Scott Woodley is co-founder of UK Tech startup Tutora. Tutora is a startup from Sheffield that is on a mission to link learners with excellent tutors. He sat down with me on a cold January afternoon to chat about his startup journey, the traits an entrepreneur needs and building a company.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
Okay. So originally, I did a history degree in Manchester and then a Masters in Sheffield and then a PgCe. I always wanted to become a teacher. I was a primary school teacher in Sheffield and worked at two different schools. When I was working there, I really enjoyed it, really loved the kids.
How did it go from you becoming a teacher to seeing the opportunity to start Tutora?
Basically parents were reaching out to me asking to recommend tutors. And in the past, I told them I didn’t know anyone to recommend. I was never someone who wanted to vouch for people unless I could actually vouch for them. So when I was working in my second school, a couple of parents were asking me and I was looking for a bit of extra cash, so I took on those students. I found that I really enjoyed it and actually, it was one to one which I enjoyed. Also, I wasn’t accountable to anybody else, which was lovely. So, I was getting a really good hourly rate and I decided to leave teaching. I got so many requests for tutors, I ultimately became a full time tutor under my own company on a self-employed basis. I just got so many inquiries when I was doing that, for parents and families looking for help. I also did some work with the schools. That was paying me well and I ended up earning more than I was as a teacher doing this. Also, I really enjoyed it, and I saw that there were so many families out there who wanted to get extra help. They didn’t really know where to look, relied on word of mouth and jumped at the first opportunity that came along to get someone in because they wanted to help with their kids but often that wasn’t the best help for the children. So I wanted to create something that parents and families and learners could use to see reviews, find someone who is really trusted and find a tutor who would actually really make the difference.
I saw that there are so many families out there who wanted to get extra help but didn’t really know where to look
Did you always want to work for yourself?
I suppose one of the things that really attracted me to teaching in the first place was that you are pretty much a kind of a salesman for learning. You manage for that test, you have kids in your class everyday and you guide the whole of their learning. You could be as experimental as you wanted. I thought you could be really free — I learnt pretty quickly that that’s not really the case in education. But yes. I have always been—I don’t want to say “I’ve always been entrepreneurial”, but I’ve always had a bit of ‘get up and go’ about things like that.
Is there a trait you need to succeed in a startup?
Yeah. I suppose… I don’t want to come across as saying: ‘look, you have to be this type of person to be able to to start a business’. I don’t think that is true at all, but I do think from the people that I’ve met that there is a kind of a shared passion to solve problems in a better way. Some people will act on things in different ways. For some people, it is the problem itself that they are really passionate about and it just so happens that they fall into it because they really want to solve that one small problem. For other people it’s just problems in general. And for some people it’s about trying to make money and seeing that as the problem. But I think it’s that idea of “Okay, well here’s a challenge, how can I overcome it?” So it’s basically that idea that you can do better and improve something and make it work.
Do you think the cult of the entrepreneur is here to stay?
I think there’s just something with the modern world. It’s easier to be creative. It’s easier to set something quite large up with a small background. You don’t have to have such intensive resources. Technology enables us to build something that a lot of people can use really quite quickly and to contact a lot of people. So I think that encourages the trait of entrepreneurialism. Because it enables people to solve problems regularly and get them out to more people. I think that is more and more recognised now in schools in the fact that kids are being taught to code. Technology is becoming more central to schools and I think there is a natural link between technology and solving problems.
…with the modern world. It’s easier to be creative. It is easier to set something quite large up with a small background. You don’t have to have such intensive resources…
So I want to talk a little bit about your funding method. You used Crowdcube, an online crowdfunding platform.
