Friday, March 6, 2009
Interview with Sean McCleese, Student of Fortune
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
It's interesting to see how the Internet continues to create new marketplaces for what are otherwise inefficient businesses. An area we've been seeing a lot of companies attacking recently is tutoring and homework help. One of the firms looking to make its market in the area is Altadena-based Student of Fortune (www.studentoffortune.com). We talked with Sean McCleese, CEO and Founder of the firm, about what it offers, and how it's looking to stand out from the many other tutoring sites out there.
Tell us a little a bit about the service, and what it provides?
Sean McCleese: Student of Fortune is a homework tutoring marketplace. It's a site, where people can come on and get help with the individual problems they need help with. For example, maybe they have a math problem, or there is something they are not understanding in science class, or maybe they need help with an English paper. Anyone else--other students, professors, stay-at-home moms, anyone--can come on, and provide what that student needs, and earn some money in the process of doing so. We think of it as an egalitarian tutoring marketplace.
How does that work, and what do people pay for tutoring?
Sean McCleese: The way it works is, a student asks a question, and we set a default bounty that we think that answer should be worth. In the time where we've been watching the site grow--it's been about three years, at this point--we notice that some tutors were going way beyond the call of duty in the amount of detail they provide in their tutorials. So, we made it such that a tutor can ask any price they think is valid, with the question askers price used as a guideline. For some tutors, maybe a question is priced at $10, but a tutor goes out of their way to provide lots of details, and instead will charge $20. Conversely, tutors can also underbid--and maybe ask $5 for that answer. What that allows, is to prevent the "ivory tower" of established tutors from dominating the site. It's an eBay like feedback system. There are A through F ratings on the tutorials that you buy. Obviously, there is a problem with that, where someone with high feedback and an established selling history might have a lot more incentive for people to buy their tutorials. To prevent that "ivory tower" people who are just starting out on the site can offer their skills at a lower than established level, and so that people who are price conscious can help them build that history and feedback, and get started in becoming and established tutor on the site.
Are there any specific subjects you are focusing on?
Sean McCleese: We have 600 categories, everything from music, to art, to science--it covers everything. We try to keep abreast of all the different subjects people are studying, though, obviously, we get a lot more questions in something like, say, biology, than art history.
What's the story behind how you started the company?
Sean McCleese: I went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, and I was a physics major. I remember in my senior level quantum physics class, there were ten people in the class. Homework was due every day or two, and since it was a senior level class, I couldn't find a person who could help me, because they had all graduated. One homework assignment I particularly remember, no one in the class could figure out how to do. The professor had gone home already, so I started to look online. Unfortunately, I couldn't just do a search for the equation, and I didn't need an hour of tutoring, and didn't want to hire a tutor for an hour. More to the point, even if I found a tutor online, I had no idea if they were good at physics, or at quantum physics, or that specific quantum physics problem. Someone who might be good at math might not remember how to do that specific problem. I realized that most students have a problem with maybe one or two things at a time--it's rare that someone needs all of geometry. Along with a that realization, I knew there were a bunch of kids in school, who were really experts--but were living on ramen and french fries, because they didn't have any extra spending money. They had no way to monetize the content. It was very important to me, to not only get help when you need it, but also give students the opportunity to earn significant money--extra money to supplement, or even supplant a full time job.
It seems like online tutoring is a crowded area for startups, how do you stand out?
Sean McCleese: one thing we try to do, is to be open and upfront to our customers. We're very customer oriented, and don't spend time thinking of features we want to put online, instead, we are making an effort to make this as useful as it possibly could be. We are soliciting feedback constantly, so that we can build the best, and most loyal customer base we possibly can.
Who are the people answering the questions?
Sean McCleese: There are graduate students, a couple of professors working during office hours, we have some stay-at-home moms, who work because they remember what they studied in college. I even got an email from a user a couple of weeks ago, who--because of the economic crisis--lost his job, and was earning more on Student of Fortune than working full time. Obviously, that made me feel pretty good.
Are the people using the site in the U.S., or international?
Sean McCleese: The vast majority are from the U.S., though we do have some number of tutors from outside the country, who I think are coming to the site because the amount of money they are earning on Student of Fortune--it's huge. One of our top users of the site is based out of India. He talked to use recently, and it's been an incredible opportunity for him.
Finally, where are you nowadays, and what are you doing next with the site?
Sean McCleese: We are based in Los Angeles, and we were started by friends in college, and have been very much bootstrapped until now. We haven't raised any money, though we might look at that as we look to expanding to reach to the student market, and create a better and larger community of students and tutors on the site.