Where should you turn to when you need help with homework? From friends, via the Internet, of course. That was what college friends Sean McCleese and Nikhil Sreenath believed when they founded California-based StudentofFortune.com.
Back in 2005, Sean, 26, was frustrated with the lack of friendly homework help available on the Internet. During Sean’s senior year in Occidental College, the Physics major had a class in quantum mechanics where homework was due every day or two. Sometimes, his class would encounter some problems they couldn’t solve, and if the professor had already gone home for the day they were pretty much out of luck. “We didn’t need an hour’s worth of tutoring or anything – we only needed help with one single problem,” Sean recalled. With a large number of college friends who were on significant financial aid – and therefore dying for spending money – he realized there was a great combination there. “Kids with a lot of expertise who could use extra money and their classmates who needed help with homework or studying.” That was when the idea of amortized homework help came about. Sean roped in his friend Nikhil, 25, and built a website to help students get the homework help they need and earn money tutoring. StudentofFortune was born.
Students Helping Students
The idea behind StudentofFortune is amazingly simple. Students post questions they need answered on the site with a corresponding bounty. Those who can answer them collect the bounty. Alternatively, students can upload tutorials for others who pay to learn them. The site targets college students, graduate students – basically anyone who has some expertise in an academic area. The key to StudentofFortune, Sean says, is its egalitarian marketplace. “We don’t have any ‘ivory tower’ of (people who answer), we let anyone join the site and contribute their knowledge to the site, helping others out and earning money in the process.”
Sean, who has a degree in Physics with a background in computer science, works full time in an aerospace agency. Nikhil, with a Masters degree in computer science, also has a full-time job. Whatever spare time they have is spent on StudentofFortune. “We kept our full-time jobs while building Student of Fortune, working on nights and weekends for years in order to build the site the way that we dreamed it, not to match some sort of projected EBITDA profile or something.”
StudentofFortune is entirely privately owned by the founders, and have been built entirely from scratch without taking outside investments of any kind. “We’ve built the entire thing out of pocket, by hand, and never ran headlong into the funding rounds that can, in my opinion, stymie innovation,” Sean reveals.
“We were, and still are, extremely cost conscious about every move we make – we didn’t have the sudden influx of investor cash to spend on fancy desk chairs or anything. We’ve tried to build the most lean, effective and perfect company we possibly can because, in the end, it’s our blood, sweat and tears that make this thing work” These days, now that the site has grown, it’s increasingly getting the attention of potential investors. “I think I can look back and say that while it’s been a strange and unusual way of building a startup, I’m glad we did it.”
Right now, however, Sean says the site is focused on growing its core market – by building a strong community and staying focused on customer needs. “We spent our available hours addressing exactly the developments that would build our community and address the needs of our customers as effectively as possible.” For example, they try to avoid adding unnecessary features that bloat to the site – instead they focus on refining the core functionality of the site where there is consumer confusion.
“I know that sounds a little bit cliche but I think it’s an unusual thing in this industry. That, in and of itself, has really been a challenge.”
Views on Entrepreneurship
Sean believes that entrepreneurship should be something you do because you have to, not from the desire to get rich or famous.
There are side benefits too, especially the intangible. “I got an email from one of our users a couple weeks ago telling me that he and his wife had lost their jobs in the recession, and with a new one-year old baby, they were facing one of the most terrifying situations I can imagine,” Sean shares. “They told me how they had managed to support their family entirely through money earned off StudentofFortune. Having come up with the idea in college to help kids earn a bit of spending money, this story brought tears to my eyes.”
“I feel deeply honored and grateful that I’ve had the chance to be part of something that’s changing lives in such a way, especially when the family is earning money by helping students in need.”