How Socialpreneurs can find Success

Business is no longer only about the almighty dollar. It’s about change. It’s about making a difference in the lives of many. It’s about finding out what is needed — and providing it. That is the essence of being a socialpreneur.

I am a prime example, as is socialpreneur John Katzman. John was the president and founder of The Princeton Review and is now CEO of Noodle Education, a successful website that connects students and educators, lowers the cost of education, and raises the quality.

Katzman was gracious enough to give me some of his time to chat about his entrepreneurial experience, and he offered great insight to anyone looking to start a company.

Petinga: How important is it for business leaders or entrepreneurs to do their own thing and follow their own lead?

Katzman: I think doing your own thing is foundational for entrepreneurism. Sometimes when everyone says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I think you have to challenge yourself and make sure that you’re not operating out of ego, which happens far too often. There are an awful lot of things that could be improved, and everyone notices them every day. The moment when someone says, “I’m going to go fix that,” there is an opportunity for a successful path. It is pretty compelling.

Petinga: It looks like you did just that with The Princeton Review and your new entity, Noodle.

Katzman: The education space is broken in more than one way. There is a lot of good education, but sometimes things don’t necessarily have to be problematic to get better. When you look at the opportunities to lower the cost of education and raise the quality, it is hard not to want to be involved.

Petinga: I completely agree. You’re a socialpreneur. What trends in entrepreneurship are you seeing and what would you like to see?

Katzman: The percentage of young adults under 25 starting companies is decreasing. Business schools are creating entrepreneur programs, but studying entrepreneurship is not necessarily on the path of doing it. One trend that I really like is it’s less expensive these days to run a start-up. The notion of inexpensively exploring the market using a lean methodology is interesting and certainly opens the door to younger entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs who aren’t backed with a lot of capital.

Petinga: Did you bootstrap The Princeton Review?

Katzman: I did. I borrowed $3,000 and then grew it organically. However, there is something to be said for having capital. The companies I had a hand in that had capital grew substantially quicker than the ones I had to bootstrap.

Petinga: If you could change one thing about how business is done today, what would it be?

Katzman: I would love to see the growth of Certified B Corporations. Companies that have a social impact and demonstrate transparency is the way we reduce our carbon footprint.

Petinga: How does Noodle encourage the “Think Different” culture?

Katzman: We don’t run like the traditional Silicon Alley firm. At least one of my meetings per day is a “workout meeting” in the gym. We bring in speakers on different education topics to give everyone a sense of what’s going on out there, what the current issues are from all perspectives. I believe in a “do-as-I-do-not-as-I-say” culture. If you are perceived as doing things honestly, employees are empowered to do the same, if employees see you hammering someone for making a mistake, they will take fewer risks. Whereas if they see you finding teachable moments when things don’t go quite right, they will be more comfortable coloring outside the lines.

Petinga: What advice would you give to new business leaders trying to start a business with a socialpreneur mindset?

Katzman: Start with a website that sells whatever you have in mind. Talk with prospective customers. Understand what it is people are looking for and what it is you want to build. A lot of people approach this from inside out. They want to build something and then they figure out market share second. Instead, start with market share and figure out how you’re going to do what you want to do.

As you can see, successful start-ups come from more than a solid educational background. By addressing a problem, considering the market and your audience first, and finding a way to then proceed is how John found success. His “think different” approach enabled his success. Having a social impact while doing it? Even better.

This article originally appeared in the Triangle Business Journal, on March 3rd, 2015.

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