Lai Weichang built his Singapore-based tuition agency at the age of 24. Now at 35, he is ready to take it to the next step
Entrepreneurship, as we all know, is usually a steep uphill battle at first. To get off the ground, founders need to clock grueling hours building the platform and acquiring users all while relying on yourself or a lean team with little cash-flow.
Now imagine doing all of that while battling cancer. This is what Lai Weichang, at the tender age of 24, had to grapple with.
In 2005, Lai, a former tuition teacher, founded a tuition agency ManyTutors with his then-girlfriend (now wife) and a close friend shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer – which may have provided the catalyst.
“This was a project I wanted to start as a Polytechnic student but kept dragging my feet and never got around to doing much until then,” he says in a Medium post.
Back then, it was just an “ugly website using pure html and form fields.” On it, students submit a request and the team would manually select suitable tutors for them. ManyTutors also allows partnering tuition agencies to use the platform to find suitable instructors. It monetizes by charging tutors 50 percent of their first month’s tuition fees.
Thankfully, the startup cost of a tuition agency was — and still is — relatively low. ManyTutors’s first ‘marketing’ expense came in the form of a Straits Times classified advertisement that cost S$35 ($26).
Singapore’s appetite for tuition is insatiable — in 2014, the private tuition industry recorded S$1.1 billion ($813 million) in revenue — so naturally, demand for ManyTutors’ service was high.
Lai says he was answering customer phone calls in the midst of his chemotherapy sessions. And whatever revenue the company generated was thrown back into more Straits Times ads to boost its reach.
“Our first S$50 ($37) made S$200 ($148) and then the S$150 ($111) made S$300 ($222) etcetera. My partners were a great help and they took over whenever I was vomiting,” he said in a separate interview with e27, adding a smiley-faced emoticon at the end of the sentence.
By the third year, the team had to hire eight more tuition coordinators. Today, through word-of-mouth and a little SEO help (which Lai says is a strategy that is more difficult to pull off now) it has over 40,000 active tutors and matches over 1,500 tuition jobs monthly. At its peak, it employed 10 tuition coordinators. Now, Lai says, he has done away with coordinators and instead employs one manager to handle all the student referrals.
So, if this model is reaping high dividends, why the need for a pivot?
The case for pivoting
“A tuition agency is a tried and tested model. It brings in revenue but is more work than people expect. The problem is that the barrier of entry is really low and anyone can set up an agency,” Lai says.
Like a true blue entrepreneur, Lai sought to innovate the tuition-matching model to remain ahead of the competition, and pivoted from a P2P model to a group matching model. This service would essentially let students find tuition groups in their neighborhood, allowing parents to cut down on costs and for tutors to increase earnings.
“I want to help tutors make five times more per hour by helping them organize group tuition at home and let students search for tutors amongst their neighborhoods. For example, we would like parents to be able to take the lift down to level eight [of their apartment block] for tuition,” he explains.
ManyTutors would not, however, be the first company seeking to create new tuition products in the edtech space. In fact, it would not be unfair to say the company is stepping into the game fairly late. The ubiquity of smartphones have led to a deluge of tuition-matching apps including the notable Hong Kong-based Snapask which expanded into Singapore last year.
Lai is, however, unfazed by these competitors, saying that tuition matching is more complicated than it seems.
“Parents don’t look for a Secondary four tutor. Parents look for a Secondary four tutor of a certain gender, of a certain race, that is between ages XX and YY. The tutor also must possess eight number of years of experience, and stays within two blocks and charges below S$23.33 ($17.25)/hr [for example]. Often, parents also insist that the tutor has seven As and is from a certain Junior College,” Lai says.
“I must have seen 50 tuition apps over the years, all trying to match tutors to students over the years and none have worked. The current tuition apps are similar in nature and I think similar to their predecessors, they will fail in the same way. This is a harder space than people realize. The tuition agency model is a booby trap and it is very hard to disrupt,” he concludes.
After ten years, cancer treatment, and a decade of dedication to the tutoring agency, Lai is one man in the education sector worthy of receiving an apple.
This post was originally published on e27.