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

2/15/08Follow @wroush

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 accepted, Hussain says. They’re then trained on using Skype and on the quirks of interacting with American college students. “For example, in India, pupils refer to their teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam,’ never by their first name,” says Hussain. “Here, they do. It’s a little different dynamic.”

UProdigy tutors cover math, the sciences, economics, and English (including writing). Subjects such as American history are, understandably, less well represented (and Hussain says the company may eventually hire tutors in more countries, including the United States, to fill the gaps). UProdigy splits the $15 per hour fee with its tutors. Hussain wouldn’t reveal how much of the fee the tutors keep, but he did say that at the going rate for tutoring in India, full-time tutors usually earn about $300 a month. “That comes to about $1.15 per hour,” he says. “We pay our tutors significantly more than that.”

UProdigy started beta testing last October, and went fully public on Monday, with ads in selected college newspapers around the country. The company hasn’t hit the venture-capital trail yet—that will have to wait until after uProdigy has gotten its student clients through the spring semester, Hussain says. But the judges for the MIT Executive Summary Competition—the second of three phases in MIT’s prestigious, year-long $100K Entrepreneurship Competition—thought enough of uProdigy’s pitch to award it the $1,000 first prize on February 8. (Now Hussain and crew will go on to compete for the big $100,000 prize for the best student-submitted business plan, to be awarded in May.)

In the fall, says Hussain, the company will switch its users from Skype to another conferencing system that it can more easily enhance and upgrade. And many more technological advances in remote learning are coming down the pike, Hussain believes. “We’re just seeing the beginning,” he says. “I think over the next five years you’re going to see a revolution in the way that humans interact with computers and therefore with each other. As we move away from interacting through a keyboard and a mouse and toward interacting with computers in a way that’s more natural to us, I think more and more learning is going to go online.”

The key to uProdigy’s business plan, of course, is that it’s using the Internet to bridge an inefficiency in the market—the disconnect between students who need academic assistance and the skilled educators they can afford to hire, who, in this case, happen to live ten-and-a-half time zones away. Obviously, there is quite a bit of sensitivity in this country over perceptions that highly skilled jobs once filled by U.S. workers are being “offshored” or taken over by educated but lower-paid workers in other countries, such as India and China. (In fact, my recent post on the scuffle between IBM and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative over an MTC economic report that indirectly suggested IBM was offshoring U.S. jobs prompted an outpouring of complaints from disgruntled IBM employees who say the company is doing just that.) But Hussain argues that uProdigy isn’t engaged in offshoring, since it’s offering a service (inexpensive off-hours tutoring) that isn’t really available in the United States.

“No one is losing a job as result of this,” he says. “Oftentimes there’s nowhere for students to go at 4 in the morning. And students can’t really afford tutors at $60 or $70 an hour anyway. This is going to enable students to get more tutoring and be competitive in math and science and writing.” (About the writing part—Hussain says uProdigy went to India in part because the average academic there has a command of English to which most U.S. college students can only aspire.)

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about Hussain’s own interrupted education, don’t worry—he’ll get back to it eventually. “I love learning about the philosophy of religion,” he says. “My hope is that after four or five years of this, I’ll be able to step back, hire a new CEO and go back to school.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • http://google Jay

    THIS IS A WONDERFUL IDEA. INDIA IS THE LAND THAT INVENTED ZEROS AND ONES AND THE DECIMAL NUMBERING SYSTEM THAT WE USE IN THE WEST TODAY. THE PLACE IS CRAWLING WITH MATH/SCIENCE/ENGLISH PRODIGIES. uPRODIGY OFFERS COLLEGE STUDENTS THE BENEFITS OF INTERACTING WITH THIS FRATERNITY. INDIANS COACH THE OLD FASHIONED WAY BY DRILLING INTO THE BASICS. THESE ARE TIME TESTED METHODS OF COACHING. WITH THIS COMBINATION THE SUCCESS OF UPRODIGY IS ASSURED. TUTOR VISTA IS ALSO IMMENSELY SUCCESSFUL. IT TARGETS MAINLY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. IT CHARGES $99.00 FOR A WHOLE MONTH UNLIMITED HOURS. TO BRING THIS IDEA TO HELP COLLEGE STUDENTS IS A STROKE OF GENIUS, MR. HUSSAIN.

  • http://www.odesk.com/ Josh Breinlinger

    The online tutoring space is indeed an emerging industry.

    A couple other notables are kasamba.com (get tutoring by the minute) and ziizoo.com (tutoring marketplace with nice feedback system).

    Even at oDesk.com, (where I work), we’ve seen a high number of tutoring jobs posted even though our focus is more on the web development space.

    -Josh Breinlinger