Salman Khan: “Keep it Simple”

The YouTube tutor and founder explains how he built a successful, free, online learning service.

February 22, 2012

| by Theresa Johnston


When Salman Khan first started tutoring friends and relatives in math over the internet in 2004, he never imagined that the lessons someday would go viral on YouTube. They certainly weren’t much to look at: just a friendly, disembodied voice and an unseen hand writing equations. But as he told a Stanford audience Feb. 16, the unpolished simplicity of those videos turned out to be exactly what students around the world were craving.

Ultimately, they would lead him to quit his job as a hedge fund manager and to create a non-profit organization that draws very talented job applicants in the Silicon Valley, even without the fabled appeal of stock options.

In hindsight, Khan attributes the initial success of his online lessons to the fact that he “started off making them for my cousins,” rather than as a product to sell. “If in 2006 Bill Gates had descended and said, ‘Sal, here’s x million dollars, make some videos that are going to reach hundreds of people,’ I probably would have made something not too different than what you’d get on a DVD from McGraw Hill … with fancy computer graphics,” the affable social entrepreneur told an overflow crowd at CEMEX auditorium in Stanford GSB. Khan’s early videos are more human to human, even though you don’t see his face. The camera’s view of his writing equations feels to learners, “like we’re sitting next to each other at the kitchen table, and the focus is on content mastery,” he said.

Today the online Khan Academy offers more than 2,600 free, 10-minute video tutoring sessions in 10 languages on subjects ranging from K-12 math and science to art history. Students can earn points and badges for achieving mastery in the subjects, just as they would in video games, while their teachers and parents keep track of their progress. The academy also has started working directly with school districts, including Los Altos, East Palo Alto, and San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area, to supplement regular classroom instruction.

“Our total invested capital to date is less than $3 million, and we’re pushing about 5 million unique students per month,” Khan said proudly. “That’s six to seven times the number of students that Harvard has served since 1636.”

The son of a Bangladeshi father and an Indian mother, Khan grew up in New Orleans before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science from MIT, and an MBA from Harvard. He had just gotten married, and was settling in as a hedge fund manager in Boston when his young cousins came to visit. Among them was 12-year-old Nadia, a smart girl who nevertheless was having trouble in math, particularly in converting weights and measures.

“I told her, ‘You go back to New Orleans, and every day after work we’ll get on a conference call and use Yahoo’s Doodle notepad to work together,” Khan recalled. Within two years he was tutoring 15 to 20 friends and relatives around the country. Then a friend in Menlo Park suggested that he upload the tutoring sessions to YouTube, so they could be seen by a wider audience.

“My initial reaction was, ‘YouTube is for cats playing the piano, not for serious mathematics!’” he said, to laughter. “But then I went home that weekend and I got over the fact that it wasn’t my idea — which is hard for an MBA — and in November 2006 the first videos went up.” He was immediately struck by the number and geographical range of viewers, as well as the comments people left on the site. Some said the videos had encouraged them to stay in school. Others said they had made a huge difference for children with medical problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. “One parent wrote and said they were praying for me,” Khan marveled, “and I was an analyst at a hedge fund!”

By 2009, Khan was having trouble focusing on his day job, which was then in Palo Alto. So he quit and set up the Khan Academy as a not-for-profit organization aimed at providing “a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” One early and generous supporter was Ann Doerr, the wife of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr. Another was Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who told Khan he enjoyed watching the videos with his children. Google executives also offered support. “By October 2010 all of these things converged,” Khan said, “and we got office space in Mountain View and hired our core team.” Even without incentives like stock options, “the resumes that we are getting, the energy level at the company are better than any company we’ve ever worked at,” he said. “As long as you pay a good upper middle-class salary, if people have a mission to pursue, they end up being the most productive people on the planet.”

Khan’s speech was part of the GSB’s Experts’ Speaker Series hosted by the Mastery in Communication Initiative (now referred to as MBA and MSx communication programs), a series of non-credit offerings that help Stanford business students speak, write, lead and collaborate more effectively.

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