The Profs In the News
Please see our recent features below:
Tutoring startup offers a lesson in success
Many small businesses begin life in their founder’s bedroom. Few, however, can match the spectacular growth of The Profs – a tuition agency that, 16 months after its modest beginnings, has an office in Belgravia and is handling £20,000 of transactions each week.
As a cash-strapped economics student at the London School of Economics, Richard Evans took the advice of a friend to try his hand at tutoring. It went so well that he continued with the work after graduation. Spotting that most tuition services were set up “to help the typical kind of Chelsea parent get their child through an entrance exam,” Evans saw a gap in the market and began offering his services to undergraduate students. Soon his schedule was fuller than he could handle, and he banded together with four other tutors to share the workload.
After a few successful months, and with brother Leo now on board, Evans launched The Profs, a web-based agency that could bring together students and tutors. With no external funding and just a £1,200 overdraft, the business grew rapidly: it now has four partners, five full-time employees and more than 200 students a month taking classes with tutors.
The business model is simple: the Profs help tutors find work and deal with all the invoicing, and in return take a commission for the hours the tutors work. “Almost no two students want the same course,” says Evans. “So we needed really top-quality people because it’s not a homogenised, standardised product.” Many of its tutors are senior academics or industry professionals with 20 or 30 years of experience – even so, the team interviews every potential new tutor, regardless of experience. Tutors – who now number 300 – are paid weekly and given flexibility about when and where they work.
Smart use of technology has helped make the model a success. Cloud-based software called TutorCruncher handles the invoicing: tutors log their hours electronically, then it takes one click to send out the invoices, and one more click to collect the payments and transfer them to the firm’s bank account. The software also collects valuable data about which tutors and subjects are most popular.
While the business was initially confined to matching London-based tutors and students, it has begun to expand globally through its new online tutoring app, BitPaper, which brings together students and tutors anywhere in the world to collaborate on a virtual whiteboard. “It’s great to see that people around the world are starting to phone up and say: ‘This doesn’t exist in my country, I need top tuition from a London-based tutor,’” says Evans.
Although The Profs has spent some money on marketing – taking out online advertising, for example – most of its growth has been down to word-of-mouth recommendation. Fears that people would want to keep their use of tutors secret have proved unfounded, says Evans: “We’re glad to say that when a friend sees another friend at three in the morning feeling very upset, they might say: ‘I’ve had a really good experience, and there is a professional who can teach you one-on-one.’”
The business offers a money-back guarantee if a student isn’t happy with the first tutorial. “We phone up after the tutorial to make sure that someone is happy, and we ask what was good and what was bad, then we let our tutors know,” he says.
Setting up and running the business has been a “fun experience”, says Evans, and he’s still amazed at how quickly it’s grown: “Whenever we set a target it gets beaten by our tutors and our team. We’re quite surprised to be here 16 months in.”
Young entrepreneurs: Richard Evans and Rory Curnock Cook, The Profs
Richard Evans and Rory Curnock Cook both had their first taste of business at an early age.
At four, Evans was charging his parents and their friends a reasonable 20p to watch his teddy puppet shows, while Cook claims to have made a staggering 100 francs selling snail shells from a market stall in the South of France when he was just six.
Now aged 25, they’ve moved on from amateur dramatics and dead mollusks, into the world of education. After finding not just financial, but personal rewards in tutoring while he was at university, Evans, alongside Cook, decided to turn his new found passion into a business.
Their first business The Profs is a London-based online platform providing private university tuition. It offers everything from free online resources to weekly mentoring and one-on-one exam coaching from specially chosen lecturers, PhDs and industry specialists – charging 25% commission to their tutors for connecting them with clients.
The duo has now reinvested the profits from The Profs into a new education technology (edtech) venture, BitPaper: an online collaborative whiteboard allowing students and lecturers to synchronise their notes and sketches in real time. Currently in beta, the plan for BitPaper is to “break down the barrier between computer notes and traditional pen and paper”.
