STARTUP

Conversation Starter: How TUTOROO is Making Learning A New Language Convenient and Instantly Accessible

A Frenchman moved to Hong Kong to pursue a retail idea. He ended up stumbling upon an even bigger opportunity with his native French instead.

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BY Adelle Chua - 01 Aug 2017

TUTOROO tutors in Singapore

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Company

In 2014, Frenchman Nicolas Vanhove moved from Canada to Hong Kong with an idea for a retailing business. As he set his plan in motion, and waited for revenues to kick in, Vanhove taught French to adults and children and discovered people were willing to pay a lot of money to improve their language skills.

“I had no formal training as a teacher. I just spoke my native language and conversed with anybody who wanted to learn,” he says, adding that in teaching kids, he felt he was more babysitting than teaching. He just used French lessons to keep them engaged, but ended up getting paid as much as $100 per hour.

When Vanhove decided to move to Singapore to build up his original business idea, he was surprised to still receive requests for French lessons from Hong Kong. Prospective students were willing to settle for online instruction, but Vanhove felt it was not an effective way to teach a new language. “I knew I had to physically be in front of them,” he relates.

As he felt there is no substitute for offline teaching, Vanhove decided to direct these requests to native speakers living in Hong Kong. This eventually led to a new business idea. Treading carefully, he waited until he had enough requests per month to show that language teaching can be a viable business venture. And so TUTOROO was born.

Finding a tutor on TUTOROO

A hungry market

It wasn’t until he started getting five requests per month that Vanhove acted on the idea driving TUTOROO: to match a student with a teacher, a native speaker of the student’s desired language, and set up a schedule for the two to meet—not in front of a computer, but face-to-face for a weekly hour-and-a-half tutorial session. Messaging app WhatsApp is the bridge that connects both parties. TUTOROO’s business model also provides an incentive for teachers building long-term relationships with their students.

Since its launch last January, TUTOROO has been active in three places: Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia. And it is now launching in South Africa and Dubai. These days, new monthly requests range anywhere between 600 and 700. English makes up a third of the requests, while Mandarin is particularly popular in Australia. Other in-demand languages include Japanese, Korean, French, Spanish, and German.

Conversations, and not just lessons, “is where we are disruptive,” relates Vanhove. “We don’t require our teachers to have actual teaching credentials or experience. The only thing they have to be is a native speaker of the language they are supposed to teach.”

Instruction is not delivered in a classroom, and there is no fixed program or curriculum. Teaching takes place either in the students’ home or both parties may opt to meet over coffee. Says Vanhove, “We don’t really sell formal academic lessons. What we sell instead is the match we make between students and these tutors.”

Since establishing TUTOROO, Vanhove arrived at these lessons about establishing a start-up:

1. Don’t wait to perfect a plan before acting on it

“Don’t ever think you could have the perfect product before you make your first sale,” Vanhove advises. For TUTOROO, things happened the other way around. “We built the technology around the business model. Once it is out there, you can learn much after the customers have tried your product and experienced it.”

2. Trust your community enough to give them a free hand in some things

TUTOROO’s teachers, who may or may not have teaching credentials, enjoy considerable leeway on how they choose to handle their lessons. While it’s not a free hand altogether—TUTOROO sets guidelines and objectives—outside of these basic reminders, the teacher, after assessing the student’s needs, will devise a plan and approach tailor-made for the individual. “We screen our teachers, of course, and we are very careful in hiring and vetting them. But most importantly, we trust them,” says Vanhove.

3. Expand your thinking beyond the now

While TUTOROO’s currently covered areas are Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia, this doesn’t prevent it from having a pool of native-speaker teachers in at least 10 other countries including the rest of Southeast Asia and in North America. “We continue to look at cities with above a million inhabitants because we envision TUTOROO to be a truly global community in the future,” says Vanhove.