Tutor Universe founders join Silicon Valley program, develop mobile app

When Hung Tran and Thomas Hornbeck were attending the University of Iowa, the pair happened upon a problem: There were more students looking for tutoring help than tutors available to assist them ...

When Hung Tran and Thomas Hornbeck were attending the University of Iowa, the pair happened upon a problem: There were more students looking for tutoring help than tutors available to assist them.

Just more than a year later, their startup, Tutor Universe, a virtual study hall for college students around the world, is taking them across the country. While the startup will remain headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, Tran and Hornbeck have relocated to Menlo Park, Calif., to take part in Studio 9+, a nine-month program that helps entrepreneurs build a fully viable business, ready for investment.

“We believe that Studio 9+ is a good fit for us because they have experience successfully scaling businesses to hundreds of millions of users in a short period of time—OpenFeint, for example—and by joining the program we have immediate access to the world-class experts on a very regular basis to grow Tutor Universe,” Tran (right) told Silicon Prairie News. 

Tran says the co-founders first became familiar with the program after Hornbeck attended Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp in April. Founded by Peter Reland—creator of the YouWeb incubator—and a number of other Sillicon Valley entrepreneurs, Studio 9+ offers product entrepreneurs an intensive means through which to build and grow their businesses. The nine-month program is divided into three phases: building a minimum viable product, fine tuning that product for market fit and building the company. 

Since entering the program in October, Tran said the pair has been hard at work on the first phase of the program—Tutor Universe mobile, an application they hope to release spring 2014. While some functionalities of the site currently work on mobile, Tran said an app will allow more students to get tutoring help on the go. 

“Imagine that you are studying in the library working on some problems on your textbook and you need some help. Just launch the Tutor Universe mobile app, snap a picture of your problem and add some text to describe what help you need,” Tran said. “Thousands of tutors will see your questions and give you answers in a short period of time. You keep working on other problems and the app will notify you when there is an answer for your question. How cool is that?”

Tran said mobile was a logical step for the startup given the strength of Studio 9+ to help entrepreneurs build and scale mobile platforms. He also cites an eMarketer report that predicts 90 percent of college students will own smartphones by 2016, making mobile an effective and necessary product move for Tutor Universe. 

In September—just before Tran and Hornbeck entered Studio 9+—Tutor Universe launched a version 2.0, documented more than 20,000 active users and closed an exclusive partnership with the National Tutoring Association.

Since entering the program, the startup has undergone a number of other changes as well. “From the time we joined Studio 9+, there have been some changes in the company structure so we can work better for the benefits of Tutor Universe,” Tran said. In mid-October, shortly after entering the program, Tran replaced Michael Morrison as CEO of Tutor Universe. Morrison now serves as an advisor to the company. 

As for the final two phases of the Studio 9+ program, Tran says the team ultimately is working toward a mobile launch. 

“There are many other features we are working on and we would like to make a nice surprise to our users when the app is launched in the spring semester of 2014,” he said. 

Since February, the full-time team members of Tutor Universe have shared space with a number of other local startups in the Iowa City CoLab. The startup also now has offices in Hannoi, Vietnam.

Read our past Tutor Universe coverage: “Tutor Universe launches successful version 2.0, logs more than 20K users


Credits: Hung Tran photo courtesy of Tutor Universe. 


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