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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Education Technology Conference

Great change of pace today, talking with other entrepreneurs, learning about new education technologies and business models, catching up with friends in the industry.

I'm describing SIIA's (Software And Information Industry Association) Education Technology Business Forum (http://www.siia.net/etbf/2006/), where I spent today, in midtown Manhattan. Over 150 attendees, mostly education technology company leaders, venture capitalists, and others serving schools, libraries, students, and parents. Paul Vallas, chief of the Philadelphia school district, provided an inspiring keynote.

I've been to several of these and many other similar conferences. No offense to the many presenters and panelists at such conferences, but they can be slow and painful at times, especially when powerpoints rule over human interaction.

So, invited months ago to serve on the steering committee for this annual conference, I didn't have to voice too loudly my desire to spice things up a bit. There was quick consensus in the steering group to make the conference a "powerpoint-free zone", to have panel moderators that keep the pace up, to limit speakers to shorter presentations that are not advertisements for their companies, and to make sure there's lots of time for audience questions and discussion instead of making it an after-thought.

Those recommendations made a world of a difference today -- compelling discussions, insightful panelists, smart audience participation and poignant questions.

SIIA also organized "1 to 1 Business Connections", scheduled 20 minute conversations where earlier-stage companies have a chance to pitch later stage companies (like Tutor.com, Scholastic, Pearson, and others) to consider partnership ideas. For me, it was a great opportunity to get a taste of new technologies and education concepts that Tutor.com could consider integrating with our services.

Some fascinating ideas and conversations. Amongst others:
-- Innovative vocabulary building software: http://www.phase-6.com/
-- Simplified payment systems for parents and schools: http://www.mypaynet.com/
-- Merging of paper and electronic content: http://www.somaticdigital.com/
-- Reading comprehension system: http://www.meritsoftware.com/
-- Biometric software in schools: http://www.identimetrics.net/

Knowing how hard it is to take even the best of ideas and turn it into a successful self-sustaining business, many of these passionate and smart entrepreneurs will not make it. But it was extremely encouraging to see the wide array of ideas emerging as companies from the energy and creative thinking focused on finding ways to use technology to solve education and learning challenges.

I'll be tracking these and other promising companies to see how they progress, and where there is a good fit with Tutor.com's services, I will look for ways to partner with them and help them through the early company-building stages.

George Cigale
gcigale@tutor.com

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Microsoft partnership value

Today, a little bit of detail about our product development and technologies. We develop software using the Microsoft technology framework, so we got very interested when one of our investors, Dawntreader Ventures (http://www.dtventures.com/), introduced us to the Microsoft Emerging Business Team (http://microsoftstartupzone.com). Some of the details (ok, most of the details) here are provided by Paul Gomes, our VP of Technology:


We met with John Nogrady (http://microsoftstartupzone.com/Portfolios.aspx) from the Emerging Business Team last year to tell him the Tutor.com story. And John outlined various Microsoft programs that could help us realize our business goals. One key program John recommended is the Microsoft Partner Program (http://partner.microsoft.com).

We took John’s advice and started with the Empower Microsoft Program (https://partner.microsoft.com/global/40011351?PS=3). A key Empower benefit is that it provides internal use software grants for a development team of five members. We then looked to "graduate" from the Empower program to Certified Partner. We already had technology employees with certifications and our customers were ready to provide references. When we reached this level of partnership, we received internal use software grants across the company for 25 employees.


We then worked on certification testing of our virtual reference product, Ask A Librarian, where we deploy a .NET Framework application that makes use of Web Services. We submitted our application for testing (http://www.lionbridge.com/lionbridge/en-US/services/outsourced-testing/product-certification-programs/microsoft/Platform-Test-for-ISV-Solutions/) and received enough partner points to reach Gold Certified Partner status. Now we receive internal use software grants across the company for 100 employees. This software includes Microsoft Office, Windows XP Professional, Visio, Project, SQL Server CALs, and Exchange CALs in addition to 25 Visual Studio licenses.


