Ned Johnson

Mind Over Matter

When Ned Johnson, a student at Williams College, first agreed to help a friend with her tutoring group, his motivations were not entirely altruistic.  In fact, Ned had a crush on this particular girl and readily allowed her to drag him to a local high school each day to teach.  Ned soon came to find, however, that he felt as natural in a teaching role as he did with the young lady—so natural, in fact, that both would become the cornerstones of his adult life.

Now married to that same girl he met all those years ago, Ned is also the proud President of PrepMatters, a tutoring and test preparation tour de force assisting students in the D.C. metro area.  “The organization is so much a part of who I am now, that I’m that guy who goes on vacation and still loves to talk about business,” he laughs.  “It’s so innate to me that it doesn’t feel like work.”

PrepMatters, like most test prep organizations, helps people to surmount the hurdles standing between where they are and the high school, college, or graduate school they hope to attend.  What sets it in a category all its own, however, is its uniquely holistic and in-depth approach to identifying and clearing those hurdles.  “I fundamentally reject the idea that these tests measure some kind of immutable, fixed ability,” Ned stresses.  “It’s more about academic and test-taking skills, not innate intelligence.  Everything on these exams is learnable.”  This philosophy forms the foundational principles of his organization: encouraging students and their tutors to extend the limits of their expectations, and truly considering the mechanisms at work that might be preventing a student from meeting those expectations.  Through this ideology, each student is granted a new degree of agency, and each tutor is challenged to get him or her to that higher bar.

One particularly interesting aspect of Ned’s leadership style is the fact that he didn’t start with a business plan—a reality that stands in stark contrast to his tutoring philosophy, which is chiefly goal-oriented.  “The idea of setting worthwhile goals and helping people find success is huge because it becomes a never-ending, reflective, and living process,” he observes.  “Once one mountain is tackled, we work with students to identify, approach, and tackle the next one. “

When it comes to conquering these mountains, Ned doesn’t shy away from the many Everests he comes across, and this is perhaps the defining element that makes PrepMatters so unique.  “We are more than just test prep tutors; we’re test prep therapists,” Ned points out, placing an emphasis on the psychological considerations in which his approach is so deeply rooted.  “Study skills and test prep are inherently linked to memory, motivation, lifestyle, and psychological mind-set, so we take all these factors into consideration when helping each individual student reach his or her potential.”

Ned has come face-to-face with an array of emotionally trying experiences in his own life, and it is perhaps for this precise reason that he so excels at helping children tease out the subtle nuance of emotional conflict now.  “When I come across an individual who is working with a lot of emotional baggage, I throw myself into the fray,” he concedes.  “I believe in deliberate practice—improving oneself through embracing the challenges that nobody else believes can be taken on.  I guess I’m just arrogant enough to believe I can help when other people can’t,” he jokes.

Ned may speak in jest of his confidence, but the reality of the observation is indisputable.  Therapy is, after all, about understanding, and the ability to personally relate to a student who is dealing with psychological conflicts imparts a kind of understanding that is as unique as it is authentic and meaningful.  Similarly, personally triumphing over one’s hurdles allows one to speak with true and compelling authority in advising young people dealing with their own obstacles.  After turning the divorce of his parents into an affirmation of his own agency, Ned is a living example of this triumph.

“With the divorce, I learned that, when push came to shove, there would be no cavalry to save me,” he recalls.  “Though painful, it was ultimately inspiring to discover that I am personally responsible for all my failures and all my successes.  That is certainly an empowering idea.”

Despite Ned’s demonstrated affinity for his profession today and his brush with tutoring in college, Ned did not immediately intend to pursue such a path.  Rather, upon graduating from Williams with a degree in economics, he initially sought a traditional investment job but didn’t find anything that suited him.  Fortuitously, he then came across a local test prep company.  “I was good at standardized tests and at working with high school students, and it was better than waiting tables, so I accepted it and worked in that capacity for two years,” he remembers.  He did not, however, see eye to eye with his employer—a reality that he now considers extremely fortunate considering it compelled him to strike out on his own.  “If my boss had been a different guy, it’s very likely that I would still be there,” Ned marvels.  “It was a tremendous risk to jump into this with student loans and no financial support, so I feel lucky that I had the motivation to do so.”

