This Hong Kong entrepreneur is educating millions with his 'Uber for tutoring' app

From left to right, Timothy Yu, founder and CEO of Snapask, and chief financial officer, Terry

When on-demand education app Snapask emerged on the scene in 2015, it was quickly dubbed the "Uber" for tutoring.

"I guess people relate us because we provide the same kind of convenience for users," founder and CEO Timothy Yu said of the characterization.

The Hong Kong company was then just a young start-up, serving 100,000 students. But like the famous ride-hailing platform, it has been moving in the fast lane in the two years since.

Today, the four-year-old platform, which matches students with qualified tutors for interactive question-and-answer sessions, has connected more than two million users with 250,000 educators across eight countries. It has also amassed over $20 million in funding along the way.

And to think, it was all born out of laziness.

That’s pretty much how it started. From being a lazy person...
Timothy Yu
founder and CEO, Snapask

'Uber for tutoring'

In 2008, while Uber was just a vision in its founder Travis Kalanick's mind, Yu was at university growing fed up of the energy he was wasting on his side job.

Like the vast majority of university students in Hong Kong, Yu was working as a high school tutor to fund his studies in the famously expensive city. But he quickly grew tired of the "inefficient" private tutor model, which typically involves several unpaid hours spent planning and commuting to students each week.

Seeing the proliferation of technology and its ability to enable remote services, the finance student thought there must be a better way.

Snapask's app interface

"We started to see how apps had changed the way we perceive services," Yu, now 30, told CNBC Make It recently in Hong Kong. "So I started thinking about how I could move my work online."

"That's pretty much how it started. From being a lazy person (thinking) I don't want to teach anymore, to finding that it can actually be a business model," the Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneur said laughing.

Getting entrepreneurial

Laziness was just the beginning, of course.

Yu, then still a student, quickly began experimenting with alternative tutoring methods, which ranged from Facebook videos to an online past paper bank.

Though neither worked, they inspired the idea which would go on to become Snapask.

"After watching my videos, a lot of students started messaging me their questions. That actually gave me the idea: 'Hey, why don't we just try and monetize this?'" Yu told Tech In Asia last year.

So, along with a team of freelance programmers, he set about creating a prototype of an on-demand Q&A app.

Snapask in action

Under the Snapask model, students upload a question or photo of their problem to the app, before algorithms identify and alert the most appropriately qualified local tutors.

The quickest tutor to respond — usually taking less than 5 seconds — is then assigned the job and begins a one-on-one, in-app messaging session with the student. Snapask's software then analyzes the conversation to monitor and rate the quality of teaching.

The app works on a subscription basis, whereby students pay for a monthly question allowance. Currently, these range from $43 to $86 per month.

Tutors, who must have A grades in their chosen specialism, earn according to number of questions answered. They can help several students simultaneously and typically earn around $2,000 per month answering 2,500 questions.

"Like Uber drivers," tutors are not directly contracted under Snapask, according to Yu.

After graduation, Yu worked three jobs — one full-time banking role and two tutoring roles — to fund the project. His $40,000 investment was later matched by local Hong Kong start-up incubator program, Cyberport.

Turning to work on the business full-time, Yu began recruiting tutors and signed up 300 student tutors from his own university within the first few days. Within months, thousands of tutors and tens of thousands of students had signed up.

"I guess, fundamentally, they had the same problem as well," he said, noting the time-consuming nature of traditional tutoring.

Changing the face of education

Snapask now handles approximately two million questions per month, across markets in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The company directly employs 80 staff to handle app operations.

Yu said he believes the business has helped break down barriers to education and given students greater control over how and what they learn. He said that's been especially helpful in emerging economies, where access to good education can be difficult.

Snapask's Q&A app interface

"The bigger the country, the bigger the problem it is," said Yu. "Good tutors from good universities are usually in major cities, so it means educational resources from other second, third-tier cities could be relatively lower."

That links to Yu's bigger ambitions to help reinvent the education system.

"The reason I started the company is (due to) a fundamental mistrust in the current education system and how it could be," said Yu. "So much of school teaching (is) not applicable to real life."

"What we want to change is people's ability to self-learn by asking questions," he continued. "We want the student to control it."

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