Pioneer Interview With Orla McCallion and Sean Judge of UniTuition

UniTuition Co-founders Sean Judge and Orla McCallionOrla McCallion and Sean Judge are the Co-founders and Managing Partners of UniTuition, an Irish-based leading online platform for connecting third level students with pre-screened specialist tutors.

The easiest way to explain UniTuition is…

UniTuition partners with 3rd level institutions to provide a centralised online marketplace for connecting students with screened peer tutors. Our tutors are senior students and recent graduates who provide exam focused individual and group lessons (grinds) to junior peers from their university campus.

The idea came from…

During our time at Trinity College Dublin we both provided private tuition to students to earn some extra income. Upon leaving college, Sean was contacted constantly to give tuition to students who had heard of his name through friends and family of students. It made him realise that there was obviously a gap in the market, so he set up a simple website in Trinity College. Following a positive market response he teamed up with Orla who investigated whether the problem existed in other colleges, leading to the formation of UniTuition.

(We’ve known each other over ten years – we met competitively sprinting for Clonliffe Harriers, we went to college together and we worked in Accenture together.)

I believe it is the right moment for UniTuition to take off because…

We’re at a point in time where everyone wants to be able to do everything instantly. Historically college students have sourced tuition through word of mouth, college noticeboards or online databases. These methods however are time consuming, inefficient, unreliable and outdated. Both students and tutors are familiar with the technology of matching services through the use of Hailo, Hassle etc. – The college community is ready and willing to switch to using a centralised online marketplace for tuition.

How long did it take to build UniTuition?

UniTuition grew organically, from having no online presence to an MVP to a full site launch within a year. We were in operation throughout – The balance of offline/online operations just shifted over time.

How did you come up with your business name?

The name just made sense – A shortened version of University Tuition.

How are tutors vetted to ensure quality?

All tutors must have received a 2.1 or 1st class honour in the module in which they want to tutor in. We also conduct a screening call to ensure the tutor is a strong communicator and has competent subject knowledge in the area they wish to tutor in.

Do tutors need to be current senior level students? Or can someone who graduated 3-5 years ago tutor as well?

The majority of our tutors are senior students who have excelled in their course. However, we allow recent graduates to tutor as well once they meet our screening criteria.

How important is trust on the platform? How is this reflected in reviews?

Students need to be able to trust that the tutors they book will teach them exactly what they need to know, particularly in the stressful period coming up to exams. We’ve therefore built a review system which automatically flags any tutor who receive 3/5 stars or less in any student review for investigation. This combined with our screening process ensures students always receive the best quality lessons. We also offer a 100% money back policy if a student isn’t satisfied with their lesson for any reason. This all leads to our customers and our partners trusting our brand, which is key to our success.

How is the tutoring rate set? What % of the tutoring transaction does UniTuition receive for each booking?

We currently have a set fee for students of €35 per lesson. This reduces if a student purchases multiple lessons in advance. The price is set at a point that attracts top tutors to list themselves on our site while still being affordable for most students.

Does the platform have a balanced number of tutors to student demand? Which is harder to acquire – tutors or students wanting grinds?

Strong tutors are usually the hardest to acquire. Our screening process typically excludes 50% of applicants in order to ensure that we only have the highest standard of tutors.

How do you market UniTuition to tutors? To students?

We partner with university institutions which provide us with a direct channel to both tutors and students. We also use conventional digital marketing tools and relevant campus events to promote our brand.

Favourite success story so far is …

The first partnership we secured outside of Trinity College – This was with Dublin City University Student Union. This validated the need for our service in a wider market, and got us excited about building a company that could solve a real problem for students in all third level institutions.

UniTuition is different from (competitors) because…

Our online solution enables students to find a module specific tutor, see their available times and book them immediately. The student and tutor can then communicate on the system to arrange to meet at an on campus location. We also screen and interview all of our tutors to make sure they are capable of providing tuition. While we are currently the only service like this that is tailored to the needs of third level students, it is really our partnership model that makes us unique. College bodies such as student unions, learning services and disability services act as a direct channel to our market in return for the provision of a service they see as invaluable for their students. These partnerships effectively position us as the centralised marketplace for peer tuition in each institution. This provides all students looking for tuition and all tutors providing tuition in each college with one easily accessible system on which to do this.

In your opinion, what is the secret for success of UniTuition?

The secret to our success lies in the power of our partnerships to position us as a centralized location for student and tutors in each institution to source tuition and advertise their services. This creates the ability for junior students to connect with senior students who have the knowledge to teach them how to pass a particular subject – Without such a platform there are so many missed opportunities for knowledge sharing among the student community. Often students just can’t find a tutor to teach them what they need to know, when in fact there are so many people out there in their college with the knowledge. UniTuition bridges this connectivity gap, facilitating knowledge transfer and enhancing student learning.

What advice can you share about building the right team?

Hiring the right people is crucial and can be difficult. My biggest piece of advice would be to wait until you find the person you know is going to be a superstar in your open role before hiring anyone. We cycled through a couple of hires before finally finding the perfect employee who goes above and beyond what we could have expected. If we had put more effort into finding him in the first place rather than training in two others who didn’t work out we would have been much better off, even though we would have been without someone in that critical role for longer.

My advice to social entrepreneurs is…

If you have something that works really well in a small community, it is very possible it could make a big difference to the wider community too. If you think you know how to solve a real problem and no one is doing it yet, just get out there and start doing it. Start small and grow as you go.

What other trends/companies/business models do you find interesting or disruptive?

Crowd-funding is disrupting convention in numerous industries – from Kickstarter to more niche companies like Gigstarter. We also really like marketplaces like ourselves such as Hassle or Hailo.

What are the first three things you do when you get into the office?

Coffee is the first followed by a very quick scan of emails before a team huddle to discuss the plans for the day. We find this focuses everyone on the key tasks rather than getting tied down replying to mails.

What social media hit could you not live without every day and why?

We use Facebook day to day professionally but personally it would be Twitter – it really is the quickest way of finding out what’s going.

UniTuition Stats

Current Number of Students = 8000

Current Number of Tutors= 250

Amount of Funding to Date = 80k

Number of UniTuition Team Members = 4

Number of Third Level Institutions UniTuition Currently Works With = 14

International Scaling Plans / Which Market Will UniTuition Enter Next = We have just launched into the UK, and are currently in Silicon Valley where we are researching our US market entry strategy.

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