Tech-driven tutoring start-up 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.”

Joseph Nyamariwata is chief marketing officer and cofounder 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 met Aaron Bornmann, 123tutors founder and chief executive officer. They were both University of Pretoria students who tutored for other companies.

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”.

However, this was quickly reversed. Bornmann, a qualified mechanical engineer, was searching for the best way to set up a tech-driven tutoring company using automation techniques to create customized 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”.

The Covid-19 epidemic erupted. 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”. Online tutoring was also an option for companies sponsoring bursary student.

From having to assign two to five tutors per day, 123tutors saw a steady increase in student demand. They also had to facilitate learning for 200-300 bursary students at once. 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 most clients are university students, 123tutors also serves primary-school and high-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. Each winner will receive R1-million worth of commercial airtime, as well as exposure via social media and digital media.

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

123tutors utilises 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 smart tech has already earned 123tutors several 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.

It’s easy to match tutors with 123tutors: simply request a tutor and receive an instant quote. Once you have paid, contact the tutor and get in touch. Online tutoring has become a new norm in the wake of the pandemic.

Tutors must be vetted and those with good student ratings will remain 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.”

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