When In Doubt, Over-Communicate: 5 Startup Tips with Chuck Cohn
“Communication and coordination within a company require constant work. When in doubt, over-communicate.”
I had the pleasure to interview Chuck Cohn, founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors.
What is your backstory?
I started Varsity Tutors during an intro to entrepreneurship course at Washington University in St. Louis my junior year of college. I had been struggling in a calculus course, and two of my good friends who were far more academically gifted than I was ended up tutoring me to a great grade in the class as a favor. I reflected back on my high school experience and realized that had I had access to top tutors like these two friends, I would have gotten better grades and enjoyed learning more. The companies that existed at the time were largely retail stores that provided a Blockbuster Video-like customer experience (inconvenient, costly, not personalized). I thought there was an opportunity to build an internet-era tutoring platform that could provide substantially more value to students and families by offering a better, faster and less expensive experience that allowed you to receive a high caliber tutor at a modest price point in a very convenient way — in your home originally, but now mostly online or on your phone, although some families still opt for in-person. I received a $1,000 loan from my parents and started Varsity Tutors from my college dorm room. I then ran the business on nights and weekends throughout my first four years after graduation while working in investment banking and healthcare venture capital, saving every dollar I could possibly spare and investing it back into the business before I made the leap to pursue Varsity Tutors full time at the end of 2011.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As we grew, we started to receive more and more inbound, random requests. An adult man trying to learn to ride a bicycle. A retiree interested in learning pottery. At first we would say “no,” but then later realized that with a network of tens of thousands of experts, we had the expertise “in stock” to help anyone learn anything. This was when we transitioned from thinking of ourselves as a tutoring marketplace to, instead, thinking of ourselves as a Live Learning Platform that could facilitate all forms of expertise transfer. The instructors’ backgrounds range from rocket scientists, to teachers, to artists. The challenge we had was figuring out how to inventory what knowledge each person had and then showing the world that we had that knowledge “in stock” on the platform. It fundamentally changed how we thought about the opportunity — one that is inclusive of tutoring, but extends to all forms of expertise categories like programming, music, or even helping people with farther afield things like DIY home projects.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We started as a very lean, offline business on a college campus that strove to provide concierge-level service to customers and was oriented around connecting students in the outside community to incredibly high-caliber tutors. As we grew, we invested heavily in technology to become far more efficient and eventually build an even better experience online than had ever been possible offline, but we never lost our focus on delighting the customer and ensuring instructors on the platform were subject matter experts. No other company has invested in technology and simultaneously attempted to scale quality, and we think the result is something unmatched in the marketplace today. 10 years ago the idea that you could go to a website and request that a top tutor would come to your home was novel (our original business model). Now students are increasingly receiving their live instruction online or on their mobile devices, and we have the largest online tutoring or mobile tutoring platform in the United States. What customers define as convenient changes with advances in technology, but ensuring you can deliver a high-caliber instructor and excellent customer service while operating at scale is something that will always be important.
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?
My wife Allie. Being an entrepreneur is an all-engrossing endeavor, and I work around the clock. She is amazingly tolerant of me always being connected, and understood that I was pursuing my passion ever since I first pitched her the idea when we were juniors in college. 11 years later, she continues to be incredibly supportive and insightful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The Varsity Tutors mission is to help students learn and we do so by seamlessly connect experts and learners in any subject, anywhere, anytime. In this way, we improve access to high quality education for people of all ages around the world. The Varsity Tutors platform has facilitated over 3 million hours of live 1:1 instruction to date online, on mobile devices, and in-person and many of these learners wouldn’t otherwise have had access to these great instructors. Additionally, we have an initiative called Varsity Learning Tools, that aims to provide high quality educational content to free to students (think 600 page ACT test prep book or AP Chemistry mobile app). We spent millions of dollars creating this high quality content and 60+ mobile apps and students world-wide have taken over 100 million problems all for free. Through these efforts, we believe we are improving access to knowledge and skills for learners around the world.
Outside of work, I serve on the board that helps Washington University in St. Louis set entrepreneurial strategy, on the leadership council for the Danforth Plant Science Center, an organization that aims to improve the human condition through plant science, and serve as an advisor to a number of startups.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?
For some context, I was 21-years-old when I started the company, so there are probably 10,000 things that would have been good to know, but here are a few that come to mind:
- Communication and coordination within a company require constant work. When in doubt, over-communicate.
- Take a structured approach to defining the culture that you want, and ensure everyone understands what characteristics and behaviors the organization values.
- Instrument every part of your business that you can so you can measure and understand everything that matters.
- What “good” looks like from a talent perspective. You are inevitably limited by your own experience.
- How to effectively solve problems using technology.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Elon Musk. The volume of innovation he has been responsible for producing is mind-boggling.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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