So far both businesses have been entirely bootstrapped and the company has been able to move into a central London office and expand internationally without raising external capital.
Ultimately, Evans says their ambition is to “create a global knowledge-sharing economy that helps improve teaching standards around the world”. Projecting turnover of more than £750,000 for 2016, the young entrepreneurs’ plans look more than achievable.
Richard Evans’ Member Story
At the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) we have been working closely with our members to tell their story. Back in February, we unveiled the winners of the FSB Worldpay UK Business Awards 2016 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. We’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few of the winners from this year, as well as some of the highly commended entries who are taking the small business world by storm.
The Profs is a platform that introduces disenchanted students across the world to inspiring academics, both face to face and online. They also help with professional qualifications for directors who haven’t had the time or inclination to go back to the classroom.
The founding team consists of Richard Evans – an Economics & Political Sciences graduate. Partner Dr. Leo Evans – a financier from JP Morgan and ex lecturer. Partner, Managing Director and education entrepreneur Rory Curnock-Cook. They work alongside Vyvyan Almond and Joseph Robins who are the Senior Client Manager and Client Manager respectively.
The three founding members set out to revolutionise the education and tutoring landscape. We asked the group what inspired them to start-up The Profs, “We saw a fragmented market, with some students going down the wrong road when it came to finding help with their essays and exams. It was a very dodgy market. We’ve seen students become disenchanted with issues such as fees, larger class sizes, lack of funding and heavy focus on research. This has all lead to the deterioration of education.”
Leo adds, “We’ve injected professionalism – as well as a bit of gloss and glamour. We wanted to be professionals who help professional people. We’ve worked with really good tutors to help them get more work and here we are around twenty months later!”
It was very humble beginnings for The Profs, with the business starting in Richard’s bedroom back in 2014. The idea grew into a profitable business and the three partners formalised everything and became an incorporated company in September of last year.
Richard continues, “We started off in a relatively small way, meeting professors in a tiny coffee shop down the road with tiny tables. We realised it was a little ridiculous and then moved into the offices that we occupy now. Recently we have been discussing how we can accelerate the business and take it world-wide.”
We asked Richard, Rory and Leo what business has been like since their awards commendation,
“Being ‘Highly Commended’ in the Start-Up of the Year category at the FSB Worldpay UK Business Awards 2016 has helped The Profs to reach new unseen heights. In the two months since we won the award we have doubled our business which is fantastic!”
Rory adds, “From a business point of view it allows clients to take us more seriously and we get more professional tutors applying for positions. Universities also see that we’re not a shady company. They know that the high calibre of tutors we work with would never risk their professional reputations, and that we uphold the strictest anti-plagiarism essays. Now we have a stamp of approval from FSB and Worldpay, we’re one of the best start-ups of 2016.”
We also asked The Profs why they joined FSB, “It was a larger agency and member of FSB that recommended the organisation to us. It was really helpful because we were trying to draw up some contracts, we wish we’d found FSB sooner.”
The team work closely with over 350 semi-contracted members of staff and cloud based teams, “We’re really grateful for FSB’s Legal Protection Scheme, working with the self-employed is a really important part of our company. Self-employed VAT is a minefield, and in case something does go wrong, it’s reassuring to know we’ve got FSB behind us. It’s so valuable to our business.
Being a member also solves the stress and worry of getting an email that causes us to panic. We can just pick the phone up and speak to a professional who knows what to do and who is going to help us combat those difficulties.”
Richard continues, “I see so many complaints from small business owners about red tape or making a mistake. We don’t know that anything disastrous is going to happen, but it might. We find ourselves pre-emptively contacting FSB and getting the best advice out there. That really helps! If we were to ever get called up by HMRC, we know that we’ve got records and documents in writing, we can say we did our due diligence. FSB helps to protect us. That helps me sleep easier at night.”
