Building a Multi-Million Dollar Business with No Funding: Sean McCleese

by / ⠀Entrepreneur Interviews / August 2, 2010

Sean McCleese FounderSean McCleese is the founder of where students can get smart tutorial help in an open marketplace. Sean is 26 and had the idea back in college while he had a problem with a homework question and he could not find anyone else to help him. From there the idea was born and Sean has turned that idea into a mulit-million dollar business. Sean is extremely proud that Student of Fortune has become so successful with no outside funding.

Sean is a determined young entrepreneur who hopes to continue building by helping more students get the answers they need and getting the people with the answers the money they deserve. Continue reading for the whole story…

How did you come up with the idea for Student of Fortune?

I was taking a physics class in college and there were only a dozen or so of us in the class. It was late at night and there was a homework problem I was struggling with and no one else in the class could help me. My professor had already gone home and the other students were equally confused by the problem. I didn’t need help with the entire assignment — just some guidance with that one question. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a place online and get help with just one question at a time, rather than paying for a whole hour of help? And even if I did pay for an hour of someone’s time, there was no way of knowing they could help me with this particular problem.’ Hence, the idea behind Student of Fortune was born.

Please explain Student of Fortune. What is it and who is it for?

Student of is an online tutorial marketplace that provides smart homework help to students. It’s a site where people can get help with individual problems rather than pay for a tutor’s time. For example, maybe they have a math problem, or there is something they do not understand in science class, or maybe they need help with an English paper. Anyone else — other students, professors, stay-at-home parents, anyone — can provide what that student needs, and earn some money in the process.

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We’ve found that a lot of “regular” people have expertise in academic fields with no way to really help people or make money off that expertise. Maybe someone has a real interest in French History but works during the day as a librarian. Student of Fortune helps enable this hypothetical person to help other people with French History questions and make some money doing it, without having to become a full-time tutor. Our leading tutor has earned more than $125,000 from Student of Fortune in exactly this way.

We have more than 600 categories, everything from music, to art, to science – we cover just about anything that a student could be studying in college.

Was there ever a time when you were unsure about the company’s future? If so how did you push through this?

I think to make a startup work, especially a startup that doesn’t run from funding round to funding round, you have a certain amount of faith in the feasibility of the idea. Of course there were times, early on, when things were moving slowly and we wondered if things would turn out the way we had hoped. But the underlying belief in the idea and the strength of our business plans and technology base helped us push through these worries. I think ultimately the worrying and questioning was incredibly helpful, as it enabled us to further refine and solidify some of the more esoteric parts of the site and the business as a whole. It’s important to never take this stuff for granted – doubt and questioning help build a stronger product, no matter the category.

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Do you think there were any advantages of starting a company at such a young age?

I can think of a lot of advantages of starting a company at a young age. You may not have a lot of financial resources but young entrepreneurs have energy, imagination, and determination. I think we’re more likely to take risks, too, as generally we don’t have a family to support or other such strictures on our lives. That sort of flexibility is a huge advantage in the startup world.

Building a multi-million dollar company doesn’t come easy. What are some lessons you have learned and mistakes you have made?

In the five years the company has been running, there have been plenty of lessons learned. I try to look at the mistakes as opportunities. I’m not afraid to take on anything or try different marketing ideas. My philosophy is this: If I’ve tried an idea and it’s failed, we try to learn from it and iterate on the things we’ve learned. I know that’s a really cliché answer but I think that’s only because it’s a very successful way of developing a strong product.

What is one piece of advice you would give to a young entrepreneur starting out today?

Follow your passion and dream big. I think everyone has ideas that they think would make a great product or service. Don’t leave them as ideas. When you have an idea that seems like a possible business, let it percolate for a while and if it still seems viable, give it a try.

What is the best part about what you do?

I love talking to tutors who have made a lot of money on our site. It gives me tremendous satisfaction. For example, we have a husband and wife tutor team who are both unemployed. They have a sick toddler and the money they’ve made from the site has helped them keep a roof over their heads, and help them get better healthcare treatment for their daughter. People like them help keep me motivated – I want to grow this company and benefit more people who can really use the money.

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Can you tell us about some of your milestones?

One of the things that I am particularly proud of is that Student of Fortune was launched with absolutely no venture capital. We are now a multi-million dollar business. We don’t owe money to anyone and our decisions are our own. It gives us a lot of freedom to do the things we want with the company, and of course, make our own mistakes.

Another thing I’m particularly proud of is our customer service. That’s really important to me. We constantly try to be open and upfront to our customers. We’re very customer oriented, and don’t spend time thinking of features we want to put online. Instead, we make an effort to make Student of Fortune as useful as it possibly could be. We’re soliciting feedback constantly, so that we can build the best, and most loyal customer base we possibly can.

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