Jul262011

“Everything we do, that we have accomplished is the work of what we’ve done. It wouldn’t have happened if we had not been out there pounding the pavement every single day and working.”

AaronHarris
Aaron Harris
Tutorspree
CEO and Co-Founder

Interview by Mike Sullivan

____________________________________________________________

Mike:
Hey everyone, I’m Mike Sullivan. Thanks for joining me on MO.com, where we feature small business owners and entrepreneurs and bring you hints, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.

Joining us today is Aaron Harris from Tutorspree. Aaron is the CEO and co-founder, and Tutorspree is an online company that connects tutors with prospective parents looking for tutors for their family.

Aaron, thanks for joining us today. Can you talk a little bit about what circumstances led you down the path to Tutorspree? Why did you start a business surrounding tutors?

Aaron:
I guess I ended up with Tutorspree as a confluence of a lot of different events. I had been working in finance for four years, ever since I had graduated from Harvard. I really enjoyed it for a long time, but then I realized that what I wanted to be doing was actually building products for people that they really enjoyed. When thinking about that, there were a couple of problems that really interested me. One of those problems was using levering limitations of technology to disrupt traditionally inefficient markets. So that was one of those things rattling around inside my head. I’ve also always been very interested in education, what goes on, and how education is evolving.

I was talking to my friend Josh who is one of my co-founders, and he had this idea built around a sort of an eBay of people’s time for distance learning. There was something in there that just fascinated me. He and I started talking more. He was actually living in L.A. at the time We had been friends for years. We started talking to parents, to tutors, and to students and saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about building this thing. What do you think?” What we started realizing was that the problem was with this distance learning thing, the real issue that parents and tutors had was finding clients or finding tutors nearby and knowing that they were good. So the idea started to revolve around that axis, I guess, until we were building Tutorspree.

Mike:
Right now your tutor base is primarily in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area. Do you plan on expanding that at all?

Aaron:
Absolutely. We’re constantly expanding our tutor base. It’s building across the country right now. We have over a thousand. But the way we like to look at is we want to focus on certain areas to make sure we have the right density of tutors so that parents landing on the site will find something great. So those are the areas that we actively market, because we know we have that depth in those two places. So we accept tutors all over the country, and as we hit the right density in those areas, we’ll then start to push them and market them more heavily.

Mike:
What’s the selection process like for the tutors? How do parents know that they’re getting a quality tutor for their child?

Aaron:
This is one of the biggest questions that we faced early on, that we continue to work through and refine. It all starts with where we market for our tutors. So we’re not just putting up ads for tutors in high school newspapers hoping we’ll get some kids to tutor. What we’ve done is basically started with great tutors. So we started going after teachers associations, TFA grads, graduate students, Ph.D. candidates, master’s students, things like that. We started out with that kernel of great tutors. And every person that applies, we look at their profile and say, “Does this look right? Do we still have questions about this person? Do we want to work with this person?”

We then push them through the site if they clear our “common sense” hurtles, and that’s where the community really starts to take over. The tutors can get reviews from old students. We’ll put those into the site map and that will help their ranking, but more important than that is actually getting reviews from students on the site. The way the entire search process is set up, it’s all regulated by the feedback that these people start to receive. So the more feedback they get, the higher ranked they are. It’s really the community of parents ranking the tutors from a parent’s perspective that we think is pretty effective.

Mike:
Aaron, can you talk a little bit about your business model, about how Tutorspree actually earns its revenue?

Aaron:
Sure. We wanted to keep things pretty simple, so we take a 50% cut off the first lesson between a parent and a student that we’ve set up, and then a $5 fee on every lesson after that. The reason we’ve structured it that way is we looked at the traditional tutoring agencies, which take 50% to 80% of every dollar spent over the lifetime of a tutoring relationship and said, “Well, that’s crazy because you guys are essentially a rolodex. We should be able to do something a lot smarter and better there.” What we’re doing is, by squeezing those margins, we actually lower the price of tutoring overall while tutors still get paid more. So you get a higher quality of tutor at a lower price, and that’s a really nice thing.

Mike:
Tell me about the involvement of Y Combinator in Tutorspree. What actually is Y Combinator?

Aaron:
Y Combinator – I forget what term they normally use for themselves – but they’re a seed-stage accelerator in Mountain View, California founded by Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, Trevor Blackwell, and Robert Morris. Paul, Trevor, and Robert started a company in the late ’90s called Viaweb, which they sold to Yahoo. They’re just really, really successful entrepreneurs, and they decided they wanted to help incubate younger companies. So they built this thing called Y Combinator, where essentially early-stage technology companies apply, and if you get in, you move to California. They give you a little bit of seed funding, but more important than that, they give you some of the most incredible advice and help that you can possibly find. So now they’ve added partners along the way. Harj Taggar, Paul Buchheit, and they’ve now added a few more.

What basically happens is once a week the all of the companies in the batch – there were I think 40 of us in our batch – show up for dinner. Then throughout the week, if you need help, you basically put in a request and you go and you meet with one of the partners for 20 minutes and they give you just unbelievable advice. The coolest thing for us was that we knew, going out there, we’d be with a lot of really smart, really driven, really accomplished people. What we were incredibly surprised and pleased by was how nice everyone was. I mean, everyone we were involved with just fundamentally wanted us to do incredibly well, and it rubs off on everything they do.

Mike:
For those who might not have any idea, can you describe the challenges and rewards that go along with starting a new business?

Aaron:
Yeah. It’s funny, because I think about this every day. The last company I worked for was one of the largest hedge funds in the world. They just had an unbelievable amount of infrastructure, and anything you needed just kind of showed up. “I need a notebook.” A notebook shows up at your desk, right? That’s just so easy. When you’re running your own company, none of that happens. I need pens, I walk out to Staples and I buy them. It’s funny, because you can look at it from one perspective and say, “Oh, look at all these inconveniences, it sucks.”

But I look at it from the absolute opposite of the spectrum. Everything we do, that we have accomplished is the work of what we’ve done. It wouldn’t have happened if we had not been out there pounding the pavement every single day and working. We’ve decided what we’ve wanted to do every step of the way, so that autonomy, that ability to set the vision of what you what you do with your life every day, it’s an unparalleled experience. And look, it could all go crashing down and we have no safety net. But that’s part of the excitement, right? It’s like, wow, this is really all on our shoulders. If we screw this up, well, no one’s going to pull the fat out of the fire for us. We’ve got to do it ourselves. So it’s pretty awesome.

Mike:
Okay, Aaron. Thanks for talking to me.

Aaron:
No problem. Have a great night, Mike.

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