach people how to do things, just teach your peers and teach it as it really is. Don’t try to look smart yourself by throwing our buzz words that you don’t necessarily understand or that you heard someone else say. And you think it’s smart to say. Just say it in as down to earth of a style as you can. Be frank if there’s something that you don’t understand, and I think that people will respond well to it.
Andrew: What about the way that you give background before you get into the subject? How do you do it?
Interviewee: Well, I think through this process of making 1500 videos, I’ve gotten very good at being train of thought. I think a lot of people when they teach, they actually close down. They actually shut off a lot of their thoughts that would be, maybe, embarrassing, like, when I do a problem, there is a bit of a neuron that reminds yourself that a negative times a negative is a positive. Maybe, even remind yourself why that is. Remind yourself all of these things while you’re doing the problem. I lay all that stuff out there.
So, even if you’re watching the vector calculus videos, I don’t assume anything. I really doing stream of conscious. Every thought that’s going into my brain, you’re actually getting on paper. So, there’s no skipped steps, if you will. I think there’s that.
Before I do the video, I do try to really make sure I understand the big picture really well. And probably, what we’re talking about when I give the background, that’s me articulating the big picture. So, I have a framework in my head of what we’ve even doing. I think a lot of times in all subjects, once you start getting into it, you almost forget what you’re doing in the first place.
While I’m doing it, I like to, like what have you been doing? We’re on step 50 of this equation. What was the whole point to begin with? So, it’s good to remind yourself at the beginning. It’s not some artificial teaching technique. It’s literally, I’m reminding myself. I’m reminding myself this is why we’re doing this problem right now. I think it’s valuable for the student. I think whatever keeps my energy level up while I do the video will also keep up the engagement and the energy level of the person observing the video.
Andrew: I see. People have to get that French Revolution. I can recommend it before I even finish watching it. It was so good. You even gave us a little bit of background, and you said, “Well, the French supported America in the American Revolution.” Wow, I wouldn’t have thought to have included some like that, but it really does help me understand what’s about to happen here. It’s a great reminder.
How do you make it feel interactive when it’s just you and it’s not even your face in the video? How do you make it feel like you’re engaging the person?
Interviewee: I think there’s a couple things. Once again, when we talked about the forum factor, how it looks, but it’s also the videos are on average about ten minutes. These history videos go a little bit longer than that. But, I think because it’s ten minutes, the person goes into the video watching that video. So, it’s not like they’re getting a 90 minute lecture which may engage them for part of it.
It’s almost like the act of clicking on a video is almost like asking a question. Like, tell me more about the French Revolution or tell me more about the Napoleonic campaigns in Russia. And so, it’s literally just addressing that exact video that you have right there, and the other thing is I think it’s the forum factor. It’s a little bit of a my tone. I’m a little conversational. Literally, the tone I use in the video is not at all different than the tone I’m using right now. It’s not at all like a lecture. The next step of this – it’s not that at all.
Andrew: How many of them do you do a day?
Interviewee: Depends what I’m doing. When I was doing French Revolution or some of the more complex biological, biochemistry type mechanisms, then I’m lucky to be able to do two or three in a day. And there’s other things that are taking up my time now which I’m trying to shut off. Running an organization, I’m trying to automate as much of that as possible.
Right now, I’m doing a lot of worked examples for the Monterey Institute in Algebra I, worked examples where they just gave me a bunch of examples. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do them for you as long as I can put them on the Khan Academy.” These are literally just algebra problems. I’m doing, right now, about ten videos a day for the algebra problems.
Andrew: Who is this for? The Monterey…
Interviewee: The Monterey Institute of Technology and Education. They got a grant to build this course and this and that. This is another interesting thing. Going back to what we talked about in the beginning, a lot of people in the world are talking about making open video content available, and we should get good teachers to put stuff up and we do all this analytics.
When it comes to execution, they had gotten this and I told them, “I don’t know what you’re doing or how much money you’re spending on it. But whatever you’re spending on it, I’m sure I’ll be able to do it for a tenth of the cost as long as you’re willing to donate it to Khan Academy, and I think you’re going to find it more engaging because it’s not going to be scripted.
They were like, “Oh great. That’s no problem. We can send you the scripts.” I said, “Don’t send me the scripts. It will ruin everything that’s good about the Khan Academy. And so they sent it, and over ten videos a day you very quickly turn out about 100 videos in not too long and they’d be done. I think when they started, they thought it was this huge grand project and the little lectures will be done in a couple of weeks.
Andrew: One other question here, and I wasn’t sure if I should ask it or not. But I’ve got to ask it because I think it’s important. You and your wife moved to one of the most expensive parts of the country. Here, you are living in Northern California. You’re living around people who are making tons of cash. I’ve got to believe you’ve got some expectations of lifestyle and your wife does, too.
And suddenly, you come home in September, and you say, “Honey, I quit.” How do you deal with that? What’s the story there?
Interviewee: Well, I think the Sal before marriage and before son would have been much more obsessed with keeping it up with the peers in terms of lifestyle and all of that. When I really seriously introspect on where I find joy in my life, it really does not come from – I have saved enough from my hedge fund days but not a lot from my value standards. But enough for me to not feel like living off of savings for a year was going to kill us or prevent my kid from going to college or anything like that.
