Life & Culture

Tutoring — for the digital age

Robert Grabiner wants to revolutionise the traditional way of tutoring.


A growing number of investors and businessmen believe that education is the one-to-watch sector for technology to disrupt.

Robert Grabiner is one of them. A former executive director of programme management at ABN AMRO, he has launched an online start-up, which he hopes could revolutionise the traditional tutoring market.

MyTutorWeb provides live, one-to-one, private tuition for GCSE and A-Level students over the web. By doing so, Mr Grabiner — the twin brother of prominent investor Stephen Grabiner, former head of global media at Apax Partners — believes he can cut the cost of tutoring by around 50 per cent.

Father-of-two Mr Grabiner says: “Like most parents, I wanted my children to be tutored by someone excellent, but the cost can be prohibitive. It occurred to me that the advances in technology mean that this no longer has to be the case.”

MyTutorWeb comprise students from the UK’s top universities including Oxbridge, Birmingham and King’s College London. Mr Grabiner’s business model is simple: hourly sessions at £16 an hour, compared to traditional methods, which can cost over £35. Mr Grabiner takes £6 on each session.

Sales revenue forecasts for the next three years are modest at £1.5 million. But the potential is huge — there is a ready-made market. An estimated one million people sit GCSEs each year — around 300,000 do A-levels. According to the Department of Education, for the academic year to June 2011, 772,924 pupils took maths, 13,282 took additional maths and 53,400 took statistics.

“We are hoping to achieve our target of harnessing one per cent of the GCSE/ A level tutoring market by the end of 2013 at an estimated delivery of approximately 1500 tutorial sessions per week. Initial take up in December and January has been good: the first GCSE and A Level students who signed up have all booked repeat tutorial sessions, which is a good indicator that we will continue to build our numbers very quickly through ‘word of mouth’ recommendations.”

He acknowledges that the quality of the tutoring is key to the concept’s success. As is the increasing availability and use of broadband.

According to Ofcom, 76 per cent of UK adults have a broadband connection, and this number is set to significantly increase over the next few years. The government target for 2015 is that 90 per cent of the UK will have access to high-speed broadband.

“It’s only now that broadband has become so popular,” says Mr Grabiner, who has spent most of his career working on tech-related projects for major organisations. “So hopefully I’ve chosen the right time. The technology has always been there but it’s a case of using that technology.”

All customers need to use the service is a broadband connection and webcam. MyTutorWeb takes registrations, sends messages to students and enables parents to watch back the sessions online if they wish. There is also a TripAdvisor-style ratings system and plans, says Mr Grabiner, for many other innovations.

It is no secret that the education sector is being — and will continue to be — disrupted by technology. Among the advocates are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and internet entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, one of the brains behind the Mozaic web browser, who, in an interview with Wired magazine last year (April 2012), cited technology as the next big sector for technology to disrupt.

Mr Andreessen said: “We’ve been making the building blocks to get us to today, when technology is poised to remake the whole economy.

“The next stops, I believe, are education, financial services, health care, and then ultimately government — the huge swaths of the economy that historically have not been addressable by technology, that haven’t been amenable to the entrance of Silicon Valley-style software companies. But increasingly I think they’re going to be.”

Mr Grabiner identifies e-learning as a big business opportunity. He says: “There is free software called Moodle — an open-source community-based tools for learning — that schools have and it has taken off in a big way.

“There are lots of online sharing facilities for schools and it seems to be one the largest expanding areas. E-learning is definitely a hot sector. And there are now a number of e-learning specialist software houses that are growing quite large.

“There is also lot of chat going on about e-learning at the moment, particularly about tools for the iPad. And children are so close to it. They use social media all the time.

“I think it is something that people, even in the recession, are prepared to spend money on.”

He believes there is still investment available for the education sector, particularly in the training sector. “It is only broadband that is slowing it down. All this remote stuff really depends on effective broadband.”

Mr Grabiner acknowledges that part of his challenge will be to “change the way people think about tutoring. There is still a leap to be made. People are used to getting things for free on the internet but we hope that by making it affordable, it will help. The concept will take a while.”

Prior to starting MyTutorWeb, Mr Grabiner had, as he puts it, “a corporate existence” for 15-20 years. “I was on the periphery of the City; doing very well but getting all the crumbs. I was never on the trading side.

“I never really had any motivation to move out of that. The level of responsibility I had in relation to the remuneration was completely out of proportion, and it was for most people in the City. It was a relatively comfortable existence.”

He started his career as a business analyst for the London Stock Exchange in 1984, before joining Cooper & Lybrand as a management consultant in 1987. He then spent two years as a programme manager at UBS and five years as programme director at ING. He joined ABN AMRO in 2002 as an executive director, programme management.

He was made redundant from ABN AMRO in 2006. “I began doing some freelance consultancy work but the market was tough, particularly after 2008. I wasn’t really enjoying it and was finding that I was getting lower-level work. “I was getting frustrated and got sick and tired with it, but I still needed to earn a crust in money.”

He had a think about potential business ideas, and with one daughter at JFS and another at the University of Birmingham, he had a particular interest in education.

“I decided I had nothing to lose.” Within six months, he had developed the business, using his redundancy money. “I was on a tight budget and used lots of independent people to help get it started. It’s an amazing market out there at the moment. There are lots of people who left their big organisations and now working for themselves.”

Are there other websites that do a similar thing? “There are other websites that offer virtual classrooms, but nobody using university students as tutors. And price-wise, they are not much different to traditional tutors.

“I think the market will grow.” He says: “I have enjoyed myself more over the past six months than ever before. “It’s been more satisfying. It’s been hard work but I have the control.”

He admits seeking advice from high-profile businessman brother Stephen, who sits on The Times board of directors. “We speak on the phone and if some issues come up, it’s useful to be able to talk to him.”

Other successful family members include his brother Michael CBE, chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), accountant sister Susan, and first cousin Jonny Geller, the chief executive of Curtis Brown.

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