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Isaac Morehouse on Praxis, Apprenticeships, and Creating Value

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 12, No. 3.

Isaac Morehouse is, among other things, the founder and CEO of Praxis, an apprenticeship program that trains young adults in the art of value creation and matches them with startups and businesses who need talented, disciplined, creative people to make their ventures thrive. Mr. Morehouse also hosts three podcasts: The Isaac Morehouse Podcast, Forward Tilt, and Office Hours (forthcoming). I recently spoke with Mr. Morehouse about Praxis, the ideas behind the organization, how it got started, and where it’s going. —Craig Biddle

Craig Biddle: Isaac, thanks so much for joining me. I love what you’re doing at Praxis, and I have lots of questions.

Isaac Morehouse: Happy to chat with you, Craig.

Biddle: I first heard you speak on Tucker Carlson’s show several months ago, and I was fascinated by your story and your mold-breaking business. I suspect many of our readers haven’t yet heard of Praxis, so let’s start with a basic description. What is Praxis?

Morehouse: It’s an apprenticeship program. We take young people and put them through a six-month boot camp, which is all done virtually. It includes a project-based community-coaching curriculum to get young people up to speed with the kinds of knowledge and skills they need for success in the marketplace. It covers how to present yourself, how to sell yourself, how to demonstrate, hey, I can create value. In this first phase participants create a personal website, develop writing and speaking skills, build a pitch deck, and complete various other projects.

In the second six months we place them in a start-up where they have a paid apprenticeship and learn on the job. It’s real work—not coffee-fetching intern stuff. At the end of the program, 98 percent of our graduates are hired full-time. And most of them don’t have college degrees.

The program is an alternative to college. After high school, so many young people say, “Well, I don’t know what skills I need, or what will be useful in the marketplace—I guess I’ll go sit in a college classroom and wait for an expert to tell me the things I need to know, then send my résumé around and hope there’s some value in it.” Instead we say, look, you can engage with real entrepreneurs and producers right now, learn in a really short amount of time the core things you need to know, and then get into a real business environment where you can learn by doing and get paid while learning.

So that’s what the program is: six months of boot camp, six months of apprenticeship, and 98 percent likelihood that you’ll be offered a full-time position.

Biddle: How did Praxis get started?

Morehouse: I started it to scratch my own itch. A decade before I launched Praxis, I was in college myself. And I was trying to be as efficient and frugal with the whole thing as possible. I paid my way through, working three days a week and cramming all of my classes into two days a week. And while I was sitting there in those classes, paying all of this money, I never felt like a customer. The professors didn’t care if I was happy or satisfied, and I wasn’t learning anything of value. I realized, here I am two days a week paying all of this money and not really gaining anything—while in the three days of the week I’m working, I’m learning a ton on the job and I’m getting paid for it. So I thought, man, there has to be a better way. That was the beginning of the idea. But it wouldn’t advance much for a while.

My political science degree didn’t end up doing anything for me. Over the next decade I just went along, pursuing whatever was interesting to me. And my interests happened to be in and around higher education. I worked with various nonprofits. I worked with students in a lot of different capacities, college students and high school students. Then I started working with business owners and fund-raising for a nonprofit. And I started to see a pattern.

For years I had been hearing students say, “I have a degree and debt and I can’t find a job”; now I was hearing business owners say, “I’m always trying to hire people, but I can’t find anybody.” This is when I thought, all right, this is a real and growing problem, and now is the time to create something that can bridge this gap. What will do it? That question led me to put the idea for Praxis on paper. And realized I have to try this. So I did. I went all in about four years ago.

Biddle: Well, it’s wonderful to see the business blossoming. I read the Praxis blog on occasion, and your participants are so enthusiastic about learning, apprenticing, and creating value in the organizations you match them with. It’s a beautiful thing.

Say a few words, if you will, about the difference between an apprenticeship, an internship, and an entry-level job.

Morehouse: I think there’s a subtle gap that exists between the way an internship is traditionally practiced and understood, and the way an entry-level job is traditionally practiced and understood. Right in that in-between space is where I think apprenticeship provides a unique approach.

A typical internship is about a semester long, maybe three months, which is a significant time commitment but usually not long enough for an employer to invest much in training an employee. It typically takes a month or two just to get familiar with the software a company uses, their processes, their culture. Of course, some training and investment go into that. But if someone’s going to be gone in three months, and half that time is spent just learning how basic systems work, it’s hard to justify substantial investment because the return is so limited. Internships vary in quality, but often both parties gain little from them.

