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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Board of Directors Meeting

Another challenge: how do I write about the most sensitive and strategic of meetings, make it meaningful for readers, but not disclose too much? I'll try my best.

We have one every three months -- a meeting of our Board of Directors. Each and every meeting is important, and some are critical. This Wednesday, we met for four hours. That was after 3 hours of smaller group meetings focused on specific issues. And to cap off the long and productive day, I took the Directors out to a good dinner for more strategizing and socializing.

My Board consists of seven members: 3 Directors who are Tutor.com investors who have various levels of financial, legal and entrepreneurial experience, and 3 independent Directors with well rounded and impressive backgrounds: a professor, author, commentator, and former US Secretary of Labor, and 2 senior executives who played key roles at Apple, AOL, Coca-Cola, Edison Schools, and several smaller companies. Hard to imagine a better group of people to help me build the company. Bios at http://www.tutor.com/directors.asp.

I know CEO's who dread their Board meetings, thinking that at best they have to get past them without too much damage. That's not the case here -- the most difficult aspect of Board meetings for me these days is the amount of time it takes to pull together all of the information for a management update to the Board and the backup information concerning questions that any Director may ask. In an already very busy time, the extra work is hard to make time for, and means extra long hours spread out over a two week period before the actual meeting.

That's just a given, though, and the benefits of a good Board far outweigh the time spent in preparation. We had lots to report: bad news, good news, and everything in between. For the past five years, we have grown Tutor.com by focusing on our library and government business. Now over 1,500 library locations in 42 states. Growing by almost 30% this year serving our library customers, and having big wins with statewide programs in Kansas and Alabama was very welcome news. Not getting two other statewide programs we were hoping for this year was not great news, but knowing that we have a great chance at them and several other statewide programs next year is very promising. We won't slow down in our library focus until Tutor.com's Live Homework is standard operating procedure at every public library -- just as they are with books, magazines, DVD's, and research databases. That's 1,500 down and about 15,000 to go. :-)

And now, after five years of singular focus on selling to an working with libraries, and serving over 2 million live one-to-one sessions to students through libraries, we have the resources and know-how to set our sights again on serving and selling to students and parents directly. The early purchasing and usage habits from Tutor.com Direct customers is exciting. The product launched on 9/19/06, with real marketing starting in January 2007. The early data and user feedback from a few hundred customers makes us certain that we are on the verge of something very big, and the Board discussion confirmed it.

For more of an understanding of why, see the 3 minute live video demo at www.tutor.com/direct.

The key to a supportive and productive Board: complete openness and honesty, and a good dose of humility. I treat the Directors as partners in an adventure that we are taking together. They are my bosses and decide the fate of the company, but more importantly, they are my partners in overcoming challenges and setting the right strategic direction.

They all sit on various other Boards, have full-time jobs, and are investors in other companies, so I am the management Director who need to take the day-to-day challenges and translate them into the strategic information the Board should know. They need to know bad news as early as possible, never surprised at a Board meeting. And their insights, contacts, strategic thinking, and limited time needs to be channeled in a productive way to help the company.

As I see it, the Board is operating on all cylinders now, at the most energized level I've seen since I founded the company eight years ago. Great consensus on all key strategic issues.

One more thought: while we have a great Board, it is time to think about adding a Director or two to help us think through the issues of growing a big consumer business (Tutor.com Direct). That's an invitation to anyone who has been a key part of building a business that sold services directly to students or parents, from a few hundred customers to a million or two. I'm on the lookout for good candidates.

Some time in the next week: more about our tutors -- the lifeblood of our company and our ability to make students love us.

And after that, some thoughts about raising more money from venture capitalists, a process that I started a few weeks ago and is moving faster than I expected (VC's, too, are excited about the business we've built and the prospect of Tutor.com Direct, which is going to take a lot of advertising money to grow fast).

Signing off on Sunday night...

Monday, October 23, 2006

WABC Channel 7 NY News

Great PR today for Tutor.com and our client, The Brooklyn Public Library. On the evening news of the NY ABC affiliate at 6pm. You can read the transcript and watch the 2 minute feature piece at the top of http://www.tutor.com/press.asp.

The reporter, Art McFarland, did a great job of capturing and conveying the value that the Brooklyn Public Library is providing to students across the borough. Every student in Brooklyn can get live, one-to-one tutoring seven days a week through our Live Homework Help program paid for by the library.

Good timing too, right after the Urban Libraries Council (http://www.urbanlibraries.org/) conference that ran at the end of last week: Learning in Libraries. Over 250 library and education leaders gathered on the east side of Manhattan on Friday to discuss their experiences of serving youth through library programs. The Wallace Foundation made a major grant to the three NYC library systems a few years ago to encourage them to collaborate and serve more youth across the city. http://www.homeworknyc.org/ was one of the products of the grant.