Yeah, so basically Crowdcube allows us to bring together angels. So when we started we had a project where investors would get that product in return for a discount price. We had set up the platform. We’d got the tutors. We’d got some really nice traction. We were showing that the problem was there, in a large enough volume. It’s pretty clear to see that people want to find tutors but it’s difficult to do so. We’d been able to show, to a good extent, that we’d found a great solution and that we could bring both sides together and make it work, monetise it. And I think in doing so, Crowdcube was a really natural route for us because it’s pretty easy to understand us as a business. And actually it appeals to a really vast amount of people. There are so many people, one in four kids in the UK in the last three years had a tutor at some point. So, if you look at that figure, the size of the crowd that could be interested in our business, it was a perfect place. Also, because we found investors through our own efforts and the conversations we’d already had, it was a really simple way of us bringing those guys together and getting them all to invest within the same terms and the same banner whilst also opening up to the crowd. So, there are a multitude of reasons why it worked for us as a business going through that avenue.
So you’re working as a tutor and you see this opportunity, you then reached out to your co-founder Mark?
Mark and I have been friends since we were at school in Birmingham. So since about the age of 14. We used to play golf together every evening. We would sneak onto any open golf clubs. So, when I was hoping to do Tutora, I spoke to Mark about it and Mark had always been very business-minded. He was working as an investment analyst for an investment company. So I spoke to him about the idea and the problem I’d seen. And between us we said “Okay, let’s put it to the market.” And Mark was in a great position to do that. I said, “Look, there are no real solutions available for parents that I think really work.” Mark did the research on the market and how it could potentially work as a business. He came up with a solution that we could both agree on and say, “this is something that we think could be viable.” I had tested the waters somewhat already. I’d reached out to all the tutors and tried to get them involved. I noticed there was an openness there with other tutors and teachers. So we saw that yeah, okay, if we could put it together in the right way, it could work. We also looked to other markets around the world and saw what was going on and we felt that yeah, this solution was a really good fit for the UK.
And Mark built the platform?
No, we designed it together but Mark was working in… well its fair to say it was a well-paid job. I am not technical so we designed the site and we had it built by a contractor, and then from there we took ownership of the site. Mark left his position and then he developed the site, and I built out from there.
And so you’re both full time at this point?
So, yeah we made it full time. We launched the site in August 2015 so it was just over a year ago and we were both full time just before that. So, that’s some holiday period. I knocked on the head all my old duties at work, in the schools but kept around a couple of students because I just enjoyed tutoring. And then we were full time on it.
Okay, and so what changed since that initial build?
I think, we did a lot of work on making sure that it was the right product and that it had market fit. We started with a good solution but it’s very different now to how it was. I think its the same with anything when you initially build something. You’ll change it, change it, change it, change it and it’s just gone through lots of executions of those changes. So yeah, it’s pretty different today but I still think it’s the same fundamental concept. Parents shouldn’t have to pay a fee to get contacted, they should be able to find a tutor easily and then the idea of the student feedback. All the interactions that tutors have feedback in to us so we know who are the best tutors and then we only present those guys as being suitable for parents and families to select. Because I had worked as a tutor for a good while I had the chance to interact with so many parents. I knew what works for tutors and what wouldn’t, what works for the parents. I think that is the core value of what we are trying to achieve and how we have achieved it has been there since the start. The exact procedures and everything about that has kind of evolved over time.
When we first started it, I was on the phone constantly and so was Mark, so we were ringing people and we are doing all the matches personally.
How do you go about evolving the site?
So I think that changes over time as you grow as a business. When we first started it, I was on the phone constantly and so was Mark, so we were ringing people and we are doing all the matches personally. It was insane for the first month because we would— if someone rang us asking for a tutor – We would get them a tutor, no matter what. So, in doing that and being on the phone and asking around we had the dos and don’ts. We massively believe in that idea that in the early days you should do things that don’t scale. If you get involved and you get dirty and do those kind of things yourself, you will be able to see what works and what doesn’t. And you will be able to have the right conversations with people. You’ll find out exactly why it is or isn’t working and then replicate that and move forwards. So, you know… coming from that at the very start we got metrics and we got analysis. We do the work on the data because we’ve got such large data sets. So it’s that transition over time. It’s quite difficult to know how to manage that transition between being on the phone and getting involved in a really small scale to operating as a more medium sized business, that’s quite a high transition point because you’re effectively, you’re investigating the analysis rather than moving the needle itself. It’s one step removed but that’s something we’re committed to because we know it will have more long term benefits.
