Tech-driven tutoring business stays ahead of the curve

“We want to have a South African start-up going into the world, as opposed to the other way around … Through us growing and going global, we want to show other entrepreneurs that it’s possible.”

So says Joseph Nyamariwata, chief marketing officer and co-founder of innovative online tutoring venture 123tutors. With this can-do attitude, it’s no wonder that in just a few years the South African start-up in question has expanded from two student tutors to an award-winning, tech-driven nationwide tutoring business.

Nyamariwata and 123tutors CEO and founder Aaron Bornmann met when they were both students at the University of Pretoria, tutoring for other companies in their spare time.

They were also running an on-campus incubator for small businesses … so it was a “natural progression” for them to end up running their own tutoring company, says Nyamariwata, adding that Bornmann started 123tutors in 2017 as “just a simple website”.

But this quickly changed. Bornmann, who has since qualified as a mechanical engineer, was looking for the most efficient way to build a tech-driven tutoring business, using automation techniques to create custom systems. Nyamariwata, who had in the meantime moved on from his actuarial science studies to become a full-time digital marketer, started working for 123tutors on the creative side, “designing logos and making things beautiful”.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. People were “forced to go online” and the lockdown created a high demand for tutoring services. “Being ready to cater for that was a win,” notes Nyamariwata, explaining that with everything going online, many students were “overwhelmed”. Companies sponsoring bursary students were also looking for online tutoring services.

Suddenly, from having to allocate two to five tutors a day, 123tutors not only saw a steady growth in demand from individual students, but also needed to facilitate learning for 200 to 300 bursary students at a time. While 80% of business entailed one-on-one tutoring, this “buffer” of steady income from corporates helped a lot to build up reserves.

The company’s “ground zero” – where it all started through word of mouth, posters and referrals – was the University of Pretoria. Today, the business boasts a searchable database of more than 4 000 tutors at all South Africa’s universities. While university students make up around 80% of clients, 123tutors also caters for high-school and primary-school learners.

The start-up was recently chosen as one of three winners (from 248 applications) featured in Hollard’s 2022 Big Ads for Small Business campaign, which aims to support and bolster deserving small businesses. The insurer is sharing two months of commercial airtime on DStv channels worth R1-million with each winner on DStv channels, plus providing social and digital media exposure on its channels.

Nyamariwata sees this as a fantastic opportunity “to be exposed to a different [television] audience” and “to be seen by corporate partners”.

Smart tech

The company’s vast database of tutors and smart, proprietary algorithms, which automate processes such as quoting, invoicing and matching tutors to students, makes 123tutors stand out among its competitors, says Nyamariwata.

This clever tech has already won 123tutors some high-profile awards. Early in 2021, African tech accelerator AfricArena, which runs an annual “open innovation challenge” for start-ups across Africa, named the business the Best Seed Pitch at its Southern Africa summit. And in November last year, 123tutors won AfricArena’s Most Innovative Start-up of the Year award at its Grand Summit.

The AfricArena challenges involve a “rigorous selection process”, says Nyamariwata, and the accolades brought welcome recognition in the media and among potential investors.

The 123tutors matching process is literally as simple as one-two-three: request a tutor, receive an instant quote and pay; be contacted and meet the tutor. In the post-pandemic new normal, tutoring mostly takes place online, but not exclusively so.

Tutors are vetted, and only those who get good student ratings stay on the database. To date, the business has facilitated more than 10 000 hours of tutoring, with more than 3 000 reviewed lessons earning four or five stars (out of five), says Nyamariwata.

With its footprint now nationwide, the business is “waiting to plant the seed elsewhere”, he says. The first step towards achieving this is to attend the Viva Technology expo – Europe’s biggest start-up and tech event, held in Paris in June – as a launching pad.

“As an entrepreneur, you need to know how to get an idea and how to take it into the world,” says Nyamariwata. “You need to be a natural risk-taker … And you need an event in your life that spurs you on to take action.”

Nyamariwata and Bornmann both have all these qualities – and more – in spades. Watch the tutoring space!