Timothy Yu

By bringing personalised learning to millions of students across Asia, the founder of on-demand tutoring app Snapask wants to change the face of education for good

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Words: Anna Cummins

In our relentlessly hyper-connected society, even traditional classroom jobs are undergoing a dramatic shift towards virtual content and instant, app-based services. And in the coming years, the global annual rate of students enrolling in online tutoring services is set to double, with the market growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.75% for the period between 2017–2021, up from 6% for 2016–2020, according to a recent report by Technavio.

Edtech company Snapask was founded by Timothy Yu in Hong Kong in 2015 and has rapidly grown to become one of Asia’s leading providers of online tutoring. The platform now has 2.2 million students and 350,000 tutors registered across eight markets in Asia.

Frequently described as “Uber for homework”, Snapask allows students to snap a picture of their homework problem before connecting with a tutor in around 10 seconds, no matter the time of day or night. An assigned tutor, usually a university student, works with the student through audio, pictures and text messages to reach the solution.

“I loved teaching,” recalls Yu, who developed the concept for Snapask after working part-time as a private tutor while studying for a finance and risk management degree at the University of Hong Kong. “But when I was tutoring, I noticed that if I had over 10 or 12 students in my class, hands wouldn’t go up. There’d be no questions. But decrease that to eight, six or four students, and you’d get more and more questions. It’s a pretty common thing in Asia – asking a question is something people frown upon; you’re disturbing others. I wanted to create an environment for people to ask questions freely without judgment and understand that you can learn more from asking questions.”

As a fresh graduate in 2012, Yu had no experience in app development. Instead, he worked with product engineers and growth hackers to evolve his early vision, using cash saved from tutoring work. Snapask managed to secure funding from seed investors and angel investors while still at the prototype stage. Yu also credits his investors with invaluable expertise in the company’s early days – “the more I spoke to people, the more I realised how bad my ideas were,” he laughs. By 2018, within just three years of its launch, Snapask had raised US$21.8m of funding. It now has 90 direct employees.

Prices for Snapask’s services vary. In Hong Kong, fees range from US$23 for a package of 10 questions to US$112 per month for unlimited help, making Snapask significantly more affordable than traditional one-to-one private tutoring, which can range from US$40 to US$100 an hour. Tutors earn US$1 per question but can work on multiple questions simultaneously, with average hourly pay around US$30. The top Snapask tutors earn over US$6,000 per month. While Yu welcomes the comparisons with Uber (“It means we’re doing something right!”), he’s keen to emphasise that the platform is now diversifying away from its core focus of Q&As. Snapask already offers a learning planner feature, which tailors learning materials according to students’ revision habits. “We’re still focusing 70% of our effort on Q&A, but there’s a lot more we can do with the platform,” he says.

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Indeed, on 5 November, the company officially launches its new app, SofaSoda, geared towards adults to further their knowledge. “We want to create a feeling of popping a can of soda, relaxing on your sofa and learning something,” Yu explains of the app’s name. “We’re working with world-class educators to build courses with bite-size content, and a quality pool of tutors to help people along the way.”

Yu envisions this model of minicourses that can be digested in one’s own time, with tutors on hand around the clock to deal with queries, as a game-changer for how society thinks about education. “With the amount of information available growing at such a fast rate, there is no longer one teaching method that can suit all students. But if we think of a teacher as a mentor; someone to guide students as they learn freely, I think self-learning could be the future of education,” he says, pausing to reflect. “Say if I want to learn about debating, drawing or calligraphy. Whatever it is, if I can immediately find someone to give feedback, even on my unfinished work, that could be a very powerful way of teaching and learning. And we want to facilitate that.”

Snapask also hopes to help encourage education in regions with fewer resources and trained teachers. The company is currently working on a campaign in Indonesia, in conjunction with NGOs, to get highly trained teachers in urban centres to tutor students in rural areas. “It’s not the easiest, but it’s part of how we envision education could be,” Yu says. “We want to identify high-quality talent in teaching, and channel that to people who do not have access to the most resources.”

With Yu at its helm, Snapask now sits at the forefront of the online education boom, fielding millions of questions per month. Pretty good for a former part-time tutor who once struggled to get students to raise their hands in class.

 

 

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