We also asked The Profs what advice they would give to anyone thinking of setting up their own business, “Firstly, just do it! Make mistakes, make them proudly and learn from them. Secondly, chat to everyone that you can for support. I’ve seen other member stories where they talk about being lonely and needing someone to talk to about running a business, so it’s good to have a FSB community out there.”
We spoke to the highly commended businessmen about their ambitions for the future, “Recently we’ve moved into online tuition. We’ve launched ‘BitPaper’ which is our new software. It’s in-house at the moment and Suzy Ferreira, our business partner, business development advisor and director of ‘BitPaper’, will be rolling it out to over 36,000 tutors in the next few weeks. We’ll be offering a premium service, and at present it is completely free. We’re really excited about it.”
The Profs added, “‘BitPaper’ will teach people how to do online tutoring effectively, as well as how to run an online class. We want to teach tutors how to give professional online classes, using ‘BitPaper’, to help them give the best possible service to their students. Our aspirations now are to really consolidate the tuition market, we’ve got professors, academics and directors of banks on board. We want to get all these people together and show that it’s more than a bit-part job. It’s a professional job and it should be treated so. We’re really excited to tell the world about online tuition!”
As experts in business, we offer our members a wide range of vital business services including advice, financial expertise, support and a powerful voice in government. Our policy, press and public affairs teams across the UK lobby decision makers and politicians, on the issues important to our members. Our aim is to help smaller businesses achieve their ambitions.
The Profs: An Interview with Founder Richard Evans
From securing his first tutee in 2010, to running one of the industry’s most successful start-ups, Richard Evans tells explains the inspiration behind The Profs tutoring platform.
Founded in 2014, The Profs connects students, professionals and companies with a network of highly-qualified professional private tutors. Focused primarily on university, degree-level and professional qualification tuition in London, The Profs also tutor at secondary level over GCSE and A Level.
The company offers bespoke courses, professional training, statistical consultancy, specialist university and job application reviews as well as international teaching placements.
We arranged a Q&A with the founder of the platform, Richard Evans.
You graduated with a 1st class degree in Economics & Political Sciences from the London School of Economics. How did the idea for The Profs come about? What was your inspiration behind the platform?
I love tutoring. I enjoy it just as much today as when I took on my first client back in 2010. I wanted to make a real go of it, but the antisocial hours prevented it from being the great job I wanted. I would work every evening 4-7pm and all weekend. Not working 9-4pm sounds great until all your friends have jobs. Then I took on my first university client.
At first, I thought my effective rate had plummeted – preparation took a lot longer, which was tough. But I got on really well with my client and before long we were meeting 3 times a week. I realized that in return for the extra preparation hours, I could hold much longer tutorials throughout the day.
Over time, the preparation would diminish as I began to specialise in certain university courses. Also, in all honesty, less interaction with parents makes my life much calmer. Before, parents were constantly calling or holding me back after tutorials for updates. It’s completely understandable, but when I had over 20 clients, each wanting a 30 minute weekly update, I was losing an entire day, repeating to parents the revision schedules that I had already run through with my students.
There was also the difficulty in trying to keep a tutee’s respect and confidence when their slightly embarrassing mum kept grilling me, in front of them, about their every mistake or difficulty at school.
Before long I’d built up a reputation for helping university students, and realised the gap in the market. I was being pulled in too many directions – macroeconomics, microeconomics, mathematics, statistics, finance, econometrics – and the preparation-time problem reared its ugly head again. So I began asking my students if they’d found any excellent tutors whom I could recommend to other students.
I found a gang of like-minded…well, misfits, who for one reason or another had decided that full-time tuition was the life for them. They jumped at the idea of focusing on just one subject, and we’d all pass clients between each other so that we could specialize. The Profs was born, and our fundamental vision is the same: great work brings in referrals, so let’s share the spoils.
Can you give us an overview of the services you offer?