We (Tutor.com) sponsored ULC's Learning in Libraries conference (http://www.urbanlibraries.org/learninginlibrariesoctoberconference.html) for the exposure and as a way to show our appreciation. Over 60 of the libraries attending the conference are clients of ours, and I made sure to thank them and acknowledge that it is their hard work that has allowed us to serve over 2 million kids with Live Homework Help over the past five years. Without the early support and trust of the library leaders who took a chance on our innovative technology and programs, Tutor.com would not have experienced the success it has.

Support your local library!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fast growth -- Deloitte Fast 500 Award

Unless readers of this blog tell me to, I am not planning to make this a "day in the life" of a CEO blog every time.

But a couple energizing events yesterday worth mentioning:

-- Found out we are #58 on Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 list and let the staff know.

-- Interviewed by WABC Eyewitness News for a feature story that should run on the NYC ABC channel 7 news.

First, Deloitte's award: http://www.public.deloitte.com/fast500/
A national list of top 500 fastest growing technology companies over the past 5 years. Google at #41, Yahoo at #241, and Tutor.com sandwiched in there at #58. Growing almost 4000% is impressive. We started at about $170K in 2001 and went to $7MM in 2006 -- not quite as impressive in real dollars as Google' growth to $6BB, but definitely an accomplishment.

As I wrote to my staff in an email yesterday: "A very nice acknowledgment of how far we've come over the past 5 years. Fast growth is good -- managing the company so that it's ready for even faster and profitable growth in the next 5 years is even more important and where I believe we find ourselves today."

I think what makes this award special is that in that 5 year period, right after the bursting of the Internet bubble and the souring of the overall US economy, was a really hard time to grow any business. Especially an Internet business and one like ours that has been dependent on selling a brand new idea to public libraries and other government agencies when their budgets have been stagnant or shrinking.

So we'll hang that Deloitte Technology Fast500 Award plaque in our lobby proudly -- mostly to remind ourselves that we made the right choices to survive the downturn of the past five years when many similar companies didn't. The really impressive feat will be when we get the award again in five years -- let's see, 4000% growth over the next five years will take us to around $300MM in revenues. I'll take some guesses at how we'll get there in a post or two soon.

And the other fun thing yesterday -- Art McFarland, an ABC reporter for the local NYC channel 7 station is doing an ABC News report on Brooklyn Public Library's Live Homework Help program. After some editing, they should be running the feature 2 minute segment on Friday's news, and likely on the WABC web site. In addition to my interview at the library yesterday, ABC has interviewed one of our tutors, a student or two at the library, and library staff. Should be a great story and good PR for us -- Art asked smart questions and appeared genuinely interested in the program, which allows every child in Brooklyn to get one-to-one help immediately from one of our online tutors through any of the 60+ locations of the Brooklyn Public Library. He also sounded like he was as avid a Mets fan as I am, suffering through the 70's and most of the 80's, always optimistic and hopeful, which unfortunately did not help the Mets last night.

That's all for today -- barrage of back to back meetings and calls starting shortly.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Getting Started Blogging

My first blog, starting on Sunday night, 10/15/06.

Eight years into running Tutor.com, I plan to share my thoughts and opinions about the company and services we have created, our plans for the future, and thoughts for other CEOs facing similar challenges.

My hope is to spur on interesting exchanges with Tutor.com customers, tutors and librarians, and others curious about education, technology, entrepreneurship, and whatever else I wind up writing about. Thanks for reading!

Why did it take this long to blog? Time is so precious these days and I have a bad habit of starting projects and hobbies out of curiousity and taking months to finish them -- the list is a long one that includes woodworking projects, fly fishing learning, an essay on flaws in the US Constitution, a couple other companies I contemplated starting... I can barely finish these first sentences without wanting to start a new one. :-)

Unless it's just a hobby or curiosity, I am serious about finishing what I start, and doing it well. And blogging feels to me like a real committment. You can't stop and start every few months and be a real blogger, maybe even with a following. But then it hit me -- blogging, like most of my communications via email, can be done when I should be sleeping -- and that's when all the good thinking starts to gel into real theories and ideas worth writing about.

So in the next couple days I'll start with some thoughts about how we got this far -- Tutor.com, almost eight years old, thriving and on the cusp of even faster growth and something really big.

(Picture above, me in blue tie demonstrating with my hands, is from launch last month of HomeworkKansas with Governor Sebelius of Kansas, in red.)