So, I’d saved enough there, and we live in a 2200 square foot house in a nice part of Mountain View which is not the fanciest neighborhood, but it’s a really nice neighborhood and the weather’s good.
Andrew: Did you have to convince her? Did you have to explain to her, “Listen, I got to do this” or did she understand?
Interviewee: The first few iterations when I thought about it, she was very like, “Wait, you’re going to give up that job where every year you’re making 50 percent more than the year you made before.” The thing about these careers, like hedge funds or banking or anything is, “Hey, stick around. Next year you’ll be making more than you made the last five years combined.”
My wife is not materialistic at all, but for anyone it’s like, “Gee, that would really like not only allow us to buy a nice house and then we can even support our parents.” There’s all sorts of things. You can always think of more things to do with resources, but when you really sit down and think. I used to play a game with a lot of friends, like how much is enough, right? Like, how much – like, what do you need so that you don’t really need everything and anything above that is just gravy and some type of competitive whatever, who knows?
People out here, they throw out five million, ten million, 15 million. That’s way above enough. For me, it was below seven figures. I’m not taking a salary with Khan Academy. I quit my job, convinced that gee, I’m a complete dummy if I don’t convince someone that this is the highest return on social investment.
I mean, for the cost of a pre-school, we can be educating millions of people for all of time. It’s not even like a school where if the funding dries up the school disappears. No, the content will be there. It will be there on iTunes and YouTube forever. I said, gee, I’ve got to be able to convince somebody.
And being in the valley has been a big benefit there because I think people here, more than anywhere; one, there is capital. People have resources, and they see that. They’re not as swayed by the touchy feely nice picture and please give some money and help. They understand things that scale. They understand when there’s something that has broad impact. They understand a return on investment.
And so, yeah. I kind of veered off track a little bit, but I think the simple answer is I had enough, enough was below seven figures but enough that I could put a down payment on a four-bedroom house in Mountain View. We have two relatively new Hondas, and I’m now able to take a salary from Khan Academy.
You know, I tell people, “If you wrote me a check for five billion dollars five years ago, I would have probably bought a house, maybe, a little nicer than this house. But my day would have been spent making YouTube videos. It wouldn’t have changed, and now I get to do it anyway. So, why chase the five billion dollars which already probably would have been happening anyway, and I probably will just end up 40 or 50 years old just probably with some amount of money in my bank and just say, “What have I done?”
Now, in Khan Academy I come in every day and I’m excited about what I’ve done. These videos, kids are already watching it. This is turning into beginning a momentum. It could turn into a new type of school. It boggles the mind. I tell my wife every day and every night I’m boggled by how fortunate I am that this wide open opportunity to do something really big is just there. And no one’s been doing it.
I want more people to do it. I don’t want it to be like, only Sal. But it’s this wide open opportunity to really change things, and all the technology is kind of falling into place. And I think the way to do it is on a not-for-profit because that’s what allowed all of the inertia and the good will and actually kept me straight in terms of my goals.
I think that if I did it on a for-profit basis, very quickly I’d be like, oh, in order to monetize it. I have to go to this part of the market, and I start charging for some part that I should and that people wouldn’t even learn. You experienced a Khan Academy video. Now, that’s a really good video. If I put even a 50 cent barrier on the video, you would never have experienced it. For me, that wouldn’t have been fun.
Let’s look at this way. If I had ten million dollars in the bank and 5,000 people watching these videos versus I have a hundred grand in the bank and 50 million people are watching the videos, that is a much more satisfying outcome for me than the former. So, that’s why I’m doing it like this.
Andrew: This is an incredibly inspiring story. I’ll leave it there. I am grateful to you for coming here and doing this interview. I know you probably could have whipped up five different videos today for Khan Academy.
Interviewee: Oh, no. I have to catch up now.
Interviewee: I have to catch up now.
Andrew: You have to catch up now. A few people, as we were talking, came up with suggestions as to what you should do to tweak your YouTube video panel to get more viewers. I couldn’t understand it well enough to explain to you what they were suggesting. Are you open to those suggestions if they email you directly?
Interviewee: Yeah. Well, there’s a couple of ways. They should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And the software piece is an open source effort, and the few developers who start working on it, they’re rock stars. I’m very open. They’re, “Hey, your knowledge map that you drew out, it should have arrows instead of arcs.” Forget them, I put arrows in there.
I’m a big believer in stuff out there and keep repeating as quickly as possible. As long as the people iterating it aren’t doing really silly things, it should move forward.
Andrew: All right. Well, thanks guys. If you have any feedback, any suggestions, want to be part of this in any way, email@example.com, right? But you also have the dotcom.
Interviewee: No, I don’t. Somebody claimed the dotcom. I don’t own the dotcom.
Andrew: Who is the evil son of a bitch who has the dot com, who does not…
Interviewee: Well, I don’t know. I was almost able to get it, and someone got it. I don’t know. There are people more sophisticated at squatting domain names than I am.
Andrew: I guess so. Somebody get that domain name back for him. If anyone out there is listening, get that domain back. All right. Thank you. And also, thanks for doing this interview. I’m really looking forward to this weekend watching your videos.
Interviewee: Oh, great. Thanks a lot.
Andrew: Cool. Bye.
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