The Profs specializes in high end university-level tuition both, face-to-face and online. We aim to cover all subjects and all levels – which is a lot considering that there are over 37,000 courses in the UK. We also help financial directors and executives earn their professional qualifications in a time-efficient manner, in-between their busy work schedules.
Since the site went live in September 2014, you already have 300+ educators registered with your site. What has enabled the company to grow so quickly? What has been your approach to marketing?
We believe that good business markets itself. Every Prof is a brand ambassador, and we try to empower tutors to represent our brand by doing an outstanding job. I’m proud of how our network has grown, just through being professional and respectful. We try to look after our tutors – sharing our experiences and good practices in the interview, training them in online tuition, following up with their clients and passing on all feedback: whether praise or criticism – so that they can continuously improve and grow The Profs’ brand further in the process.
Working in a niche also means that people talk. When you are the only company that can handle tricky fields, students tend to tell all their friends.
The Profs has worked with around 1000 students globally and has an impressive network of tutors and educators. Can you tell us about your vetting process?
We’ve had to adhere to strict standards. We personally interview every tutor with a teaching interview, regardless of their qualifications or experience. The most talented of tutors respect that we always keep our promise to clients by interviewing our tutors. However, about once a month an applicant will refuse to come down to an interview because they are confident that they will be great at the job, which is amusing. Isn’t the point of an interview to showcase your skills for us to sell to prospective clients? I remind them.
Due to the enormous efforts we make to support our tutors in how to plan and execute a successful tutorial, we are also very strict on our existing tutors. We offer a 100% money-back guarantee to our clients, and if we hear of any tutor failing to set and fulfil reasonable lesson objectives, we are unlikely to work with them again. I think this policy has worked well in pressuring our tutors to turn up to every tutorial prepared and ready to smash it out of the park.
Moreover, we keep up with our tutors and provide feedback from clients on how they can improve their style, organisation or getting online to maximize their effective wage. Three tutors this past week have called me up saying that they feel part of The Profs family – and that is exactly what we want to be, as tutoring can be a lonely profession.
The Profs also offers online tutoring and has its own whiteboard app called BitPaper. Having tried the whiteboard for ourselves, we have to say it’s the best we’ve seen. Can you tell us a bit more about the software and how it benefits students?
Thank you! That’s big praise from The Tutor Website. BitPaper has been designed by tutors for tutors, and we want it to become the definitive tool for tutors. Simplicity is key. It allows us to bridge the gap between writing digitally and on paper. The most exciting feature is the ability to copy and paste any screenshot directly into the board, create notes, and then export it in seconds.
We’re currently in open Beta and constantly adding more features, so we encourage any tutors to give it a go and get in touch, to help us shape and perfect the product. Watch this space!
How can tutors get into online tutoring? What are the benefits?
It’s available to everyone, for free, and we’re currently creating tutorial videos and guidelines for tutors to help them get in to online tuition. I’m personally asking each tutor to provide feedback on these resources so that they are comprehensible to everyone. As for the benefits: it completely removes travel time, meaning your effective wages double, and you will no longer get caught in the rain in-between tutorials. It also allows tutors to reach a global audience, so that you no longer have to live in Central London to have access to the most clients. Importantly, I am a complete convert, having initially been hesitant about online tuition.
I do not think that any of my client relationships, new or old, are at all diminished by online tuition, because I use audio-visual recording technology that means that we can both speak naturally, and I can see their facial expressions, to better gauge their comprehension of the material.
I now record my classes and export the class notes to PDF, meaning that my clients can revisit all the materials in their own time. In fact, all my original face-to-face clients have now asked to continue online!
The Profs has a full five star rating on review website TrustPilot, Facebook and Google. How do you gain the trust of the students and tutors that you work with?
This is at the core of what we do. Great work leads to referrals, which are the lifeblood of private tuition. The Profs was founded by a group of tutors wanting to share referrals. And we’ve never let go of that ethos. I know that every tutorial I give could lead to future work for the rest of the network, and when we all share that belief, we all go the extra mile with our tuition. And that’s what leads to our 5-star ratings.
