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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tow Truck Scheduled to Arrive, Next Tuesday at 6pm

The toughest part of building a company like Tutor.com is that the vast majority of people (students, parents, teachers, school administrators) who would benefit most from the new idea of on demand tutoring, have no idea that what we do 5,000 times each night is even possible.

You may be thinking, yeah sure, another web company with another idea they think will change the world. Exactly! iTunes and iPods changed us. eBay, Google, NetFlix and ETrade changed the way we buy, sell, find info, see ads, watch movies, manage our finances. Isn't it time someone came around with a better way to learn every day.

Yes, colleges and universities, and even virtual high schools have allowed students of all ages to learn more conveniently by taking courses online. But I'm talking about every day learning -- immediate, empowering, there when you need it learning. What the Internet is great for -- no appointments, no waiting for help kind of learning.

Imagine for a minute that you're stuck in your car in a ditch on the side of the road and you call AAA. You expect the rep on the phone to tell you that a truck will be out there to help you in 15 minutes. What if the rep gave you a different answer: "We'll schedule an appointment for your tow truck to arrive next Tuesday at 6pm". Until then, you have to stay stuck and figure something else out.

That is the answer millions of students have to figure out how to be satisfied with every night -- they're stuck and not in small numbers -- with algebra homework, a chemistry take home quiz, a history report they have to submit and don't know how to start, a tough geometry problem they need to understand before a test in 2 days. "Don't worry" we tell them, "Help is on its way next Tuesday at 6pm". Help, in the form of an appointment with a tutor, a scheduled office hours session with a classroom teacher, a group tutoring session at a learning center. They're used to getting that answer, so they don't demand something better.

But millions of students (and their parents) are screaming out for help -- "I need help now, not next Tuesday at 6pm". I want the tow truck to get here in 15 minutes, not in 4 days, as you would tell the rep on the phone. Even more unfortunately, families don't have a rep on the phone to yell at, so they yell at each other, every night, because of the angst and frustration when parents can't help their struggling kids with homework or a test, and the kids fall behind little by little and lose confidence in themselves.

Most kids and parents just don't know that getting help the minute they need it is possible.

Yesterday, we issued two press releases -- you can read them at http://www.tutor.com/press/press_releases.aspx. First, announcing that we provided on demand help to kids 112,438 times in the last month. Those are big numbers, bigger than any other online tutoring company, but nothing compared to the number of kids and families that needed help out of the millions of students that got stuck on something last month. Secondly, announcing that we're seeing real hard proof that not only do the students and parents feel great about the on demand one-to-one help they're getting, but that help is resulting in real performance improvements. The kind of improvement that will lead to better grades, and being able to go to get into a great college.

Now we've got to figure out how to get the word out to 50+ million other students in the US who will get stuck on something at some point this school year, and wished that help was available in minutes instead of 4 days, which is often as good as never. That's a challenge I, and the team at Tutor.com is very much up for...

George Cigale, gcigale@tutor.com

Friday, November 09, 2007

Where I'm From

Maybe I'm getting sentimental and overly introspective as I slip gradually into middle age (the US Census lists middle age as including both the age categories 35 to 44 and 45 to 54), so I'm there already. I don't spend a lot of time on this blog, or anywhere for that matter, talking about my childhood, what has driven me through life, and what has caused me to be who I am, but I find myself thinking more and more about those questions.

In building Tutor.com, I do spend a lot of time thinking about what makes people learn, in the classroom, when they're stuck, under pressure before a test, as well as the kind of meta-learning about one's ability to learn that makes one be a better learner and happier person through life.

OK, I'm about to tie the two thoughts together -- my current introspection and my professional thinking about learning process. Came together last week for me when I got to my desk one morning, had a minute to shuffle through papers I needed to read, and found a poem that my oldest child (11 year old girl) had written a few weeks before but had not made it to my eyes. Here it is, in full, below:

Where I’m from
By: -- Cigale, Age 11
I am from the scratching of a pen on paper
From antique mirrors and stain glass windows
I am from the soft fluffed feathers of pillows
From the fragrant purple lavender bush
And the pale birch tree
Whose limbs I remember as if they were my own
I’m from potato latkes and spicy pork chops
From squabbling brothers and loving parents
I’m from lullabies and twirling bike wheels
And from gliding on the ice skating rink
Like a spinning top
I’m from be yourself and reach out
And from live your life to the fullest
I’m from telling my family everything
I’m from the cold winters of Boston
And Russia where my family started
I’m from corn on the cob and sweat peaches
From the day my brother fell
And we were so happy to see him get up again
I’m from precious photo albums lined in a neat row
On the windowsill
That help me remember - times good and bad
Forever

Well, as you can imagine, even though I'm not a big fan of poetry and usually take it like cough medicine when I am forced to, that one choked me up. And beyond the emotion and pride I felt reading this and realizing that so much of the parenting we've done has sunk in, I realized I had a lot to learn. Hearing my daughter articulate so well her thoughts about where she is from made me realize how little thought I've given it over the past 20 busy years.

So I gave it some thought, and after a week or so, I realized how much those early year of my life drive the way I run Tutor.com, the types of people I bring into the company, and the types of risks I encourage our leaders to take. I shared those thoughts this week at a company meeting, at the risk of appearing self-indulgent.

Most of the 60 Tutor.com employees had never heard my 30 minute condensed life story and 30 minute explanation of how that life story has influenced my vision for the company and how we work together to build something great. I thought there was a decent chance such sharing with the staff could be a waste of time, but it was anything but. The life story, the link to our business, and the Q&A that followed was priceless for employee understanding and morale.

Being a good CEO is a learning process, and a good learner needs to be open to surprising sources -- sometimes from a competitor, sometimes from a prospective partner or investor, and sometimes from an 11 year old's poem.

George Cigale, gcigale@tutor.com