Did you lose any sleep in those very early days?
(laughs) Yeah, yeah. I think the better question is do I get any sleep now? (both laugh) So… yeah, yeah plenty of sleepless nights we’d work it out in my bedroom quite a lot in the early times.
There are no other investors at this point, its just you and Mark?
Yeah. The first raise with Crowdcube, we only got that in April. So yeah, we incorporated the company on the 31 December 2014. And we launched it almost August 2015 and then that first round of funding was in… yeah, April 2016. So it went a good while, you know, we were bootstrapping it.
I think it’s Paul Graham that said “if things don’t feel broken everyday then you’re probably not moving quick enough.” That’s a hard feeling to get used to I suppose.
Do you have any plans for further investment?
Yeah, so we’re at the point now where we’re about to embark on a second round of fundraising and we could get from where we are, to where our ambition is for the company. We want to be the largest Tutoring company in the UK.
Are there competitors out there and do they worry you?
I think the two largest companies doing it, they do it in a very different way. They charge students up front. I just don’t think that’s fair to the students basically. There are other companies that are trying to do what we are doing or have tried to do what we are doing, but – I don’t know – We’re doing it a little bit better. I think that’s because we look at every aspect of what we do every day, and hate it (laughs). So, it’s the truth… Both Mark and I are really, really hard on ourselves in the business all the time to the point where we don’t sleep (laughs). But I think that’s what drives us to make it better every day for tutors and parents and to make sure that we make better matches and provide a better service when we speak to them, but also that the product just is easy to use and does exactly what people want.
Have you made any hires?
Yes, so we’ve got three employees at the moment, full time. It’s great to have people who share the vision for the company but it’s really important to share our passion for improving education. And we also outsource, but we are currently seeking new employees for, marketing and development.
How did you make sure they were the right people, given that a startup can be quite difficult to a 9-5.
I suppose one of the things we looked for… we looked for passionate people who share our passion for what the business is about. So the passion for education. We want families to be able to find the right person to help their kids. Anyone who wants to learn, we want to make sure that you find the right person. So that’s number one, but aside from that we are looking for people who are intelligent and driven. So, if you’ve got all those three things and you really believe in the problem we’re trying to solve, and you’ve got the capability to go about things and about solving problems, and you’re pretty passionate and driven to get up and go then that’s a good starting point. And I think you need that in a start-up. It’s not 9:00 to 5:00. It’s not working for “The Man”.
Did you interview people and you thought ‘this person is great but it wouldn’t work for what we’re trying to do’.
Yeah, definitely. We interviewed a couple of people very recently. Both of them, obviously, were fantastic. Really great people but… one of them was probably more interested in the entrepreneurial side of things than solving our problem. And he’s a great, great guy and we would have loved to have offered him a job but we just didn’t think culturally it was what we were looking for. And I think, when you’re hiring you’ve got to be quite honest with them, especially in a small start-up, because if it is not working it’s probably going to be very horrible.
We delivered 10,000 leaflets by hand around Sheffield to get going.
So you’ve grown quite considerably in the last 12 months, where has that growth come from?
I put it down to the fact that when people come to the site, they find it’s pretty simple to use. We tried to build it so that the user experience was as good as possible. Now, we know that we’ve got quite a long way to go on that, and so we’ve got… massive pages of drawings on our design suites on how to improve it further. But I think the growth is coming because we solve the problem really well. We started off in Sheffield and we found really good tutors and we found students by going around. We delivered 10,000 leaflets by hand around Sheffield to get going. But then once we were there, we really cared about people and that everyone had a great experience. We continually do that. We meet people all the time and we’re always looking to improve the product and I think that’s what people see. When they come to it, they see that— hopefully, they see a site where we’ve thought about how it will work well and when they speak to us they get that we care. All of our communications, we try and do it in the right way. I think that’s what’s driving our growth and alongside that, I would like to think a bit of business acumen we have to tell people in the right places.
