Cram for that Exam with Help from uProdigy’s Tutors in India

It’s 4:00 a.m., you’ve been up all night studying for the big linear algebra exam, and you have the sinking feeling that there’s something about eigenvectors and eigenvalues that you still just don’t understand. Your roommates are all asleep. You’d call up your friend the math whiz, who never sleeps, but you’ve already used up all of his patience. What do you do?

If anything like this ever happened to you in college (and it certainly did to me), the answer is probably “You get a C- on the exam.” But uProdigy, a tutoring service launched publicly this week, has a way out that wasn’t available when I was an undergrad: fire up Skype on your computer and talk live to a math teacher in India, who will explain everything you need to know about those pesky eigens for $15 an hour, charged to your Paypal or Google Checkout account.

UProdigy’s service isn’t the first live, Internet-based tutoring system (Washington, D.C.-based Smarthinking does that), and it isn’t even the first one to use tutors who are based in India (Bangalore-based TutorVista does that). But it is definitely the cheapest, at least if you use it for 6 hours a month or less. (Smarthinking costs $35 per hour and TutorVista charges a flat $99.99 per month for unlimited hours.) And it’s the only one started by a philosophy-of-religion graduate student from Harvard.

Actually, he’s on leave for the semester. “There’s just too much going on—the opportunity is just too big,” says Syed Hussain, uProdigy’s founder and CEO. “I can’t justify sitting in class and learning about some obscure medieval philosophy when I could be out building this business.”

When Hussain uses the word “obscure” he’s not really serious—his focus in school is on Islamic studies, which he says is “not only an intellectual concern, but deals with a pressing problem nowadays, this existential tension between the Western and Islamic worlds, which is a problem that needs to be studied, especially by people in the West.” But when he uses the words “building this business,” he’s very serious indeed. He’s spent the last year and a half—since finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan—pursuing the idea of affordable online tutoring, and has assembled a distributed team of more than a dozen programmers and businesspeople, based out of office space that the company shares with several other startups in Cambridge’s Porter Square. He says uProdigy represents an upwelling of his business instincts, which he briefly tried to submerge by choosing graduate school over a planned career in investment banking.

The uProdigy Student HomepageHere’s his telling of the idea behind the business: “I was a double major in math and economics at Michigan and I was taking a class in advanced partial differential equations. The homework problems were ridiculously difficult, and all 20 of us in the class would show up in the library and work on the problems together. There were occasions when all of us collectively could not solve a problem, and in those instances we needed to hire a tutor.

“But it was difficult to find someone on campus who could help us with partial differential equations—only a PhD math student would have been able to help. And they weren’t always available, and they charged $70 or $80 an hour. It was relatively cheap, when we all pooled our resources, to hire someone for three hours and pay them $240. But you can’t afford that on your own when you’re an undergraduate. That’s when I conceived of this idea of having tutors on demand, 24 hours a day”—and for a reasonable price.

Hussain raised $130,000 in seed funding from a contact in the investment-banking business to start the company, and his team set out to recruit tutors by advertising around university towns in India. Applicants, who consist mostly of teachers and university professors looking for some extra work, are rigorously screened, and only 1 in 20 are … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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