In an entry-level job, there’s the expectation that from day one you already kind of understand the product, the lingo, and the industry enough to get up and running. Certainly there’s some training on the job as well, but as a lot of college graduates say, “All the jobs I want require two to three years experience. How am I supposed to bridge that?” It’s costly for a company to bring on a full-time employee who needs a lot of training, so employers prefer people who have at least some of the important knowledge and skills that the job requires.

Praxis’s apprenticeship model has distinct advantages. The apprentice steps in with greater knowledge and skills than a typical intern would possess, but perhaps not as much knowledge as a fully trained entry-level hire would have. The apprentice is vetted and trained by Praxis, though, and by the end of the six-month boot camp is able to create more value for the business than a typical entry-level hire. And because the apprenticeship is six months in length, it enables the business to make a significant investment in someone and get returns that justify the investment.

And Praxis provides apprentices with ongoing training as well. You get support both from within the company we match you with and from Praxis. If you’re struggling with something or have questions about how to create more value, we’re here to help. The employer gets a chance to see what you’re really capable of doing, not just in a summer internship but in a six-month commitment to creating value for them. If it doesn’t work for the business, they don’t have an obligation to keep you on, nor do they have to fire you like they would an entry-level position. They either make you an offer or they don’t. And if you succeed in creating value for them, it’s likely that they will.

Both parties know that the goal is to see whether the apprentice is a good fit for the company, and vice versa. That aligns the incentives in a really nice way.

Biddle: Yes, it does. And the advantage over a typical internship is significant: the six-month boot camp, the additional three months on the job, and the support from Praxis all the way through. This seems ideal for both students and businesses. More learning, real value creation, and enough time to see whether a long-term relationship is in everyone’s best interest.

Morehouse: People learn so much better when they have real skin in the game and they’re working in the real world, where they have to solve this customer problem, this design problem, this marketing problem—some real problem in a real-world context. Right there you get to see and to evaluate what really matters.

So I think apprenticeship is an underused form of recruiting and training. It’s an age-old practice, but it’s been neglected over the years because of all of the subsidies and incentives for people going to college. We’re using an old model, in a new context, very successfully.

Biddle: I’m sure this is super appealing to businesses looking for talent. What does a business have to do to tap into these resources? How exactly are apprentices placed?

Morehouse: It’s a really fun process. In terms of businesses, if you have a company that you think might benefit from a Praxis-trained apprentice, you can contact us at any time. We have a combination of incoming businesses that hear about us and want to host somebody, and businesses that we actively contact because we think they look like a good fit.

We get to know the company and its culture, to see whether the environment will be beneficial to our participants, and whether the kind of talent we have to offer will be beneficial to the company. We focus primarily on nontechnical, entry-level talent—roles such as sales, marketing, and operations. We don’t do much with programming, for example. Occasionally we’ll work with someone at that technical level, but it’s not our bread and butter.

The actual working relationship is pretty simple. For companies looking for help with entry-level sales or marketing, we basically onboard them as a business partner. The placement process is really cool. Once participants have completed a series of deliverables in the boot camp—their website, their pitch deck, and other projects that demonstrate value—we start shopping them to business partners in our network where we think they could make a great fit. We say, in effect, we’ve got Joe Smith here, he has these skills, and he’s ready to work. Businesses that see a potential fit say, we’ll interview him. Participants might do five or six interviews a day toward finding an optimal fit. Once a company says, we want this person, and the participant says, yes, I’d love to do this, the apprentice moves to wherever the business is located and begins working—perhaps for six months, perhaps for years.

Biddle: What a great integration of values and interests. It’s win-win-win.

Morehouse: Yes, and even the placement process is hugely educational. Doing a lot of interviews, learning about the different companies, selling yourself—that’s really enlightening and exciting for the participant as well.

Biddle: So you’re focusing primarily on sales, marketing, and operations at this point. Do you anticipate expansion into other areas, such as the arts, writing, education? Or are those not conducive to this model?

Morehouse: There’s room for expansion in every direction—and in every country. The key for us is to stay focused. We want to excel first in our core capabilities, the things we have the greatest comparative advantage in, and then expand one by one.

