Tutor Universe aims to connect tutors, pupils via virtual study hall

Imagine having the ability for your tutor to proofread an essay at 2 a.m. the night before it’s due, or being able to ask a last-minute question moments before a big exam. One of Iowa City’s newest startups, Tutor Universe, aims to allow students to do exactly that. …

Tutor Universe enables tutors to create profiles listing information like areas of expertise hourly rates. 

Imagine having the ability for your tutor to proofread an essay at 2 a.m. the night before it’s due, or being able to ask a last-minute question moments before a big exam. One of Iowa City’s newest startups, Tutor Universe, aims to allow students to do exactly that.

Tutor Universe officially launched its website Nov. 1, and more than 300 tutors and pupils are already registered.

“We’ve been working our butts off for the last year and a half,” Tutor Universe co-founder Thomas Hornbeck said. “Now we released the product, and we had several hundred people that flew through the doors in the first couple of days.”

The site functions as a virtual study hall, allowing college students to access quality tutors in a wide array of subjects, regardless of geographic location.

Hornbeck and his co-founder, Hung Tran, experienced the expanding market for college tutors firsthand during their time at the University of Iowa.

“I did a lot of tutoring for the university and I didn’t even have enough time to respond to all of the students that made requests for tutoring sessions,” Tran said.

Hornbeck said that he and Tran (right) saw a market that badly needed a better means of communication and facilitation in order to meet the growing demand for tutors in higher education.

“There was such a huge demand for computer science tutors at the university that we were just overflowing with requests,” said Hornbeck, who has been tutoring for more than nine years. “There was just a huge discrepancy in the supply and demand of tutors, and we discovered that was not only true in our department but in other departments, too.”

Jim Cremer, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, and Michael Morrison, senior vice president of corporate development at West Des Moines-based GeoLearning, have joined Hornbeck and Tran as co-founders of Tutor Universe. Cremer serves as an advisor to the company, and Morrison fills the role of CEO.

Hornbeck and his partners founded the company in April of 2011 with $10,000 of personal investment and later relied on seed money from friends and family to keep operations going.

Registration for the site is free and set up in much the same way as Facebook, Hornbeck said. Tutors create a profile, list tutoring areas of expertise or the subjects they would like help in, set hourly rates and arrange tutoring appointments via the site’s electronic calendars.

While other sites like Tutor.com and TutorVista.com have been providing similar services for more than 10 years, Hornbeck (left) said that Tutor Universe offers the college focus other sites lack and provides newer, more user-friendly learning tools.

Tutor Universe facilitates all tutoring sessions via web chat and provides an interactive learning environment with the ability to share and mark-up documents, input mathematical graphing equations and utilize an interactive white board.

“We saw that there was a huge opportunity to build technology to allow people all around the world to connect with each other,” Hornbeck said.

Tutor Universe also utilizes a feedback system that allows users to leave comments about tutoring sessions and rate tutors to make the experience better for other users.

“There are no more blind dates in tutoring,” Hornbeck said. “You’re not just tearing a number off a sheet of paper and hoping you get a good tutor.”

To pay tutor’s hourly rates, users load their accounts with “tutor bucks” via PayPal or any major credit card. Tutor Universe takes a cut between 15 and 25 percent, depending on the amount of revenue made by the site’s tutors.

“The way we devised the system is as an open market so that the tutor can make their profile and set their own rate,” Tran said. “We don’t control the rates, which is good for the tutors as well as the students.”

While the founders of Tutor Universe haven’t acquired any institutional capital, Hornbeck says the founders hope to continue expanding as the site’s popularity grows. The startup currently has grown to a team of 20, including 12 full-time staff members.

“Eventually we want to make a global marketplace,” Hornbeck said, “where we can get people all over the world involved.” 

For more on Tutor Universe, see the short explainer video below. 


Credits: Screenshot from tutoruniverse.com. Photos of Tran and Hornbeck courtesy of Tutor Universe. Video from Tutor Universe on Vimeo.


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