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By Alvin Mak
Jumpstart’s interview with CEO of Snapask, Timothy Yu
Extra-curricular tutoring has been a quintessential part of an Asian education. Parents often hire private educators to ensure their children are adequately caught up and even ahead on school materials. However, online tutoring app Snapask is causing waves in this industry.
Studies have shown that a large percentage of $196.3 billion demand for private tutoring originates from Asia. In addition, a whopping 88% of parents in Hong Kong have at one point invested in private tuition. It’s clear that this lucrative industry is deeply ingrained in Asia’s culture – but it’s now being disrupted by Snapask.
Snapask was founded by Timothy Yu in January of 2015. The then-Hong Kong based app catered to over 100,000 users. It now serves over 3 million students worldwide.
Jumpstart sat down with Yu to learn more about his journey in the startup world and how Snapask came to be.
Snapask allows students to ask academic questions and be instantly matched with one of its tutors, providing students with next-generation high speed mobile assistance on coursework. However, the platform doesn’t just offer one-on-one tutoring, having now expanded beyond this model.
“Users pay a [monthly] subscription fee to enjoy a variety of offerings on the platform… The bundle includes not just tutor access, but [also] all the learning courses and materials, further reading and all that,” Yu says.
Yu worked as a door-to-door tutor during his college days at the University of Hong Kong. He realized that the popular extra-curricular tutoring culture in Asia could be made much more efficient and personalized. This idea took root, and he tested his theory by posting a few initial courses on Facebook.
“I just recorded myself teaching math and making videos everyday and put them on Facebook. A lot of students asked questions after they watched my videos,” he says.
Data from his Facebook tutoring videos led him to discover the potential of mobile-first development for his business. His online video tutoring career slowly transformed into Snapask as we know it today: a service provided primarily on mobile devices.
“Facebook tells you the videos people are viewing – they use a mobile device, versus in the past when they used desktops,” Yu says. “That’s a very big hint on how you should shift everything mobile.”
True to any startup, Snapask’s journey as a business wasn’t free from roadblocks and mistakes. Yu explains that building a startup isn’t a static process; projects are constantly evolving and rarely come out true to their initial concepts. Entrepreneurs need to be able to constantly shift and adapt to changing environments. This observation manifested most clearly in Snapask’s prototype format as a forum for academic questions.
Yu notes that students initially failed to get matched instantly with a tutor. Questions took the form of forum posts, often prompting multiple educators to answer by commenting.
“[Students] didn’t expect to have to put the phone down and wait for two days to have someone respond. They wanted things to be instantaneous; they wanted gratification immediately,” says Yu.
Thus Snapask shifted itself to a one-on-one, student-to-tutor matching platform, where students could receive immediate, high-quality, thoughtful, and attentive help.
“It wasn’t a hurdle, but more like a very big leap for the business model,” he adds.
An international playground
Snapask’s expansion into more high traffic data collection and more personalized tutoring does, however, come with complications, especially considering it is operating across eight Asian countries.
“Education is a highly localized industry… The math in Hong Kong is very much different from math in Singapore,” Yu says. “We have to make sure we always find local talents to make the model work and create content relevant to the local students.”
Not only does Snapask have to accommodate for eight different education systems, it more importantly has to juggle the corresponding sets of data privacy laws. However, Yu remains confident in Snapask’s compliance with privacy regulation, and reaffirms the safety of Snapask users’ information.
“We’re very much aware of the importance of data protection and privacy. In fact, we work very closely with a lot of local authorities to make sure we comply with the local [laws]. In that regard, we try to make sure we identify students by non sensitive data… In a sense, you wouldn’t say leaking how many questions you ask in trigonometry would be damaging for you,” he says.
Yu’s journey as an entrepreneur in Hong Kong has taught him plenty about launching a startup in Asia. He emphasizes the fundamental challenge of remaining focused on Snapask’s original purpose and its day-one culture.
“It’s not just on how we build products and how we build the company but on the “day-to-day” and how we align the team’s objectives. You have to make sure everyone is focused, not just yourself,” he says.
Hong Kong’s unique internationality, not to mention Snapask’s expanding Southeast Asian market, renders this an even more challenging feat.
“It’s good, but then aligning everyone from different cultures, backgrounds, levels, [and] standards to the single objective—that part, I think is the hardest,” he says.
Not only does Yu emphasize the importance of collaboration towards a single goal, he emphasizes the importance of a global perspective. He urges young aspiring entrepreneurs from Hong Kong to look beyond the region, and always think about scalability, despite Hong Kong’s already international identity.
“From the start of building a company, [you] should always look at what can go beyond just Hong Kong,” he says. “If your offering works, it should work on a much bigger scale than just Hong Kong.”
Snapask closed a Series B funding round earlier this year. The $35 million dollar investment is expected to fund the company’s further growth. Yu is pushing for the company to get involved with artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic personalization, in order to continue successfully maintaining customers. By collecting user data from students, Snapask is thus able to develop learning profiles from each student’s previous questions—a basis for their recommendations of meaningful bite-sized content.
“For example, if I’m a student asking a lot of questions about trigonometry, it means that I probably need a lot of help in this category,” Yu explains. “[It] makes total sense for the platform to suggest content that is relevant to them in the category of questions they are asking.”
Yu believes that this expansion into AI can fuel Snapask’s ambition to compete with giants in the publication and tutoring industries. At the same time, he adds that Snapask is also investing in good data collection to fuel the company’s artificial intelligence.
As Snapask continues to innovate and disrupt the behemoth that is the Asian education industry, it is also important to remember the role it plays in the even larger narrative of digitization, cloud computing, and algorithmic personalization, riding the wave toward a future only previously imagined in science fiction.
Header image courtesy of Snapask