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David Frey is the co-CEO of Vancouver-based Teach Away Inc., which is about to launch a video-conference tutoring service for high school and undergrad students. But with myriad free learning tools already available on the Web, does it have a chance? (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
David Frey is the co-CEO of Vancouver-based Teach Away Inc., which is about to launch a video-conference tutoring service for high school and undergrad students. But with myriad free learning tools already available on the Web, does it have a chance? (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

THE CHALLENGE

How can this startup compete with resources like Khan Academy? Add to ...

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

The school year has yet to start, but David Frey is already thinking about after-classes activities. The Vancouver entrepreneur is on the cusp of launching Skooli, an online tutoring service.

Mr. Frey says he is “removing that brick and mortar requirement – the requirement for the institution as we know it now to exist.”

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Instead, Skooli offers one-to-one, video-conference learning. Teacher and student will trade files, use virtual whiteboards, chat by voice or text and use screen-sharing to emphasize concepts.

It’s “teaching 2.0,” not too far removed from Mr. Frey’s past expertise in education. He spent more than a decade building Teach Away Inc., the international recruitment agency launched with his brothers Rene and Kevin in 2003. Today the company has 40 employees and offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Brisbane, Australia. Last year, the company posted revenue in the realm of $2-million to $5-million.

But while thousands of teachers apply monthly for international job postings with Teach Away, marketing an online tutor service to high-school students and undergrads is new territory for Mr. Frey and his team.

“I can put 8,000 teachers on this site in a week, realistically,” says Mr. Frey. “But we don’t want to overload it with teachers if we don’t have the students.”

There’s certainly demand for extracurricular education. The global private-tutoring market is projected to surpass $100-billion by 2018, according to a study by market research firm Global Industry Analysts released last year.

The challenge is that Mr. Frey’s service, which will cost $35 to $50 an hour, will compete with free resources such as Khan Academy, a non-profit organization promising a “world class education.”

Such free resources “may initially seem more appealing to those on a budget or not looking for a commitment to regular tutoring,” Mr. Frey says. “Our service is a personalized tutoring service that’s just as accessible, delivered on a one-to-one basis using sophisticated, interactive learning tools, by experienced experts and teachers who are highly qualified in their fields. You definitely can’t find that for free on the Internet.”

Skooli’s one-to-one experience could give it an edge over the virtual classroom experience some universities offer.

But Mr. Frey worries about whether he can woo students away from the free tools and persuade them – and, more likely, their parents – to pay for the online service. If there isn’t enough demand for the tutors’ services, he worries, retaining teachers will be a problem.

“For the ecosystem to be successful we need high student demand for online instruction.”

The Challenge: How can Skooli compete with the plethora of free resources out there?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Stephen Downes, learning and performance support systems program leader at the National Research Council of Canada, Moncton, N.B.

As with any tech innovation, they need to establish a market, either by creating a new market, or by limiting existing markets. The latter is a regressive strategy – deployment of patents, copyright actions, enclosure of public domain goods, trade restrictions, fear-uncertainty-doubt – and I don’t recommend it.

Creating a new market in an era of free resources is a challenge. To be competitive, the product has to have some distinct advantage not possible to deliver as an open resource. They need to focus on what cannot be obtained except through commercial means.

Specialized knowledge is one. If the knowledge cannot be obtained though open content, there is the potential to charge for it. So if the tutors are simply teaching stuff every educated person knows, not so great. But if the tutors have some expert knowledge – whether a pedagogy only they can apply, domain-specific knowledge, etc., that creates a market advantage.

Immediacy is also a differentiator. They should stress that they are offering interaction and response, not merely expertise.

Brynn Winegard, marketing expert and principal at business consultant Winegard & Co. LLC, Toronto

Their real competition is centres such as Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning and Kumon – which are starting to offer digital services but are still mostly built around the brick and mortar locations. With Skooli, people could use them at any hour of the day from anywhere. That’s what they have to market.

As for advertising, the parents will be the key decider, and television and online is still the best way to access them. If you’re an online digital company then it makes sense to have the media echo that with things like mobile and Web advertising, plus it makes it easier for the consumer to connect the dots if they see an ad and want to act on it.

The key to tapping into the teen/tween demographic is the digital sphere, where they spend most of their time. Shareability will make or break this service. The best way to reach teens is through their peers, so Mr. Frey will want to think long and hard about what will make his company cool in order to get teens to be motivated to share with one another.

Benoit Archambault, president of the tutoring service Succès Scolaire, which offers online and in-person services, Montreal

The digital portion of our service is constantly growing, but it’s not our main activity. Some parents just aren’t tech savvy or are used to that traditional in-home tutor experience.

There are two elements to tutoring. There’s helping a child in their school subjects, but there’s also the relationship aspect that’s going to be built between the teacher and the student. It’s not just explaining fractions – it’s helping them develop the methodology, motivation and self-esteem. That’s tough to create from behind a computer screen or with a webcam.

They need to make sure they are training the tutors in-house to ensure they master the tools of the virtual classroom and include monitoring tools and the ability for parents to give feedback within the platform.

Having a good service falls on finding the best tutors and making sure they’re not just working on one or two sessions with the students but taking the time to develop the relationship and the confidence.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Focus on specialized knowledge

Highlight the tutors’ expertise to help consumers understand why the service is worth the premium.

Develop shareable content

Make sure your creative elements and ad design are engaging enough to inspire young people to share it over social media.

Emphasize relationships

Include elements that will help foster genuine relationships between the teacher and pupil, much like a real world environment.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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