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TutorVista expands global classroom

Subir Roy  |  Bangalore 

TutorVista, which broke new ground by offering personalised customer services through online tutoring to students in the US from India, is breaking new ground again. It has just extended its reach to the UK and Korea.
While the offering in the UK is similar to that in the US, English language tuition to Koreans is being seen as testing waters that also lap the shores of China and Japan. And its next target is teaching Spanish, the second most-spoken language in the world.
In the less than two years that it has been around, TutorVista, which was first reported on in Business Standard, has enjoyed phenomenal global media attention by being featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, BusinessWeek and Time.
Its business till now has been to offer private tuition to high school students in the US at $100 per month for unlimited hours. When a prospective customer clicks on the TutorVista link the sales staff get on to him on the chat mode and offer a demo.
He pays up and begins, with half the money back if he is not satisfied and wishes to quit after a month. Not more than 20 per cent discontinue.
The pedagogic tools used are a whiteboard, speech and keyboard chat, all via the Net. The disciplines offered stretch from English to maths and other hard sciences, right up to history and geography. The tests prepared for cover the standard ones offered by the US College Board like SAT and TOEFL.
"Today, when someone in the US does a Google search for online tutoring, we come second, behind only Sylvan which has been around for long," says K Ganesh, chairman and founder, who has become a serial entrepreneur with creations like Customer.Asset (now FirstSource) behind him.
TutorVista has 600 teachers, all working out of their homes that are mostly in India but also in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. "Hong Kong is a base only for teaching Mandarin. You will be surprised how many Americans want to speak to the Chinese in their own language so as to do business better," observes Ganesh.
More than the teachers and the sales staff, the newer workforce in TutorVista is its 52-strong team.
"Through them we have spent 40 man-years developing a platform" that critically enables tutoring delivered online and real time.
Soon the firm will launch its own platform, thus scripting a tale similar to that of the Japanese (cars) and the Italians (apparel), who first made the products and then the machines that made the products.
The other challenge that TutorVista has set before itself is to transit from the way it currently does its marketing.
This is now mostly online and paid, through Google and Yahoo. When someone keys in a phrase like "online tutoring", up pops the TutorVista link in the paid position. But this is costly.
So the great goal before the firm is to figure high up in the main or unpaid part of the search results, which happens when you score high via the search engine's matrices of popularity. So effort is on to optimise the pages at the website in such a way that they automatically feature well in searches and thereby notch up good ratings.
Right now around 10 per cent of eyeballs come via this unpaid search and the aim is to take this ratio up to 50 per cent in a year.
The biggest challenge for TutorVista is customer acquisition at an affordable price in a business-to-customer space.
"We have proved you can create a customer brand out of India. We own the brand. For us, when someone makes a hit, the response is from TutorVista, whereas someone at an Indian IT major will be responding on behalf of, say, Microsoft."
But you also have to get the maximum value out of the brand. Currently TutorVista is burning cash. It has got a good bit of it, considering the $15 million raised through leading private equity firms like Sequoia and Lightspeed. TutorVista hopes to break even in the next financial year (2008-09).
If Ganesh has a vision then it is a billion dollars in five years. But the big question is whether he will be around to see that day. He has an enviable or notorious (depending on your preference) record of building up firms and then exiting at a high valuation. He quit Customer.Asset when it was two and Marketics, the business analytics firm, when it was three. He has completed almost two years with TutorVista and for him the clock must already be ticking.

First Published: Mon, September 17 2007. 00:00 IST