We’ve had participants who are more on the artistic side—animation, design, literary skills—and we’ve been able to place them where they can bolster those skills with sales and marketing skills, which they absolutely need. If you’re going to be an artist, understanding the business side of the equation, how to market and sell the products, is really important. Although most of our affiliate companies are software startups or the like, we also work with publishing companies, content creation companies, and video production companies. So in a sense we already have a foot in the door of the arts.

One really neat area with potential involves intellectual entrepreneurs. For people who are really in love with ideas, who are into research, thinking, writing, and disseminating ideas, academia used to be the only option. Now intellectuals can develop careers independent of academia; they can support themselves, not through a tenured position or government paycheck, but with a podcast, subscribers, book sales, and the like. That’s a new and really cool niche, which Praxis hasn’t gone into, at least not directly. But there is huge potential there. People are already carving out careers that way.

Biddle: I’d love to see expansion of the apprenticeship model into that area. I think college programs in certain intellectual arenas can do more harm than good. I’ve encountered countless graduates from humanities and liberal arts programs—history, philosophy, literature—who seem incapable of thinking for themselves or checking their premises. And college grads often have zero in the way of marketable skills. That said, I also think a college education can be of enormous value if done correctly. Even setting aside professions that legally require a degree—medicine, engineering, and the like—there’s value in talking at length about ideas with people who have immersed themselves in a specialized area for many years and can help you explore it and challenge your presuppositions in ways you might otherwise not.

Morehouse: Yes, I think that whether or not the universities are involved, the key is separating the classroom experience from the credential. I had this revelation when I was at a FEE [Foundation for Economic Education] seminar. All of the young people who attend these seminars are highly engaged, heads up, eager to learn. And all of the professors who come and lecture at these types of seminars say this is so much more fun for me than my university classes, because in my classes, if I’m lucky, one or two of my students will be really interested. So often in a college setting, students’ heads are down, they’re there physically but not mentally. They’re there only to get a piece of paper. But at FEE seminars and the like, there is no credential attached to attendance. You don’t get your supposedly magic job ticket when it’s done, so it self-selects the people who are genuinely interested in ideas.

Once you separate the learning from the magic ticket, then people are sitting in a class because they’re genuinely interested. And those classroom experiences—in a lecture hall with a handful of interested people and someone who studied something their whole life—those are amazing experiences. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm in universities today. I feel bad for professors. I’ve guest lectured in college classes before, and I can’t see how professors stick with it. My ego is too fragile. I need to know that the audience cares and that they’re paying attention!

The separation of education from credential is a wonderful thing. It increases the quality of the classroom, whether college, private seminars, or whatever.

Biddle: Who do you see as competitors with Praxis at this point?

Morehouse: It depends on how you define competition. Praxis doesn’t have any direct competitors, but a few programs are sort of similar, such as internship or job preparation programs. And, of course, there are thousands of colleges. If you define competition in terms of our customer and what they’re choosing between, they’re basically choosing between a college, a semester abroad, a gap year program, or Praxis.

That said, I don’t like to define Praxis solely by contrast with college, because you can go to college and do Praxis. A lot of people have done our program after college or as a break from college. But I’d say there’s an emerging market for programs that help young people transition from being students to being adults in a career. And in the broadest sense, any company running a training program, or a coding boot camp, or helping young people develop marketable skills—all of these are competitors of sorts.

Colleges, however, are fierce competition with major advantages, one of which is that they are treated as the default “good,” the undisputed expectation. Colleges also face little or no scrutiny—they’re accredited, so they must be good! When people look at Praxis, they scrutinize us heavily. I love that. I want them to. I want customers who are all in, who have examined our program, compared its value to that of other options, and made a rational decision based on the facts. It’s fun to play on an unlevel playing field.

Biddle: What a beautiful attitude.

Turning to a tangential but related issue, I’ve heard you speak about “criticizing by creating.” What do you mean by that, and how does that idea tie in with Praxis?

Morehouse: Yes, I love that phrase. The first time I heard it, I was like, that’s it! That captures what I’m trying to do! I spent a lot of time in the early part of my career in and around politics and nonprofits, where there’s a lot of argument. Now I’m all for a good debate, but trying to convince people on an intellectual level of what’s wrong with the status quo—there are all these problems with this and that, and government subsidies are wreaking havoc, and the education system is not educating, and so on—that’s a really tough and, frankly, not very fun job. It’s like you’re always the pessimist, you’re always the one complaining about everything and trying to get everyone else to complain about everything. And you might get people to agree that there are problems. But the question remains: What do we do instead? And the answer to that is all this theory: Well, we could do better if there weren’t all this protectionism or whatever. And you’re kind of stuck there, because so few people are moved by theory.

