Alison Johnston Rue is the 26-year-old CEO of InstaEDU, an online tutoring company that allows students to instantly connect with tutors from top colleges. She previously worked for Aardvark and Google before co-founding InstaEDU in 2011 with her brother and one of their Stanford classmates.
Initially, the business was based on the idea of tutoring without scheduling — after all, students didn’t always know when they would need help. The instant nature of InstaEDU meant that a student could sit down to do homework, realize they were having trouble and connect with a tutor right then and there — even at 11:30pm. And, they could pay for very small increments of time, say, just the 10 minutes needed to address one particular question (current pricing starts at 40 cents/minute or $24/hour). In their second year, based on feedback from students, they added the capability to browse tutors and schedule lessons ahead of time, allowing students to find the right fit for them and build longer-term relationships.
InstaEDU now has thousands of tutors and is the largest marketplace for online tutoring. Throughout 2013 the company has seen 50+ percent average growth month over month, and they just announced a $4 million Series A round of funding to help scale what they’re doing.
We talked to Alison about what makes InstaEDU successful.
What was the inspiration for InstaEDU?
Before launching InstaEDU, my brother Dan and I started an in-home tutoring company called Cardinal Scholars (which was later sold to CourseHero). Cardinal Scholars matched tutors from Stanford, Columbia, Harvard and MIT with local students for in-home tutoring. We saw how tutoring can help students, but also that the traditional tutoring industry wasn’t able to serve most students — either because of cost or because of the rigid structure. For example, many students don’t need regular tutoring, but every student needs a hand from time to time — and oftentimes, they need it at the last minute. Our goal is to make it super easy for any student to get high-quality academic support at any time.
There are a lot of companies in the education space. How are you different?
One of the biggest stories in education tech over the past two years has been the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). In short, MOOCs scale academic content so that thousands of students can be taught at once through video. What they don’t scale as well is the personal relationships that are so important; the conversations with your TA, a study group with friends, conversations with a roommate or classmate, etc. InstaEDU ensures that those important one-on-one interactions remain accessible to every student. And, unlike other legacy online tutoring services, InstaEDU gives students flexibility to not only receive on-demand support, but also build out an ongoing relationship with the tutor who’s right for them — and leverage technology (video chat, whiteboards, etc.) to make the experience as efficient and helpful as in-person tutoring.
What mistakes did you make in the first year of development that you would do differently next time?
We got ahead of ourselves in some ways. It was the classic entrepreneur’s mistake where you assume that because you’re building a product that people need, customers will flock to it. As a result, we expected our usage to skyrocket in the first few months, and instead of focusing only on core, value-add features that would bring in customers, we wasted some valuable development building features to handle issues that we could have handled manually. A good example of this was a “Flag” feature we had in the lesson space. It was one of the first things we built, but no one ever used it. Even if there had been an issue, we’ve always been super hands-on with support and would have been able to deal with any issues right away regardless of whether a lesson was specifically flagged.
Now that we are growing quickly, we spend more time thinking about the long term, but in the early days, we would have benefitted from better distinguishing the projects that would really move the needle.
How do you recruit and vet tutors and measure performance and improvement? And how much do tutors make?
Active tutors make an average of $70 per week. We recruit our tutors out of top colleges and require them to sign up with Facebook Connect when they apply, which allows us to verify their real-world identity. We then individually screen every tutor for previous teaching experience and ability and rely on student ratings to maintain ongoing quality. After each lesson, students are given an opportunity to rate their tutor, and these ratings heavily determine the opportunities that tutors receive. The best tutors, in turn, work with the most students, and in the rare case that someone is underperforming, they can quickly be removed from the site.