The Microsoft Partner program is not just about the software license grants. We've made use of third-party customer surveys (where our technical support was rated as our highest strength), WinQual (http://winqual.microsoft.com/), marketing & sales seminars, and more. Our participation cost of $1,500 is well worth the money. Along the way the Emerging Business Team (EBT) has been there to recommend events we should attend, help with the quality of our development, and provide co-marketing opportunities.


One area where the EBT helped our product quality was access to the Microsoft Premier Scalability Lab (http://www.microsoft.com/services/microsoftservices/srv_prem.mspx). We were rearchitecting our five year old tutoring system and we needed to ensure that we could handle high loads as soon as the system launched -- serving 5,000+ one-to-one sessions each day, with hundreds of tutors online at any time. This lab was extremely valuable for us to find performance issues during testing instead of customers finding problems post-launch.


After a team of our developers spent a week at the lab earlier this year working with Microsoft technicians, the Emerging Business Team suggested that we tell our story in the Microsoft Innovations Book, (http://tutor.com/press/MSInnovations/msinnovations_tutor.pdf). You can download the entire book at: http://tutor.com/press/MSInnovations/msinnovations_book.pdf. A great acknowledgment of the hard and smart work that has been put into the building of our online tutoring and reference products.

Most recently our engagement with Microsoft has been to obtain Vista certification for one of our products. While the casual observer may consider certification a "nice to have", we see it as valuable third party testing of our new products. Customers deploy our client applications to thousands of desktops so having a third party conduct installation scenario tests, such as command line installation, is a form of leveraging other resources. There is no dollar cost for Vista certification for us so the program is worthwhile. And yesterday, we received our Vista certification!

End result from our involvement with the Microsoft Emerging Business Team is that we have reduced our development & operating costs while improving the quality of our services and reducing the time it takes to get new products into the hands of our customers.

Thank you, Microsoft Emerging Business Team.

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George Cigale
gcigale@tutor.com

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Tutor.com is 8!

Eight years ago today, I incorporated Tutor.com and it went that day from an idea to an idea with an "Inc." next to it.

It's been a great 6 years! :-) Well the first couple were pretty tough.

Now it's really a pleasure to be working with the great team of people we have. And exciting to be building a company that has so much room for growth and so much potential to do good things for so many people.

Our quality control staff sends around a sampling each week of students' raw, unedited post-session survey comments, and below are some recent ones. Skimming through these reminds me of how worthwhile the hard work of the past eight years has been...

"Wow. Great tutor. See when it gets explained here, I understand it. My teacher just rambles on pointlessly and runs around in circles. Plus, our class is gigantic. We can't even ask questions correctly. Great program, great help, spectacular tutor. Thank you very much. "

"This was the first time i have ever used this and i loved it. My tutor worked with me and at my pace and i really, truely understand now. this site is great and i plan to be back!"

"this was the best thing ever invention really appreciate it!!!!!! THANK YOU"

"this place really works =) i've leard a whole lot in just one session thanks"

"this was fun and helping i wish someday i can be a tutor"

"I think that this is a wonderful way to help kids like myself who are raised by single parents who barely have time to help their kids with their homework. I will definately think of this the next time that i am having trouble with any school related work!"

"This is amazing!!!! I am finally starting to understand the stuff that I should've known in 5th grade!"

"they inspired me to continue the learning of english"

"this is a very big help, cuz my parents are useless when it comes to ALGEBRA!!! (I can relate!)"

"On the scale from 1-10, I'd say 10. From Poor to Excellent, I'd say SUPERIOR. The design of the classroom makes you feel right at home! :-)"

"I LOVE THIS WEBSITE I WILL COME AND JOIN AGAIN I THOUGHT I COULD NEVER DO IT BUT KNOW I BELIEVE IN MYSELF"

"I'M GLAD I GOT THRU ALL OF THAT. IT TAKES TIME BUT IT'S ALL WORTH WHILE WHEN I TAKE MY TEST TOMMMOROW. I THINK THIS WILL HELP."

80,000+ kids served in October. Lots more kids to serve in the years to come...

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George Cigale
gcigale@tutor.com

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Company Retreat, Tutor.com Style

Last year, it was Vegas with about 35 people. This week, we did our annual planning meeting and company retreat in the upstate NY metropolis of Kerhonksen, on the beautiful grounds of the Pine Grove Dude Ranch.

