Today I had the pleasure of interviewing HeyTutor’s CTO, Ryan Neman. Neman was attending UCLA when he dropped out to start HeyTutor in 2016. Neman is especially passionate about education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which has helped make HeyTutor one of the fastest growing educational services in the U.S.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Since we were both pretty young when we founded HeyTutor, and the company was born from what we knew at the time; school. We didn’t have a lot of business insight, but we did have a lot of insight into the education industry. As students at the time, tutoring was never far from our minds, and we knew there was definitely a need for easier access. We realized we could fill that need, and that’s when HeyTutor was born!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of our biggest challenges was customer acquisition. We had a previous venture that failed largely because there were more experienced companies doing similar services, but they had put the time and effort to become more recognizable and we weren’t able to break into the industry. With HeyTutor, we knew we needed to build our customer base, and fast. We did everything from hanging unofficial banners outside schools to advertising on Craigslist to gain clients, and while we know we can’t pull off stunts like that anymore, it was definitely a boost to our new company.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
We wouldn’t be where we are without our team, and their scrappiness. We were doing a good job signing up students, but we had a massive fulfillment issue, which is where our team came in. We hustled and tried to find the most resourceful ways to find enough tutors to meet demand. Students come to us because they have a hard time finding good, local tutors, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have the same problem! Our team had to figure out how to find everything from microbiology tutors in New York to violin tutors in California, and they had to do it fast. Today, we’ve automated a lot of our process, but tutor/student pairs are still matched by people, since they do it best.
Another major factor was simple: money. At the beginning, we didn’t invest a ton of money, only about $400 each, and that was a great decision. Without a huge investment, we were forced to think creatively and use the money we did have carefully. We built our relationships — with investors, employees, tutors, and more — and started scaling our business from there. The small initial investment made us work smarter and that attitude has stayed with us throughout our time building HeyTutor.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
- Do your research. It doesn’t matter how good your idea is, or how much money you throw at it if you don’t know the industry, the audience, and how to capture both. As I mentioned, our previous company didn’t work out because we hadn’t spent the time really getting to know the industry.
- Learn how to operate on less. When we started HeyTutor, we had already learned that we needed to focus on marketing, as well as our actual product, so the bulk of our money went to those goals. We made sure to make our KPIs doable within our budget, and spending the majority on marketing allowed us to get our name in clients’ minds, and back up the claims we made. Not having cash forces you to find the most cost effective way to get what you want. Once you’re able to build a foundation that operates with the lowest possible expenses, you can scale your business from there.
- Know your audience. Even though we’ve automated a large part of our process, we know parents and students want the best quality, which is why the tutor matching is still handled by people. Humans are best at making sure all the student needs are met, while creating a good fit. Parents want to make sure their money is going to a quality service, and we want to prove we deserve it.
- Build a good team. Part of the reason our last venture failed was issues with our team’s experience. For HeyTutor, we hired people with the same spirit as us; scrappy and entrepreneurial. Our team is as passionate about our company as we are, and it translates into the work they do.
- Be confident in your abilities as a leader. Since we were so young when we first started HeyTutor, many of our tutors were older than us, which made interviewing them a little strange. We were young cofounders, and had to work extremely hard to show our team that we were good leaders, no matter our ages. Our early clients and tutors helped prove that not only did the idea work, but it worked well. Over five years in, and we’re growing everyday.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t make your life harder than it needs to be! In our case, that meant automating everything we could to relieve stress from our whole team. We realized early on that we wanted to work smart, not hard, and developed our technology to carry a lot of that weight. It’s allowed us to focus on the parts of the company that we wanted to, whether it’s the actual tutor/student matching, or thinking of new ideas to build a better service.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Like any good millennial entrepreneur, I’ve spent far too many hours watching Shark Tank, but I’m grateful for it! The actual “Sharks” are a great source of inspiration, but the entrepreneurs who came in to pitch helped me realize that the company we were trying to build could actually become a reality. The feedback they received, both positive and negative, was invaluable to me, as I was able to turn the Sharks’ advice into actionable tasks for HeyTutor. I got the benefits of being in the room, while also spending the time to make adjustments on my own. Seeing the hard work that went into their pitches also helped prepare me for HeyTutor’s future; I learned how entrepreneurs turned good ideas into successful companies, and was able to translate that for us.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
HeyTutor is still young, so we definitely have a lot of future plans for the company. We’re really proud of our growth so far, from being in just a few test cities to having tutors across the country, but we’re looking bigger. Ideally, we’d love to grow internationally, and bring access to our tutors to people around the world. We’re also looking into launching on-demand tutoring, to give students a faster, better option than we currently offer. As we’ve mentioned, we’re always interested in developing our technology to build the best products, and on-demand tutoring is the next step in that process. Along with both of these ideas, we hope to gain brand recognition. Obviously, we want to become an industry leader and be the first company people think of when they need a tutor.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to solve the inefficiencies in the tutoring industry. Students are faced with several hardships when attempting to find a tutor, which stops them from getting the help they need, when they need it. The need for tutoring has always existed, but there hasn’t been much change in the process of finding a tutor. We realized we didn’t need to “fix” the process, as much as update it, and figure out how to keep that change going. Industries need to grow with the times, and in an age of technology and interconnectedness, we are trying to revolutionize a much needed space.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
One of the reasons we started HeyTutor was that we wanted people to be able to take control of their own education. We’re actually working on our own movement right now that we’re very proud of, and that’s non-academic classes. HeyTutor already covers dozens of subjects, but we’re looking to start tutoring in things like finances, how to do taxes, dealing with mental health, and more. We started doing research and saw people were seeking out ‘how to make friends’ as often as they search ‘math tutor’. Schools aren’t teaching life skills as often anymore, but people still need to learn these skills to be independent adults. People should be able to learn outside the classroom, on their own time, and in topics that relate to their lives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find HeyTutor on Instagram and Twitter at @heytutor, and like us on Facebook as well!