Tutoring startup offers a lesson in success

After its modest beginnings, The Profs now has an office in Belgravia. From left to right: Richard Evans (co-founder), Rory Curnock Cook (co-founder), Suzy Ferreira (partner), Leo Evans (co-founder).

A sideline in academic coaching evolved into a lucrative business venture, The Profs, for founder Richard Evans.

Many small businesses begin life in their founder’s bedroom. Few, however, can match the spectacular growth of The Profs – a tuition agency that, 16 months after its modest beginnings, has an office in Belgravia and is handling £20,000 of transactions each week.

As a cash-strapped economics student at the London School of Economics, Richard Evans took the advice of a friend to try his hand at tutoring. It went so well that he continued with the work after graduation. Spotting that most tuition services were set up “to help the typical kind of Chelsea parent get their child through an entrance exam,” Evans saw a gap in the market and began offering his services to undergraduate students. Soon his schedule was fuller than he could handle, and he banded together with four other tutors to share the workload.

After a few successful months, and with brother Leo now on board, Evans launched The Profs, a web-based agency that could bring together students and tutors. With no external funding and just a £1,200 overdraft, the business grew rapidly: it now has four partners, five full-time employees and more than 200 students a month taking classes with tutors.

The business model is simple: the Profs help tutors find work and deal with all the invoicing, and in return take a commission for the hours the tutors work. “Almost no two students want the same course,” says Evans. “So we needed really top-quality people because it’s not a homogenised, standardised product.” Many of its tutors are senior academics or industry professionals with 20 or 30 years of experience – even so, the team interviews every potential new tutor, regardless of experience. Tutors – who now number 300 – are paid weekly and given flexibility about when and where they work.

Smart use of technology has helped make the model a success. Cloud-based software called TutorCruncher handles the invoicing: tutors log their hours electronically, then it takes one click to send out the invoices, and one more click to collect the payments and transfer them to the firm’s bank account. The software also collects valuable data about which tutors and subjects are most popular.

While the business was initially confined to matching London-based tutors and students, it has begun to expand globally through its new online tutoring app, BitPaper, which brings together students and tutors anywhere in the world to collaborate on a virtual whiteboard. “It’s great to see that people around the world are starting to phone up and say: ‘This doesn’t exist in my country, I need top tuition from a London-based tutor,’” says Evans.

Although The Profs has spent some money on marketing – taking out online advertising, for example – most of its growth has been down to word-of-mouth recommendation. Fears that people would want to keep their use of tutors secret have proved unfounded, says Evans: “We’re glad to say that when a friend sees another friend at three in the morning feeling very upset, they might say: ‘I’ve had a really good experience, and there is a professional who can teach you one-on-one.’”

The business offers a money-back guarantee if a student isn’t happy with the first tutorial. “We phone up after the tutorial to make sure that someone is happy, and we ask what was good and what was bad, then we let our tutors know,” he says.

Setting up and running the business has been a “fun experience”, says Evans, and he’s still amazed at how quickly it’s grown: “Whenever we set a target it gets beaten by our tutors and our team. We’re quite surprised to be here 16 months in.”

The Profs was shortlisted in the Small Business Showcase competition’s Startup of the Year Category. This originally appeared in The Guardian

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