So I thought that instead of arguing with people about all of the ways I think higher education could be so much better and more efficient, and the transition to careers could be so much less costly, I need to just show people. Rather than tell them, show them. If I build something that creates value for people, I will profit, and that will send a signal to the marketplace that will have a much greater impact on people’s beliefs about what’s possible or preferable than any amount of my arguing.

People can argue that it’s impossible to succeed unless you take the traditional path—and I can show them fifty young Praxis graduates who have done that allegedly impossible thing. So they don’t have to agree with me, or my argument. I demonstrated it.

At the risk of using an overused example, it’s like Uber taking on the taxi cartels. You can’t argue people into dissolving the taxi cartels. But when you build something better and show people there’s a better way, people flock to it, and the cartels start to dissolve. You’re appealing to people’s visceral self-interest rather than just their raw intellect. You’re not telling them to believe this just because it’s a better argument. A better argument is great, but it doesn’t guarantee that a lot of people will embrace the idea. So build it. If you want a better world, just build it. That has been a really inspiring thing for me after too many years of arguing rather than creating.

Biddle: That brings to mind a story you told in one of your FEE lectures, the story about the Chinese boy and the chocolate bar. Can you relay that?

Morehouse: Absolutely. It’s from a documentary called The Call of the Entrepreneur. A nine-year-old boy living in communist China in the 1950s was working at the train station helping travelers with their baggage. He was carrying bags for a man who had come from Hong Kong, which, under the British, had a substantially free market. The man thanked the boy for his help and handed him a chocolate bar. The boy had no idea what this was. He had never seen or heard of chocolate, much less tasted it. He also had no reason to doubt the propaganda that he had been told his whole life—that communist China was the greatest place on Earth, and everywhere else was horrible. He unwrapped the chocolate bar, took a bite, and was amazed. As it melted in his mouth, he said to himself, wherever this came from, I have to go there. Any place where people produce something this good has to be better than here. I have to find a way to get there. And he did. A few years later, at age twelve or thirteen, he hid on a fishing boat, smuggled himself into Hong Kong, and went on to become a highly successful businessman.

That story stuck with me. He didn’t read a textbook about why capitalism is economically superior. He didn’t understand the value of freedom intellectually. He tasted it. And he knew he had to go there.

Biddle: That’s a remarkable story. Unbeknownst to the chocolatier, he was criticizing by creating.

Morehouse: Exactly. That’s what I’m doing with Praxis. And that’s what we’re encouraging others to do. Create value—and it speaks volumes.

Biddle: So with everything that is going on at Praxis, and I know this is difficult to judge, but where do you see the company in five years?

Morehouse: I want to build Praxis as big as we possibly can. I want to serve as many young people as are able and willing to dive into the program. But it’s a challenging program—it’s very hard. We have a 15 percent acceptance rate—and I’m not saying that to brag. I want to accept as many people as we can. But we’re only going to work with young people who want to create value and are willing to engage fully. If someone comes and says, “Hey, my mom wants me to do this . . . ,” it’s just not going to work out.

I want to be serving tens of thousands of people at a time. There are 20 million college students in the United States, so I’ll settle for 1 percent of them. But I’ve found that focusing too much on a goal or a time line stresses me out and distracts me compared to when I focus on my process. And my process is that every day I strive to make the company more valuable than the day before. I want to keep doing that, with no stopping point where I say it’s good enough. I want to see how far we can take it, how much we can grow. I see Praxis being a household name and a global network, hopefully not far in the future. But I don’t know. That’s the adventure of being an entrepreneur. You don’t know what it’s going to look like. And whatever it’s going to look like in five years, I’ll probably laugh at what I had imagined it’d look like.

Biddle: Well, best success on this already successful journey. I look forward to seeing you—and everyone involved with Praxis—flourishing your way into the future.

In addition to Praxis’s website, where can people connect with you and keep up with your ideas and ventures?

Morehouse: People can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and for even more fun, check out my podcasts, books, and daily blog posts at isaacmorehouse.com.

Biddle: Thanks for chatting with me, Isaac—it’s been enlightening. We’ll have to do it again sometime.

Morehouse: This has been a blast. I’m happy to come back.

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