You’ve talked there about the importance of a good experience, how do you police the quality of tutors?
That’s really important to us. So when people apply to us, we initially do a CV check and then if they come direct to the site, we look at their profiles. So we look at their experience and qualifications, make sure that all of it is matched up. Everyone has to upload a copy of their IDs so that we can verify their identity. DBS checks aren’t something that we demand but we clearly mark those people who do have them. That’s the choice we took because we have adult learners, language learners and music students coming to the site. So, once they’re on the platform and live, then we speak to anyone who we think is borderline and make sure that they are right. But once they’re up and live on the site, then we use student reviews. We also have an algorithm that really provides better tutors. Because of how we do it, we have an incredible data set compared to the largest companies who are there already. And so effectively, we’re a data driven business. So, all of those lessons, who returned to us with students, which students—the students who the lessons were with. We can pull those lessons up and if we don’t think they’re offering a really great service, we can remove them from the site.
You specify a Sheffield location for your employees, is that something you think is very important, what are your thoughts on distributed teams?
So we’ve actually outsourced a lot of the work that we’ve done on the development side. Just because that’s worked really well for us to establish that. But we want to build an in-house team because… we just, we just think that you can collaborate better when you’ve got people in the same room. Similarly, we do understand that having your own space to get on, and not be constantly interrupted is important. So, we’re pretty flexible about how we work. We just want to make sure that we find the right people. We’ve got a designer at the moment who’s doing a great job for us but he is down in Bristol. I am happy with how that works because we’ve got some great processes in place. So we’re pretty open to remote working but I think ultimately in the longer term… ideally, we’d like to find someone in-house and build that team. Because I think that, from my point of view, any business lives or dies by the kind of culture and feeling in the workplace.
I’m pretty demanding. I like things done quickly and perfectly and obviously that’s not always possible.
Do you see yourself being able to fill those positions in Sheffield?
I went down to an event with TechNorth a couple of weeks ago. And I went into the room and looked around and it had huge businesses there, the likes of Tesco and BBC. So London is what we’re comparing ourselves to, and maybe Manchester. But London has an incredible and attractive climate and digital industry centre. But the beauty of working in Sheffield is you’re not competing against all of those guys. Obviously, in Sheffield we’ve had companies move to the area because they can see that as well. The likes of Sky and Plusnet, I think that’s testament to the fact that we’ve got two great universities in the city and that does generate a lot of great graduates. I think one of the challenges for tech companies and the tech community in Sheffield is to make sure that graduates know we’re here so that they don’t finish and go to London or even start getting into London in their second or third years when they do placements. But I also think that the universities have a responsibility to reach out to the tech community. I’ve just confirmed a meeting actually with a university who are trying to do just that. I think that there should be more flexibility and it should be more business-led rather than university-led. So we, as businesses, we can tell universities and large bodies what we need and I think everyone really in this city needs to be providing the best for the graduates. And so, I’m sure there’s much more that can be done in somewhere like Sheffield. I just think there’s more to be done because I don’t think there is necessarily a skill shortage especially when you contemplate the cost of living in London and larger cities compared to Sheffield. I think there is a lot in our favour that would allow us to sell those jobs. That’s my pitch for the city anyway (laughs).
Whats been the hardest part of starting Tutora?
Honestly, the frustration of just not being able to get stuff done quickly and as well as I’d like the first time. And… well, I’m sure Mark could tell you, I’m pretty demanding. I like things done quickly, perfectly (laughs) and obviously that’s not always possible. And especially with no money and with little resources, so I think that’s the, always biggest frustration. I could probably sit here and draw this amazing one-stop place, you know, where everyone can have whatever you need, people will love it. But you now have to turn that drawing into a working website. It would take time and money so that’s the typical thing. Not to quote Paul Graham all the time but I think it’s him that said “if things don’t feel broken everyday then you’re probably not moving quick enough.” That’s a hard feeling to get used to.