SAN FRANCISCO — The No Child Left Behind Act that was enacted by U.S. President George W. Bush five years ago aimed to improve the test scores of American schoolchildren, but Krishnan Ganesh, founder and chief executive officer of online tutoring company TutorVista, believes his company could teach the U.S. government a thing or two about the secret to making a child's academic career successful.
"At every point [you] need assisted learning," said Ganesh. "The U.S. government can learn from this model."
TutorVista's model is not only academic: it also makes economic sense. It involves tutors who are all located in India, working online with American or British students for as little as $99 per month for unlimited tutoring or $19.99 an hour as opposed to the $40-to-$100-an-hour private tutors charge in the United States.
The company, which was incorporated in July 2005, is perched at the beginning of India's burgeoning new knowledge process outsourcing industry, which has emerged on the heels of the country's highly successful business process outsourcing industry.
TutorVista went live in January 2006 and currently has 60 tutors and 500 students in the United States. According to Jarrod Brown, TutorVista's academic director, the company is also pursuing partnerships and is currently in talks with several U.S. companies in the private education industry.
"By delivering tutoring in this format and affordability we are opening a new market for those who can't afford Sylvan or Kaplans," said Brown, who noted that the ease of access to tutors was another potential appeal.
This past June, the company secured $2 million in financing from Sequoia Capital India and angel investors. The company was launched with private funding from Ganesh and an angel investor.
"It was important to see that the whole thing works," said Ganesh. "Can Indians teach United States [kids]? Will United States students pay? It needed to be demonstrated before venture capitalists put in money."
The concept has indeed been demonstrated but, as Ganesh noted, much is unique about the TutorVista approach to business. "We are using Indian resources to deliver to the U.S. and U.K. customers there," he said. "It's the first time without intermediaries, [that a company] targets the American and British consumer directly. It's a business to consumer model, an exciting new model that's also very different."
TutorVista's process has been made possible only with the recent advancements and lower costs of voice-over-Internet technology.
It also utilizes a virtual whiteboard tool that enables online collaboration by allowing a tutor and student to share the same screen.
"It's very interactive," said Ganesh. "The teacher has a blue pen and the student has a black pen."
TutorVista's tutor certification program involves 60 hours of training on U.S. curriculum and pedagogy, as well as familiarization with American slang and accents. Ganesh said that the program is crucial to the company's success because of the countries' different educational approaches.
"In India and Europe they learn more by repetition and rote," said Ganesh. "In the United States, they learn more by example. They take real life and apply what they learn." All tutors work from their homes and about a third of the tutor trainees don't get hired because they either can't adapt to this way of teaching or they can't adjust to American accents or they don't meet Tutor Vista standards, said Ganesh.
"We are very discriminating in hiring tutors, said Brown. "Ninety percent have masters [degrees]. We want backgrounds in teaching experience. The highest quality tutors will distinguish us in the future from other tutoring companies."
With very few models to learn from, Ganesh said setting up the company involved a series of trial and errors. For instance, the company wanted teachers with experience but didn't anticipate that they would be at varying levels of computer knowledge. Also, because the tutors all work out of their homes, Ganesh quickly realized he needed to standardize what each tutor had on their home computer.
"We are working from scratch," said Ganesh.
The average TutorVista tutor is in his mid-40s with about 20 years of teaching experience. Most of the students are in high school and the most popular subjects for tutoring are math and English, mostly for SAT and ACT preparation.
Marketing TutorVista in the United States involves a two-pronged approach: online marketing and talking to schools and school districts. "We find out what they're missing and set up classes in those areas," said Ganesh. The tutors give homework, quizzes and assessment tests — something that Ganesh said is important because that focus on the individual child can't always be done in a school classroom environment.
"In other countries, tutoring is not a remedial service," said Brown. "It's an essential component of education. That's one of the reasons those countries are surpassing us in education. Education is not just in the classroom."
It was Ganesh's research on the U.S. educational system coupled with a desire, based on his experience, to develop a business in India for the global market that prompted him to come up with the concept of making tutoring accessible to the mass market.
TutorVista is the latest in a series of Indian ventures that Ganesh was involved in. After receiving a mechanical engineering degree from Delhi University and a post-graduate degree from the Institute of Management in Calcutta his first venture in 1990 was as founder and chief executive officer of IT&T Ltd., a technical support call center for clients in the United States and the United Kingdom. He took the company public in 2000 and sold it to iGate Global Solutions Ltd. three years later.
Another venture, CustomerAsset, was started in mid-2000 to address the international business process outsourcing sector. It grew to 4,000 employees and in May 2002, ICICI Bank, India's second largest bank, acquired CustomerAsset for over $20 million.
Along the way Ganesh also worked as the CEO of Wipro British Telecom/Bharti British
Telecom, a British Telecom joint venture in India and with HCL Ltd.
"I knew about doing work from India for a global market," said Ganesh. "I knew I wanted to do something like that."
Ganesh's research demonstrated to him that there were two areas that Americans were passionate about: health care and education. But it was in the educational system that Ganesh felt he could have an impact. "Every article and newspaper about the educational system [said] it wasn't coping," he said. "It became a combination of two things: the need in the United States and my background of wanting to do something from India."
For Ganesh, the human element of TutorVista makes all the difference. "We believe that fundamentally books, CDs and Websites can't solve the problem," said Ganesh. "You need a human being in there."
Technology, he added, facilitates that connection.
Ganesh anticipates that TutorVista will achieve profitability by June 2007 and expects the company to have 8,000 students by next year.
"When I envision the future I want to see one in three American students getting private tutoring at TutorVista," said Brown. "We're trying to make a difference."