Krishnan Ganesh. Founder & Chairman, TutorVista.com:
For Technology Guardian, Apr 26, 2007
By Kate Bulkley
'The US really have an educational crisis there'
One-on-one tutoring used to be expensive. Not now, thanks to the technology linking Indian teachers with UK students
TutorVista.com's founder and chairman is a successful, serial entrepreneur whose latest venture, online tutoring, is a subject that's very close to his heart. His mother was a maths professor and his grandfather a history teacher and headmaster. His vision for the Bangalore-based company is to use the internet to provide affordable, one-on-one tutoring, connecting educated but relatively low-paid teachers in India to students in the US and the UK, as well as other countries. TutorVista's 500 Indian teachers have undergone a 60-hour training programme and are paid £200 for 120 hours of tutoring.
Kate: Is TutorVista just Indian outsourcing for education?
Krishnan Ganesh Not really, because we are planning to launch Spanish tutoring using teachers in Mexico, so it is really using global resources for global markets. There is an arbitrage that exists in terms of demand and supply so I don't call it offshoring or outsourcing.
Kate: And why education?
KG: One thing that struck me when I was here [in the UK] in 2005 and looking at what to do next was the serious gap in the school education system. The teachers are trying hard and the parents want really good education, but there is a serious gap in the system. The gap is because the students do not get personalised attention and the classroom is not enough. This is something I am very passionate about. I believe everyone needs some kind of personal attention whether it's a struggling student or an excelling student. We have seen that 60% of our students in the US are not failing students but excelling students.
Kate: OK, but wouldn't face-to-face tutoring in the UK be a better answer?
KG: Using internet technology we can marry the resources that we have in countries like India to solve the problem of cost. So we combine global resources and internet technology to make personalised education affordable. Tutoring in a country like the US costs $40 (£20) to $60 an hour, which is not affordable to the mass market. The biggest change that makes affordable tutoring possible is VoIP technology. The second is the penetration and the cost of broadband, which in India has arrived at an affordable rate in remote towns, which is where the affordable tutors live. These people are educated and highly motivated to teach. The technology we have today allows for a paradigm shift.
It's not about outsourcing or how Marks & Spencer can save costs by going to India. This is about how you can get what is available to the rich, available to the common man. In the US we offer our tutoring for $100 a month for unlimited tutoring, and in the UK it is £50 a month, and you can use it three hours a month or 40 - your choice.
Kate: If you are using off-the-shelf VoIP and internet, what is to stop others from launching competing services?
KG: We have developed a proprietary portal that uses the WebEx VoIP platform so we have not developed the VoIP, but that is only the voice part. We are based in Bangalore, which is the Silicon Valley of India, and we have 25 technology people who have created this platform over the past 18 months.
Hundreds of tutors and thousands of students can log on to this portal simultaneously and it has all the functionality for tutor and student management. Students can download their sessions, see their account, and tutors can schedule sessions. All the tools for management are there and we have applied for two patents on that.
Kate: It sounds like a great technology platform but it is not a face-to-face experience and there must also be a cultural issue. How can a tutor in Jaipur relate to a student in San Diego or Hull?
KG: The reason we started this service is when we talked to parents and teachers in the UK and US we got positive answers first about the cost and the convenience but we also asked how they felt about their son being taught maths by someone in India. Parents have a problem that they want fixed and this is an affordable way to solve it. This is something that is really personal, the education of your children, and so it's not the same issue at all as outsourcing call centres or business processing. Here there is no jobs displacement. Here we are making kids better educated to be able to retake jobs in their countries.
We also got very positive answers from the teachers, the schools and the textbook publishers because we are helping them fix a problem that they want fixed and we are not trying to replace anybody. We are not a content company and we don't award a diploma.
In terms of the face-to-face issue, we use a shared whiteboard so the tutor and the student can draw a picture or show a video or an animation, so it is like a real-life experience. We are also different from text-based teaching because we use voice and it is one-on-one tutoring. We could use a webcam but we don't because that is one area of internet abuse, so we don't use it. But let me also say that there are limits - we can't teach piano on the internet. But we do teach music!
Kate: How is the business and the technology scaling?
KG: We have over 2,000 students and they are from 13 different countries, even though we have only officially launched in the US and UK. It is the internet, so they just come. Most of our students come for English tutoring. A lot of other countries use the GCSE standard but the priority is the US and UK in terms of size and need for education. And in terms of growth we expect to have 10,000 students by the end of 2007, and it scales well because we don't need a bricks and mortar centre and the tutors work from class B and class C towns in India.
Kate: As you grow, will the technology scale or will you have to raise more than the $15m you have raised so far?
KG: We have built it for scalability. To do 10 or even 100 sessions is simple, you could do it on Skype, but after that you need a scalable platform. We have tested for 1,000 simultaneous sessions, which is about 10,000 students. The money we have raised from Sequoia and Lightspeed is all the money we need to get to 10,000 students.
Kate: Why did you launch in the US first?
KG: The US is a bigger market and to be honest they really have an educational crisis there. In the UK it is an issue and there is a gap but in the US it is a different proportion there.
Kate: What about competition?
KG: We have a head start in terms of our technology platform and also in what we are offering, which is a mass market, subscription-based unlimited model. It will take at least take 12 months to build a similar technology platform. Also there are competitors at the higher end like Sylvan in the US, but they offer tutoring for $40 to $60 per hour so it is premium tutoring. Also, I am using my experience of building an outsourcing company in India to train and schedule our tutors and with technology I can make personal education affordable to people in the US and UK.
Kate: When do you start making money?
KG: We should be profitable by the end of this year, but a lot of it depends on how much we spend on marketing. We are working with online marketing, with co-marketing with publishers (HarperCollins) and with educational institutions. This is about changing the rules of the game so that we can combine technology and global resources so tutoring is no longer the privilege of the rich. At the moment personalised tutoring is a bit like going to the dentist - you only do it when the pain is too much, so parents will send a child to a tutor for a short period only to the extent that he needs it. But this is not what education should be. It should be like a gym membership, where you pay a monthly fee and use it when you like it.
Education Mechanical engineering degree from Delhi University and a postgraduate degree in management from the Institute of Management in Calcutta. Visiting faculty member at several institutes in India, including the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.
Career 1990 founded IT&T Ltd, an IT and network services company in India, taking it public in 2000; Served as CEO of Wipro British Telecom/Bharti British Telecom joint venture from 1989 to 2000; Founder and CEO of CustomerAsset/ICICI OneSource, a business process outsourcing/call centre company in India; Founded TutorVista in 2005 and has raised $14.2m in venture capital backing.
Family Married with two children. Lives in Bangalore, India
Hobbies Tennis, reading fiction