Tutoring comes to apps

May 23rd, 2016
NATHIER ABRAHAMS started his first tutoring business in 2010. Now the young entrepreneur is hoping to capture a bigger share of the market with a new app he’s named TutorFy.
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Don’t for a moment think that tutoring is small fry.

One recent study estimates that the global private tutoring market would be worth well over US$128 billion by 2020. In South Korea, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013, “rock star” tutor Kim Ki-Hoon makes as much as US$4 million a year teaching English online, in an after-school learning market valued at some $17 billion. According to a Times of India report, India’s tutoring market would be worth $16 billion by 2017. In Japan, online tutors alone do around $10 billion in business every year.

The market is likely more modest in South Africa, but Nathier Abrahams, for one, knows it’s growing.

Abrahams, now 25, had started tutoring maths and physics after he finished school, employed by another business. But he felt he could do better on his own, and set up a company called In Tune Tutoring. He opened a learning centre at a mosque in Rondebosch East in 2010, running classes with a handful of other tutors he’d recruited and trained. By 2012 he’d established a second centre, this time at a shop in Goodwood that he converted into suitable spaces. He also extended In Tune to home tutoring.

The venture flourished, but it took its toll. In 2011, Abrahams, who had cut short his psychology studies at the University of Cape Town, had registered for a BCom degree at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Keeping tabs on the learning centres and managing the home tutoring business while a full-time student proved to be too many irons in one fire.

“It was a nightmare,” he now recalls. “When tutors cancelled, for instance, you had to run around to find another tutor. It was just hectic.”

At the end of 2013, just as he was finishing his UWC studies, Abrahams closed down the home tutoring part of In Tune.

But he knew he was missing out on a huge market. In 2015, he thought of a way back in – an online marketplace where clients could connect with qualified and endorsed tutors.

And so was born Tutorfy, which serves as a “curated online marketplace” for parents to source tutors. To give them the peace of mind as to the credentials of the tutors – you’re never quite sure what you’re getting on, say, Gumtree – Abrahams would recruit, screen and train a pool of tutors.

“For parents, our main clients, we offer convenience, easy access to tutors, fast turnaround times on bookings, and more professional tutors,” says Abrahams. “There’s a trust factor.”

But remembering his troubles with running a home tutoring programme, Abrahams has in part modelled Tutorfy on companies like Uber and Airbnb.

Clients and tutors meet and arrange scheduling sessions in a streamlined process via Tutorfy, with no need for any centralised administration. This gives Tutorfy an edge over competitors, believes Abrahams.

And much like Uber, Tutorfy makes money by taking a share of the fees paid by clients for lessons. Clients pay Tutorfy, which then pays tutors. (Better than the often casual payment arrangements of private tutoring.) “Tutors love the platform because it allows them to manage their own profile and booking times, and that the website automates the process,” says Abrahams.

Abrahams is not short of business mentors, as his father runs a successful garage-door company. But with Tutorfy, he figured he needed assistance.

He turned to FutureMakers, a Telkom initiative to drive innovation in South Africa’s ICT sector. After an audition process, he won a place on InnoTech, a bespoke programme that aims to take black-owned tech start-ups from concept to market. The programme is run on behalf of Telkom FutureMakers by the Bandwidth Barn in Woodstock, which forms part of the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi). The project provides successful start-ups with R20 000 in ‘angel funding’, as well as office space, internet and telephone access, and business training. (The InnoTech program has been dubbed by some as the “Y-combinator of the Silicon Cape”, in reference to the acclaimed American start-up incubator.)

The input from FutureMakers has made a dramatic difference to his business, says Abrahams. With the funding he has, for instance, been able to brand the company, which includes purchasing the Tutorfy golf shirts that tutors wear to lessons. In turn, the office space creates networking opportunities with other start-ups, and allows him to focus on the business at hand. (“The brain thinks differently at an office than it does while working at home,” he says.)

Tutorfy went live in March 2016. And while it may take a while for Abrahams to match the revenue of a certain Korean tutor, the marketplace does add a fresh new element to the South African market.

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