InstaEdu’s Brother-Sister Team Puts Tutoring Online, On Demand

InstaEdu, a San Francisco-based startup that provides teens with on-demand online tutoring, began as a side project ginned up by siblings Alison and Dan Johnston. Alison, who had been part of search startup Aardvark and wound up as an associate product marketing manager at Google after Aardvark’s acquisition, was itching to start her own company, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. As a student at Stanford, younger brother Dan realized that there was a supply of college students looking to make some money tutoring, and plenty of families in the area looking for help, but that hourly rates were really high. “A bunch of kids in the Palo Alto area were looking for tutors, but we believed they were grossly overcharging,” Alison says.

So the brother-sister duo started their own company, Cardinal Scholars, at the beginning of 2011, matching 14 tutors from Stanford with area families who needed some academic help. The business grew quickly—by the end of the year, they had 150 tutors hailing from Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard—but demand grew even faster. “We had people wanting tutors from Napa to Hong Kong,” she says. “People would come in at 11 o’clock at night and ask for help. But I wasn’t going to call 15 tutors at 11 o’clock and see who could get on Skype.”

The Johnstons (they’re the blond-headed ones in the upper right of the photo above) started thinking about how they could provide the kind of one-on-one tutoring that would help students improve their grades and test scores, while keeping everything convenient and affordable. They also recognized that structured tutoring blocks one or twice a week weren’t necessarily what students needed. “Not every student needs two hours a week,” Alison says. “There’s always that moment when you’re looking at your physics homework and thinking, ‘I don’t even know how to start this.’”

The InstaEdu home page shows a few of the startup's tutors.

To address all of those pain points, the siblings created InstaEdu, a site that allows students as young as 13 to connect with tutors via video chat (or other forms of chat) to confab on subjects from physics to history to Spanish. Alison says her experience with Aardvark, which had a chat platform for social questions and answers, helped inform her vision of how InstaEdu would work. (They sold Cardinal Scholars to Course Hero in June.)

Now, students seeking homework help can sign on to the service and click on a specific subject. Requests are automatically sent to tutors who are signed into Facebook or Google Talk. Once a tutor accepts the request, the two are matched in an online lesson space that allows them to communicate via video chat, audio chat or text-based chat, whatever they’re most comfortable with. Students can also upload their homework or use document-editing functions to make the process easier. “It simulates in person experience as much as possible,” Alison says. “They can work on same problems, and edit the same essay. If they only need help with one equation, they can chat for five minutes and then go back to their homework.”

And those five minutes don’t cost students much. InstaEdu charges a flat rate of 50 cents per minute, with a minimum of five minutes. So if a student only needs 10 minutes worth of help, they only have to pay $5. An hour of help costs $30, with $20 of the fee going into tutors’ pockets. The rest goes to the company.

On average, the company has a 20 percent response rate; for every six tutors they ping, one agrees to chat at a given time.

InstaEdu launched a beta version of its site May, and so far the startup has about 1,000 tutors on board (though they don’t release the number of students they’ve helped). For now, the tutors hail exclusively from top-25 universities, though that may change soon. “We’re still focused on top students, but we’re very well aware that there are great students at other schools out there that are great teachers,” Alison says. “There’s no reason to exclude them.”

However, expanding the talent pool will mean more screening, Since InstaEdu is hiring adults to work with minors (at least for the most part—some students seeking help are adults), so they need to verify that the tutors are who they say they are. To do it, the company relies on Facebook Connect to confirm what schools the students go to, and relies on the schools themselves to vet their students. “We haven’t had any issues to date,” she says.

Three months after launch, the two-man team has added four employees, including co-founder and CTO Joey Shurtleff. In May, the company raised $1.1 million in seed funding, led by The Social+Capital Partnership.

Though the company has only been in beta for four months, they’ve gotten a lot of feedback from students and tutors. The most common comment is that students want to be able to work regularly with tutors they enjoy, not just whoever answers a query at a given moment. And tutors want to be able to set their own hours, so it’s less about waiting for a ping then having a regular schedule. “Right now, it feels kind of random,” Alison says. But InstaEdu will roll out new features to address both problems soon.

“We’re still constantly working on making tech and connections work as effectively as possible,” Alison says, “We’ve made a lot of progress. But still a long way to go.”

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2 responses to “InstaEdu’s Brother-Sister Team Puts Tutoring Online, On Demand”

  1. “Congrats, InstaEDU! But the concept is not new – EduwizardS has been doing the same for some years now. They pioneered the ” choose your own tutor model” back in 2007 and it works to this day! EduwizardS tutors are ranked and reviewed by students and parents and you can base your choice on those, after scheduling a free trial session with a tutor of your choice. Prices are the lowest in the business. Bon voyage, InstaEDU, but the space is getting crowded.”