Your website has a resource library with a range of economics and international relations resources. Why those subjects specifically? What do you think makes a useful resource for students?
This is just the beginning. Now that we have the technology to back us up, we intend to create many more tuition resources, to share between tutors and students alike. It is my belief that good tutors benefit from great resources, whilst great tutors create their own.
I have seen many new tutors with a knack for explaining complex topics, but they often lack the structure to cover a whole course comprehensively. A great set of conclusive notes is a fantastic way to ensure that your tutorials will cover the whole course in a time-efficient manner, so ultimately I want to create a conduit that allows rising stars to utilise the resources of the very best tutors.
The Profs recently entered the Guardian’s Start-up of the Year competition and in your application you mention that you’ve recently moved offices to Belgravia. How did this move come about?
We had to get out of the bedroom eventually! It’s great to have a space where we can interview our tutors and meet with clients. The shortlisting and subsequent publication in The Guardian, plus being Highly Commended for Start Up of The Year 2016 at the FSB Worldpay awards, has really help The Profs establish itself in the UK market.
It’s been great to see our tutors rally around our recent successes and call up and ask how they can get more involved. We have such a buzz in the office, and it’s really showing in the recommendations of both tutors and clients. Now we want to set up offices outside of London, and outside of the UK. Exciting times!
What do you think distinguishes The Profs from your competitors?
A few things spring to mind. Through focusing on university students and professional clients, The Profs offer daytime hours and very lucrative hourly rates – the Holy Grail for serious tutors. We are currently leading the charge in converting a bit-part job into a professional occupation through introducing academics, great national PR and ongoing feedback.
We also empower our tutors through technology, and help them to reach a global audience through online tutor training. We pay our tutors as quickly as we can; we invoice all our clients weekly and pay out two weeks later, or sooner if we can, giving clients a reasonable amount of time to check their invoices. Lastly, we are building a sense of community through interaction and tutor champagne evenings (the last couple have been a really good laugh – we drunk Covent Garden’s Foundation Bar dry).
What is The Profs plans for the future?
We are growing nationally, and have worked with clients and tutors on every continent. Through online tuition, we want to expand globally. We are also enjoying working with professionals and creating tailored tuition packages for directors who need advanced finance or accounting skills, but do not wish to go back to a classroom environment.
Developing BitPaper and creating world-beating teaching materials will be our main focus of the next year, and we’re going to need help form the wider tuition world to help us achieve that goal.
You partner companies include Athena Tuition and William Clarence Education. How important has collaboration been in the growth of your business? Do you see a lot of collaboration in the tutoring industry in general?
Very important – and I love that the tuition industry is still intimate enough that you can pick up the phone and reach the founder of another tuition agency. It’s great to be able to share our experiences to ensure that each of us is providing the best service that we can, and occasionally share clients and tutors if our own networks ever fall short of the mark. I’m delighted to forge friendships in the industry, now including TTW in that list.
The private tuition industry has grown considerably over the last 10 years. What do you see as the future of private tutoring in the UK? Where do you think the industry is headed?
Yes it’s been booming for a decade, and proved very robust through the 2008/09 recession. I think we’re starting to see consolidation now; I know a lot of companies that started up with us in 2014, but only two are still going. The market is so saturated that it is difficult for new companies to compete.
However, the sustained profitability of the big players will lead to innovation. Most companies are built around a similar model, and no one has perfected it yet. The growth of quality online tuition seems inevitable and disruptive to the industry, in an exciting way. That’s why we’re personally training all our top tutors in professional online tuition using BitPaper to help them fill their schedules and keep competitive.
To learn more about The Profs tutoring services, visit their website at www.theprofs.co.uk and to try out their interactive whiteboard, visit www.bitpaper.io.