I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Johnston, the CEO and co-founder of InstaEDU, an innovative, online tutoring on demand service she founded a couple years ago with her brother, Dan and their Stanford classmate, Joey Shurtleff. Alison and Dan had previously operated an in-house SoCal tutoring service called Cardinal Scholars, where they quickly learned that they could do better than the local competition by offering more affordable rates to clients and providing their tutors with better compensation. They set out to solve these problems.
They paid someone $600 to build them a basic website, gathered up a dozen qualified Stanford students and began marketing to Palo Alto families. Their business grew quickly and they immediately started discovering what they could do to improve their product. Although they recognized the value in providing high quality instruction, they also saw that there were holes in their current service delivery system, and sought to bring more personalization and technical facility to the way their website worked.
One of the main reasons the team was drawn to develop their service in its current form is that they realized that many students, although not in need of regular hour-long blocks of assistance, might need small amounts of support in a “moment of need,” such as help with two troubling math problems at 10:30 at night. They developed their product so that students could not only schedule lessons in advance with a specific tutor via the website, but they could also get matched up with a tutor from a leading university in a matter of minutes.
InstaEDU utilizes a variety of tech tools to facilitate communication between tutors and students, including text, audio and video chat, as well as text editors and digital whiteboards, and they utilize Gchat to source tutors for their on-demand service. From the time the company formed in 2011 and launched publicly in beta in May of 2012, they can now boast of almost 1500 tutors offering assistance in all academic subjects to students aged 13 and up.
Originally bootstrapped with funds from the old company, they were able to raise a little over a million dollars last Spring. The staff currently includes eight team members, including the three co-founders, and plans to sit comfortably at this size for the time being.
Johnston describes the challenge of broadening the notion of tutoring as more than just a luxury for wealthy families or a remedial measure for sub-par students. InstaEDU has built its success on the near universal need of every student for occasional assistance. In fact, some of their tutors have occasionally returned as customers for help with their own studies!
Math and science comprise about two thirds of their tutoring requests; computer science is by far their most popular subject. The other third is in the “fuzzier” areas of language, writing, term papers, etc. It would appear that their service is filling a real need for both high school and college students, their two major markets. Johnston finds it most rewarding when they receive tutor reviews expressing gratitude for the help they have received. “Knowing that someone came into our site feeling frustrated with a concept and left feeling confident – it’s awesome.”
Alison credits her early startup experience as being key preparation for running her own company. After majoring at Stanford with a focus on human/computer interaction, she interned at Box when it was just a five person shop, and had a front row seat to its tenfold growth over the next three years. Subsequent work with Aardvark helped provide the inspiration for what would become InstaEDU’s on-demand model.
For anyone considering jumping into the creation of a new tech start-up, Johnston’s key piece of advice is to first hook up with good mentors. The relationships she formed during those early years became invaluable later on in her career for both advice as well as funding. Her experience offers one of the best cases for interning I’ve heard from any of the entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed. The takeaway? Pay your dues, be patient, and you can later reap the rewards.