Bertie Hubbard – Transforming Learning
Education Technology is a fast growing market within the UK with an estimated 10,000 ventures based in the country accounting for 4% of the country’s digital businesses. Tutoring has traditionally been expensive and at times inaccessible, however Online Tutoring is changing this. Bertie Hubbard co-founded My Tutor with Robert Grabiner and James Grant to match the brightest university students with school pupils, providing a unique interface that offers a superior service with greater flexibility and at lower cost. Bertie shares his thoughts on cofounding a business, the growth of MyTutor, and the power of shared learning.
Favourite Book/ Blog
Ladder is excellent for digital marketing, and the Path Forward for product. I keep up non-work reading to avoid becoming entirely one-dimensional and love The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Psych – like Balderdash and from the same developers as Heads Up.
Hottest UK Tech Company
Inspiration in Business
Unlike when I started in the investment banking world and could point to an individual, in my new world it’s less obvious what a successful journey looks like, and so I look to a much broader group.
Tell me about My Tutor, the evolution of, and what you are currently working on?
My Tutor matches school learners to high calibre and inspiring university students for one-to-one tuition through our online lesson space. The sessions are also recorded so, rather than scribbling notes during a session as you might in a lecture, you can focus on making the most out of the interaction with your tutor.
We’re currently working on an app for our tutors to make it easier for them to connect with pupils, and a ranking algorithm to help learners find a better match. These will both be piloted in the next month.
What challenges are there in co-founding a business with someone who already has a basic model in place?
While we made sure that we both had a shared vision and an idea of what our prospective responsibilities would be before we started, we didn’t realise how quickly our roles would change. Without realising it, we’d both assume responsibility for the same thing, and try to take it in slightly different directions. That meant we wasted time and energy on finding a shared position with matters where it would have been more efficient to run with an idea than debate it. Now business areas are a little more mature and predictable, we’ve been able to define our roles more tightly, how and when we should input, and what an efficient decision process looks like.
What skills from previous corporate tenure have you appreciated since founding My Tutor. What are greatest skills you have developed?
I started work at an american investment bank where I was given a lot of work with tight deadlines and high expectations – that helps instill a discipline of moving projects forward quickly, with a healthy degree of quality control and process management. While a little gruelling at times, the intensity of work sets your expectations well for a demanding role too.
I found the spreadsheet skills I learnt were particularly helpful in the early days for making sense of our data, and now to help make those insights accessible to board members, investors and the broader team.
The communication structure at GS also helped me define how our team keep each other updated. Clearly teamwork requires regular and effective communication, but straight out of university, I wasn’t used to that – I was always marked based on my own results, and didn’t have the opportunity to leverage a team in the same way.
Biggest challenge today?
Consumer marketing. It’s a challenge to explain to a new customers how a new product works and why they should use it – particularly in a sector like education where there’s a low risk appetite. There’s a lot of misunderstanding with our product – people associate tutoring with a teacher coming to your home, and they associate online learning with pre-recorded content.
In practical terms, while there’s a monopoly on online search advertising, difficult means expensive.
Edtech is among one of the largest growing businesses nationwide. How does MyTutor put learning outcomes before profit?
The best way for us to do that is through taking a long term view – that achieving better learning outcomes will eventually lead to a better business. Our Schools partnerships also help us to broaden access to high quality tuition for learners who couldn’t typically afford it. The government offers pupil premium funding to support children who are on free school meals. Our service helps these pupils to receive personalised support.
How do you create enough awareness for what is a more disruptive way of teaching/learning?
Other than search, it’s through over-delivery, and subsequent EQ referrals. We invest a lot in making sure our customers have an excellent experience using our service. As much as we can optimise other channel; if we take a customer off an open market – be that display advertising, online search etc. – we are going to have to compete on spend for that traffic. We’d much rather invest in our customers – if we can deliver a really strong service to them it’s effectively like hiring a salesman. Education is such a considered purchase that you can blow a lot of money on transactional marketing with limited return.
How big does online tutoring need to be vis a vis face to face for the industry to take off?
I would say it is taking off already; people are picking it up and it’s growing quickly. There is a consideration – to say that online is better in every case isn’t necessarily the case. Whenever you are trying to learn from someone the match is the most important thing. You’ve got to have someone you trust, who is capable, who can actively make a difference. If you’re choosing from a pool of people who are just near you, you’re going to have an inferior choice. Online is better in terms of access to that choice. In terms of quality of interaction, technology still has some catching up to do; when you have a conversation on skype of facetime it’s not quite as rich. EdTech could move into the VR world however where tutors can visually share experience more broadly. I think there’s a misconception that the embodiment of the tutor is an important thing to look for when learning about the subject matter.
