KBS: Where did you grow up? And what were you like as a kid?
Chuck Cohn: I was born and raised in St. Louis, and I attended Washington University in St. Louis as well. Ever since my youth I have been interested in being an entrepreneur. When I was in kindergarten, I had classmates help me launch a haunted house in my parents’ home for Halloween. When I was in middle school, I was investing in the stock market. I always knew eventually I would be running my own business.
KBS: How did you first come up with the idea for Varsity Tutors?
CC: I began to develop Varsity Tutors during an entrepreneurship course at Washington University in St. Louis, but the inspiration for the company came from my high school experiences. As an honors student, I struggled to find a tutor who could fully support me in my AP classes and on my standardized tests. Few tutoring companies were offering truly personalized instruction, and I wanted to change that. The whole thing really started in my dorm room at college.
KBS: What were some of the key “next steps” that you took?
CC: The key is starting small to prove your idea can be successful. For me, it was recruiting two incredibly intelligent students at Wash U as the first tutors. They focused on instruction, while I handled all operations, marketing and technology that enabled them to thrive as tutors. What we do now is essentially the same at its core, only on a much larger scale.
KBS: Did you have to get financing to start the company?
CC: When I started the company in 2007, the only financing I had was a $1,000 loan from my parents. That, more than anything, forced me to ensure that I was building an efficient and effective business model.
When I started the company in 2007, the only financing I had was a $1,000 loan from my parents.
KBS: What services does Varsity Tutors offer today?
CC: Varsity Tutors is a platform for one-on-one tutoring in more than 500 subjects. This includes in-person, online and mobile tutoring. This year, we also launched instant tutoring where students can immediately be placed into a session to work through any subject or concept in short time increments. To date, over 50,000 clients have accessed 1 million hours of live instruction.
Additionally, through our free online learning tools, mobile applications and books, Varsity Tutors has created an ecosystem of more than 200,000 free practice questions, answers and explanation sets across more than 200 subjects and standardized tests.
KBS: Do you just cater to collegiate or aspiring collegiate students?
CC: Tutors on the platform work with college-age students frequently, but also tutor children as young as 4 or 5; students in elementary, middle and high school; and working professionals. Anyone from parents of elementary students that need assistance with Common Core standards to lifelong learners that want to develop a professional skill can connect with a tutor on our platform. Whatever the client’s age and needs, we help them find the perfect instructor.
KBS: Where do you find your tutors?
CC: Through our thoughtful and detailed vetting process, we’re able to identify tutors that are both academically qualified and have a proven track record of effective teaching. Applicants go through a rigorous vetting process, which includes a video interview, a background check, academic verification and diagnostic tests.
KBS: How many employees do you have today?
CC: We have over 300 employees.
KBS: What’s it like being a tutor?
CC: In my experience, most tutors find it to be highly rewarding. Tutors can determine how often and when they meet students, and they can choose the age groups and subjects that they prefer. College students and professionals alike, including certified teachers, tutor through the Varsity Tutors platform, and they can shape their experience to be an intensive opportunity to use their current and future professional skills or a passion project that they pursue in their free time.
KBS: How many locations do you have?
CC: Presently, in-person tutoring is available in 80 metro areas. Online tutoring is available anywhere with an Internet connection. We currently have two offices, one here in St. Louis and another in Seattle.
KBS: Any success stories that come to your mind?
CC: One recent example is a family that had used the Varsity Tutors platform for all three of their children throughout high school. Their youngest, Lizzy, was not comfortable with her ACT prep and was disappointed when she received a 27 on a practice test. After selecting and working with a highly qualified tutor for several months, Lizzy’s confidence grew and she was able to achieve a perfect 36 on the ACT, a score that only 0.08 percent of test takers attain.
KBS: How fast has your company grown?
CC: Our company has averaged 100 percent growth for each of the past nine years. As we expand our products and scope of subjects/skills that we offer, we expect to maintain or even eclipse this growth.
KBS: What is innovative about your space at 101 South Hanley?
CC: We have a lot of open seating — offices are interior so open desks can be close to light and windows. Everyone has sit/stand desks and ergonomic chairs, and there are many remote spaces to work in throughout the office. Additionally, we have private phone rooms and six conference rooms. We also have a game room with shuffleboard, Wii, foosball and a putting green. We also provide our employees with a large kitchen with a variety of snacks and drinks.
KBS: Is your space for operations? Or do you do tutoring there?
CC: We are an Internet business. We use our office space for a portion of our operations. Tutoring does not occur in the office. All of the in-person tutoring sessions take place in a location of the client’s choosing, and tutors can hold online sessions from their homes. The tutors or clients don’t come to our corporate office.
KBS: How do you like the space?
CC: We couldn’t imagine not being here. It energizes the team to come in every day to a space we all love. The space has facilitated collaboration, informal chats and fun activities. Most of all, it’s a space all of us are proud to call home. We moved in May of 2016. With the help of KBS, we were able to get settled in a few days’ time and lost little in the way of productivity throughout the move.
101 South Hanley is clean and well-managed. Everyone we come across from security to building management is friendly and helpful. The location is convenient for many across the city with easy access to the highways, public transportation and endless lunch and happy hour options within walking distance.
With the help of KBS, we were able to get settled in a few days’ time and lost little in the way of productivity.
KBS: What are your team’s favorite amenities at 101 South Hanley?
CC: The on-site training/conference facility has been invaluable as we experience rapid growth and have a new training class almost every week. Some members of our team have already taken advantage of the new fitness center and use the equipment both before and after work.
KBS: What advice would you offer to would-be entrepreneurs?
CC: Testing a business idea carries relatively little risk. I built my business on nights and weekends for several years before I went full time. Don’t think about step 20 in fulfilling your business idea from the start, but think about the first few steps and how you can achieve them to understand if your idea has traction. Step one might involve running a Google AdWords campaign to see if people click and show interest in your concept, even if you’ve only set up one simple webpage. Once you prove there is a market, you can then continue to invest more time and capital in the business.
KBS: Chuck, thank you for your time. We are honored to have an entrepreneurial firm like yours at 101 South Hanley. We wish you the best success in the years to come. You are changing a lot of lives for the better.