You never know what you're going to get when you bring 48 people together from across the country for 3 days of fun, getting to know each other better, and meetings on critical issues and 2007 planning. 48 Tutor.com employees, ranging from 2 weeks to 6 years with the company, with extremely diverse backgrounds, responsibilities, and outlooks on life and business.

We created an aggressive agenda, with some time set aside for infomal gatherings and planned fun of a dude ranch variety (horseback riding, paintball, ping pong, election night results at the bar, poker tournament, dance revolution challenges).

All I can say is wow. Way beyond my expectations. We came together so well. Proud of our accomplishments, honest about our shortcomings, excited about the opportunities ahead, and humble about the challenges we face. Most importantly, energized as a team about overcoming the challenges and building a great company.

In the backdrop of every business discussion and financial or operational strategizing, was the constant shared awareness that we are building not just a company -- we are serving thousands of kids each day and if we do our jobs really well, we'll be helping hundreds of thousands and maybe millions a day in the next few years. Helping students overcome daily school challenges before they become significant learning problems. That can be a really strong driving force to motivate 48 smart people to work really well together to build a great company.

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George Cigale
gcigale@tutor.com

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Best Tutors, and Lots of Them

Over 1,000 tutors now work regularly on Tutor.com, and we bring on 20-30 tutors each week to keep up with demand. Who are these folks and what makes them so good? Why do they consistently get 94% recommend rates from students using our Live Homework Help and Tutor.com Direct services? And I mean consistently -- we've now served over 2 million sessions, and we listen carefully to what students say in their post-session surveys. I'll try to explain below, without giving away the full recipe of our secret sauce.

It starts with careful screening. Tutor.com is not the place to go if you're fooling around and not serious about tutoring. Before you ever get into an online tutoring session with a real student, you'll go through an application process that includes your education and professional history, you'll provide tutoring samples to show us how you'd handle difficult questions in an online session, you'll complete a full third-party security background check, and you'll receive training in using our online classroom. This is a real commitment of time and energy and we only accept tutors who show a mastery of the content, an ability to communicate well with kids in an online setting, and a real desire to help students online.

Because every session with a student is recorded and students complete a post-session survey, all tutoring on Tutor.com is transparent -- unlike when a tutor comes to your home and works with your child behind behind a closed door, we have a record of everything that happens in a tutoring session. That information is used by parents who want to review their child's progress, by students who want to show their school teachers what they did with their online tutor or to prepare for a test, and by us to make sure our tutors are doing a great job.

After getting accepted, a new tutor works with a Tutor.com mentor (one of our experienced tutors who has received additional mentor training), who regularly reviews sessions from new tutors and provides training and professional development.

Our technologies are unique, allowing students to get help within minutes, at that point of pain when they are stuck on something, without having to schedule a session. No other company is capable of providing that kind of immediate help, 7 days a week. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to whether the student connects to someone who can help. It comes down to a commitment to quality, carefully listening to what our customers are telling us, and continuously improving our selection and training of tutors.

Being a tutor with us is not likely to make you rich -- most of our tutors make between $10-15 per hour. It is a fair wage, attracts great people, and allows us to keep prices for institutional customers and for students and parents affordable. Our tutors love the work and many stay with us for years because they get to help lots of kids, set their own schedules, work from the comfort of an Internet connection in their home, and work as much as they want to. When they take into account not having to travel to kids' homes, not having to advertise for customers, and not having to worry about getting paid by some customers, working with Tutor.com is a great way to make some extra bucks while helping kids and keeping their tutoring skills sharp.

Over the past few years, we've grown from 40 tutors to 1,300 tutors, so we're really good at finding great tutors to serve the many students that use Tutor.com. Of course, the challenge ahead for us is to find many more thousands of tutors as word spreads about Tutor.com services. With an estimated 1 million people, in the US alone, who do some type of private tutoring, I think we can find the best online tutors for our students.

Here's some more information about our tutors: http://direct.tutor.com/our_tutors/default.aspx

And here's a place you can go if you're interested in tutoring with us (we're almost always looking for more great tutors, especially in math and science subjects):
http://providers.tutor.com/hwhinfo.asp

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George Cigale
gcigale@tutor.com