Miguel Kudry's first idea was to start a phone-based service that would connect students connect with tutors, whether or not they were in front of their computers, so he built that. But the Vancouver-based business graduate, already a serial entrepreneur at 21, got feedback from his users, saying they wanted more features, so he grew his product into a video conferencing-based service to connect students with tutors.
That worked too – but soon, tutors using his service reported that students were shy to jump into videoconference calls with tutors they hadn't met. So Mr. Kudry went back to work and started building again. The result was HelpHub, a tutoring service that uses some innovative tricks to get students and teachers talking.
In many senses, HelpHub resembles any other online marketplace: Students sign in, choose the discipline they're looking for help in, and are presented with a list of tutors who are online and ready to help them. But the system employs another expedient to help get students past this stage.
"A lot of students are shy, and might be browsing around," says Mr. Kudry. So once a student has signed in, and is looking for a given kind of tutoring, the system sends a behind-the-scenes ping to the top ten tutors who happen to be online at that moment. (The rankings of who makes the top ten are set by a system that takes factors like the tutor's responsiveness into account.)
Those pings – which can also arrive as text messages if the tutor isn't in front of their computer – serve as sales leads. The tutor can then reach out to the student in a chat window, and initiate a conversation. Mr. Kudry says he was surprised at the amount of traction tutors got once they started reaching out to passively-browsing students.
The actual tutoring either happens in chat, or in a video conference. Live video chats are billed by the minute; instructors can set their own rate (many are around $20 an hour, or 17 cents a minute), and HelpHub charges a 5 per cent commission from the tutor's end.
All the same, Mr. Kudry says, a lot of the tutoring actually happens informally, right in the chat window. HelpHub's chat interface lets students "tip" tutors in small increments, allowing tutors to negotiate small fees for ad-hoc help sessions. Others, however, tutors work with students gratis to build relationships, turning casual chats into scheduled on-the-clock video conferences.
And what if anyone decides to take connections they make on HelpHub and move them away from the service, and its commissions?
"If they want to take their conversation personally, that's fine with us," says Mr. Kudry. "But they lose the concept of our whole platform, which is to maintain our privacy." Sure enough, privacy is something that might be of value to tutors who want to set their on-call hours, and avoid desperate middle-of-the-night calls from deadlining students.
Started in early 2013 and relaunched a few months ago in its current incarnation, HelpHub has attracted a few thousand tutors and students apiece, and Mr. Kudry says he's just raised his first seed round of $250,000.