Ethan Putterman was born in Los Angeles, California. After high school, he attended the University of Colorado, Boulder and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. Following graduation, he went on to the London School of Economics and earned a master’s degree in political theory and continued to the University of Chicago, where he received his master’s degree and doctorate, specializing in political philosophy and the history of political thought.
After nearly three decades as a professor in the United States and abroad, Mr. Putterman’s experiences have provided him an in-depth look at the post-secondary admissions process at all levels. Currently working as an independent education consultant in Miami, he has had the opportunity to re-evaluate various inefficiencies that exist when it comes to enrolling in higher education.
Ethan Putterman is also an expert on the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and is the author of ‘Rousseau, Law and the Sovereignty of the People’ (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His research has appeared in various leading publications including the preeminent journal of political science in the US, the American Political Science Review.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
The idea for my company came from my decades of experience as an educator where I worked one-on-one with students. During those interactions, I was made aware of the aspects of their lives that were unmet within the university. Often, their experiences in the classroom were not the experiences they had in high school. They may have been an A student in high school, but then they get to university and their grades drop dramatically. The saddest thing is when you have someone who is highly qualified and talented, but they’re underserved by the process, so they end up getting into a school that isn’t right for them or that’s below their capabilities. I started my company to help students get into the best universities and succeed. Unfortunately, it’s not enough today to be merely earnest and hardworking.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I usually begin the morning with answering emails and fielding telephone calls from parents who want help getting their child into a good university. I’ll look over transcripts and college applications, then schedule meetings with the student and tell them what they need to do. In the afternoon, most of my time is spent speaking to my small team of SAT and ACT tutors who are graduate students from Ivy League or top ten universities. Once I’ve worked with the students and gone through their diagnostic tests, I have to match them with a tutor and find one who will be a good fit for them. I usually suggest that they have ten two-hour sessions before the exam, so it’s important that they work well together. It is critical that students connect with their tutors and it can have a measurable effect on their final scores.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The most important thing is to be passionate about what you are doing, period. Nothing is more important. To bring ideas to life, it can’t just be a statistic or an outcome of rote book learning. I’ve always gravitated to things that I’m interested in and invested professionally and personally. When you have an emotional connection to an idea, it’s much easier to bring to life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
This is something that I resisted for a long time, but now I’ve realized that it’s very beneficial and that is the proliferation of university education worldwide through technology. Technology is democratizing education and making it more egalitarian and more accessible. The pandemic greatly speeded up this transformation and I believe the revolution is irreversible today. Education and technology are wedded together inexorably as we move further into the twenty-first century.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I tend to be very tenacious and persistent. That is the most important key to success for me, more than brains or brilliance or inspiration. Bob Dylan has this wonderful line that says you don’t find yourself, you create yourself. That requires hard work and the ability to get past the obstacles and failure that you’ll face. Life is about continually rebuilding, so persistence, tenacity, and perseverance are the most important traits to have for success.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t take things so personally. A lot of the things that happen in life, including struggles and hardships, are inevitable and something that everybody goes through. You have to be able to weather change or you won’t do well in life.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Monetary success is very limited. The idea that whoever dies with the most toys wins is saying that life is just about aggregating wealth and personal possessions. That ideology leads to a very empty life because people will give too much weight to the importance of money and allow it to define their relationships and personalities. Aristotle believed that it was possible to have too much money. I’ve had a lot of discussions with people who believe that money is the be all and end all, especially in business, but that leads to a very one-dimensional life. The idea of being rich or wealthy is an umbrella term for a lot of different things in your life that have to be fulfilled.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Callbacks. Answer emails, thank people, remember people’s names and even the names of their family members. These are things that I drive into all my employees. Always remember that you are dealing with human beings, so recalling details is something that is going to be very impactful. The people you work with will remember it and, more significantly, remember you.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One of the strategies that has helped me is listening to those who have succeeded in the field. I’ve met with a lot of consultants and entrepreneurs who have been very generous with their time and sharing their stories. This has been very helpful because these are people who have been where I am, so they’re able to point and guide me. I’ve taken that and been generous and open with my time and stories as well.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In the beginning, it was very difficult to get things off the ground. It was rough for me to appreciate how important technology is when it comes to social media, the SEO of the website, ensuring that everything is interconnected, and all that. There is a kind of technical expertise that is not ubiquitous to my generation, so that’s something that I’ve had to learn.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’ve always agreed with Elon Musk that the best way to approach being an entrepreneur is not to look at what you think is going to be successful, but to look at what needs are being unmet in a certain field and ask how it is that you can go about meeting or satisfying those needs. Right now, one of the best fields to look into is alternative energy. There are all kinds of problems that people are trying to solve there, so I would advise someone to ask how they can contribute there.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The best $100 I spent was on the first date with the woman who is now my wife. She’s been incredibly supportive through all the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of my career.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Lately, I’ve been using Teachable and Thinkific. That software has been very important for my tutors and with the teaching that we do.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I would recommend The Kimchi Matters by Marvin Zonis. He was a professor at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago who, for many years, I worked as his teaching assistant back in the 1990’s. His book goes into great detail about how business is an emotional relationship that you are developing. It’s all about what people remember and how you treat them. The business aspect of the relationship is secondary in a sense because there may be a lot of people who can offer the same goods and services, but what is it about you specifically that makes me want to do business with you? I would also recommend Walden by Henry David Thoreau. That book is the story of how he lived for a year being completely self-sufficient in the woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts. It’s about self-reliance, which is something that more people should find important.
What is your favorite quote?
There’s a great quote by Jean Jacques Rousseau that says, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” Essentially, what he means is that people are born good and free and autonomous. Through living in society, they come to live in the eyes of others, live according to others’ expectations, and they tend to conform to that which can make them very unhappy. The chains that he speaks of may be invisible, but most of them are things that restrict your positive liberty and how you see the world. You may be inhibited by fear or tradition or family expectations. These are all chains, with invisible links, but it is incumbent upon you to always push and aspire to rise up past that.
- If you want to succeed, you need to surround yourself with people who have a common vision and who you can learn from.
- Technology is making university education far less expensive and much more democratic and accessible to people who may not have had the opportunity to take advantage of it in the past.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.