This less-than-ideal professional experience was also beneficial in that it left a void that Ned himself was challenged to fulfill.  If one coworker failed to show up for an appointment, Ned would naturally assume responsibility and step up to the plate to ensure that the student was taken care of, and this strong exhibition of integrity garnered respect and trust in those who observed it.   He came to be known as “the guy you want” by those seeking tutoring and test prep services, and this reputation proved invaluable when he started PrepMatters.

After embarking on his solo professional adventure in January of 1996, Ned found that he had impressed enough clients during his previous employment that business was good from the outset.  Those initial clients, in turn, referred more clients to the point that he could no longer handle the volume alone and began hiring help.  The operation remained modest throughout its fledgling years with three to five employees until the early 2000s, when Ned upped the ante somewhat.  “At that point I could identify what worked and didn’t work, and I was able to adjust the business model such that we built more infrastructure to support our employees and accelerate the learning curve,” he explains.

Today, PrepMatters touches the lives of approximately 2,000 students per year, assisting with everything from isolated essay assignments to full-fledged academic support, coaching and educational counseling.  Not surprisingly, Ned’s management philosophy somewhat mirrors his approach to goal setting for his students in that it involves well-constructed targets that everyone agrees upon and offer flexibility in their means of achievement.  The orientation of the PrepMatters team is non-hierarchical, with each employee selected for his or her “rock star” affinity for teaching and ability to connect with students.  Ned himself tends to put in over 2,000 hours of one-on-one face time annually while balancing the running of the business with the management of personnel.

Despite this demanding yet rewarding work schedule, he still prioritizes his roles of husband and father, ensuring that he recognizes the lessons and best practices he has accumulated from his own life experiences and applies them to his home life, just as they are evidenced in his career.  “My company is based on an enduring faith in the resilience of the human spirit—in the ability of a person to identify and overcome his or her obstacles, both internal and external,” he observes.  “We can take these lessons and build better environments for our own children, and that’s what I aim for every day with mine.”

In advising young people entering the business world today, Ned emphasizes the importance of self-reflection in selecting an optimal career path.  “I think that a person should sit down and really think about what he likes to do and what he’s naturally good at,” he says.  “Many times, people dismiss things they’re naturally good at because they assume they’re easy for everyone, but this is certainly not the case.  Figure out what you already excel in and see if there are ways to explore that.”

He also cautions against fear of failure, which always makes a risk seem more insurmountable than it really is.  “When taking a risk or considering a mistake, envision the worst thing that could happen,” he advises.  “When you see that you’ll survive this worst-case scenario, let go of your fear.  The most important thing is adaptability.  Approach things with a forward-thinking attitude and always have Plans B and C on hand in case Plan A doesn’t work out.”

Operating without fear in this manner, Ned is free to take more leaps of faith, which in turn have the greatest impact.  When this momentum is coupled with the direction imparted through goal-setting, the result is truly compelling, whether it’s instigating change in the life of one student or on a more structural and national level, where Ned claims it is also sorely needed.  “For the one who is ignorant of the port where he’s sailing, no wind is favorable,” he says, quoting the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.  “I’ve got my goals of effecting change, and many of my best decisions in this regard stem from those times when someone says ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and I actually pursue that.”  Indeed, when life is thought of as an 80-year business plan, this system of risk and reward fits naturally into the framework.

At once the science of preparatory skills and the art of therapeutic reflection, it suffices to say that PrepMatters offers living proof of mind over matter, helping thousands of students to master their material through a mastery of self.  “When you change how kids do on a test and likewise how they fundamentally feel about themselves, that is the neatest feeling ever,” Ned reflects.  “As the philosophy goes, we are what we think, and it’s amazing to see how our work enables kids to gain a different sense of themselves and how they will carry themselves throughout the rest of their lives.”

Ned Johnson

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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