What tools do you find best motivate students to learn?
People. At the moment I think that human emotion is still missing in attempts to motivate. The Duolingo mascot, an Owl, is disappointed if you don’t return for another automated language learning session, but you don’t have the same emotional connection with a pretend owl as you do with another person.
Someone who has high expectations of you, who you admire, trust, and want to think well of you. If the person you learn from is someone who you respect and aspire to emulate, seeing how they behave and learn makes your goal more tangible.
Can you share fundraising history and advice – what do entrepreneurs want in an investor?
To date, we’ve raised £1.8m from around fifteen Angel investors. I clearly thought it was a good investment, and so the challenge was to help them understand the investment proposition as well as I did.
A number of our investors had children who tried the service and really bought into it – they saw their child come back not just improving their results but also enjoy and engage in the learning process. That was the most efficient way to build understanding as I wouldn’t have been able to show the value of the product any more clearly.
For the rest, I kept them up to date from the beginning, and more regularly as we came closer to the fund raise. My advice here would be to think about an efficient way to share information e.g. a monthly email you can add interested investors to, and start early.
What are some of the KPI’s that you measure success by for both you and your team?
For growth, it’s our number of Active Learners. For supply, it’s our ratio of active tutors with capacity to the customers coming on board. Then there’s an important quality element which is more complex, and we have to blend qualitative samples with re-book rates, ratings and survey data.
For a pre-profit business, supply isn’t the only liquidity measure we have to watch. Number of months cash left is also pretty important…
Is online tutoring a winner takes all marketplace?
Tutoring is a less commoditised space than an on-demand service and there’ll always be room for deep expertise – both regionally and for specialist areas of education support.
Ultimately, if we retain our reputation, have the most carefully curated community of tutors and the most user-friendly platform within our space, it would be very expensive to build or sustain a direct challenger.
What is the long term vision ?
The long term vision is to build a self-sustaining learning cycle, where each learner becomes an educator.
We really didn’t see it coming, but about a year after we set up MyTutor, we had a bit of a surprises when interviewing a tutor. It’s important to understand motivations, so we asked this A* student in her first week at Oxford why she wanted to be a tutor on our platform. It turned out that she had struggled with her maths, and had come to MyTutor to tutored. Her tutor had helped her get her grades, and she couldn’t wait to help the next person in her shoes!
Burn the Boats
Burn the Boats moment – what enticed you to co-found My Tutor?
I’m fascinated by how we learn – whether it’s a new language, skill, or sport. We’ve learnt so much about how the mind works over the last few decades, but while the research is there, it’s frustrating to see that the education sector isn’t keeping up. The extent to which personalisation and mass customisation are now incorporated in a sector like healthcare is impressive, meanwhile the most evident change in classrooms over the last few hundred years has been the migration from blackboards to whiteboard.
How do you think founders can identify nascent and attractive markets that are ripe for disruption?
If you look for commercial attractiveness, you might end up finding yourself in market that you don’t understand or enjoy, and so you’re not going to build a very successful business there. Find the market that interests you and become an expert in it – that’ll be easy if you enjoy researching it. Once you know it well enough, you’ll see where the opportunities are and have an edge.
What is your motivation/ what makes you tick?
I like problem solving, finding a big problem, isolating what’s caused it, and solving for that. There are big problems in learning, and life improving implications of fixing them.
To be completely absorbed by a problem is exciting and you don’t notice the time you’re investing – that lowers what it costs you and enables you to deliver better value than anyone else. It’s been three years since we started My Tutor and it feels like a lot less.
Who do you surround yourself with/ Business support networks that you value?
I love to speak with people who either have recent experience of something I’m trying to do, or are just about to embark on something I have recently struggled with. That allows me to either learn something new, or consolidate my learning.
If I plan to raise my first institutional funding round, I’ll speak to someone who has just closed a Series A. When friends look for angel funding, I help them.
What are you really trying to crack at the moment?
We’re introducing a new way of doing something in the low risk-appetite market of education. The way we communicate what we do, and the customer journey to discovery, is a tough nut to crack.
In ten years’ time, how would you like people to talk about My Tutor? What does success look like?
MyTutor is about sharing learning experiences. It’s a way to tap into a transformational resource of untapped expertise. I’d like MyTutor to be talked about for helping to unlock that pool of knowledge, and helping to build a more motivated, intelligent and closely connected society.