Tutorspree Preps for Back-to-School Market

8/18/11Follow @jpruth

With summer ending, classrooms will soon fill with students who may need some help tackling tough academic subjects. Searching for tutors can be a haphazard process of scouring classified ads. New York startup Tutorspree offers a more streamlined platform for students to find potential tutors local to them.

One-year-old Tutorspree is an online service that allows tutors list their expertise and receive reviews from the students they have advised. Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, says his company verifies the tutors, who cover a broad pool of subjects that include math, sciences, and even software programming. Tutorspree is available across the country, though Harris says it has the highest concentration of tutors in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Harris says Tutorspree was designed to appeal to parents and students who want to find the right help for their academic needs. “There is a big, underserved market of people who need algebra tutors or reading tutors for their kids,” Harris says. “We see that playing out in the sixth to twelfth grade.”

Tutorspree got its own education boost through the Y Combinator business accelerator last January. Harris says his company applied for the program at the behest of Tutorspree co-founder Ryan Bednar, and the program sharpened their strategy. “The biggest helpful thing that YC gave us was the focus on what’s important,” Harris says. “You could build all these cool features, but if no one wants it, it doesn’t matter.”

After finishing the Y Combinator program in March, Tutorspree raised a seed round in the $1 million-range that included participation from angel investors Paul Buccheit, Alexis Ohanian, and Adam D’Angelo, Harris says.

Turorspree has received some diverse requests. “You have the eight-year-old who already knows HTML and his mother is looking for a Java tutor for him,” Harris says. Tutorspree also helped connect a family of expatriates from China with a tutor who could teach their children math in Mandarin. “We’re satisfying these needs that people had no way to fill before,” Harris says.

Harris, 27, believes the education market faces a watershed moment, as learners go online for more ways to elevate their knowledge. He believes Tutorspree’s platform fits in with that trend. “You’re starting to see a movement to break the Industrial Revolution-style classroom back down to relationship between the learner and the instructor,” he says. “That is a massive shift.”

Entrepreneurship was not part of Harris’s immediate plans after completing his own education. He graduated from Harvard in 2006 with a bachelor’s in history and literature. “I went, along with about 50 percent of my class, into finance,” he says. He spent four years in the financial world working as an analyst for such firms as Compass Advisers. But he wanted a new challenge. “The thing I was missing was the ability to build a product for individual people,” he says.

Aaron Harris, Ryan Bednar, and Josh Abrams developed their plans further through the Y Combinator program.

In March 2010, Harris left finance behind and immersed himself in the startup community by talking to anyone willing to spend time with him. He discussed potential plans with his friend Josh Abrams, who also became a co-founder of Tutorspree.

Their initial idea to offer a marketplace for tutors evolved after Harris talked with parents, teachers, and students, who all pointed out the challenges of finding high-quality local academic help. “The traditional models of doing that are essentially checking Craigslist, checking flyers on telephone poles, or going to an agency,” he says.

Harris says he saw an opportunity to create a feedback-driven marketplace for tutors, and to do it with lower overhead than an agency would have. Bednar joined Harris and Abrams last August, when the company formed. Harris says Tutorspree is approaching 2,000 active tutors. Another 3,000 tutors who have applied but have not yet been approved to offer their services through the site.

Tutorspree has a staff of four full timers plus consultants and, according to Harris, is looking for design and engineering talent. He says the company will mature from within, before seeking additional funding. “We’re focused on developing internally and building the marketplace,” he says. “We raised money so we could build at the speed we want to.”

Summer is slow time for tutoring, Harris says, and he is eager to capture more business when classes resume in the fall. That will include some traditional street-level marketing to get the word out about his company. “We’re going to be out their putting up flyers on street corners where we have to,” he says.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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