First assemble a group of college undergrads who are eager to share their knowledge. Then introduce them to younger students who are eager to learn and improve their grades. It’s a winning mix. Out of this combination comes GoPeer, which pairs qualified college students with K-12 students for one-on-one tutoring lessons. They integrate technology with a near-peer education model to provide jobs to college students, logistical help to parents, and academic mentorship to youth.
GoPeer co-founder Ethan Binder, who created the venture with two of his classmates while they were students at Lafayette College, describes how the idea took shape. “We were witnessing our friends and family members dropping out of courses because of the grades or not taking certain courses in school because of the grades,” he says. “Our education system puts so much pressure on students to achieve high grades, but when it comes to the resources available for private tutoring, they are often incredibly expensive and not accessible for so many. So I started working with local K-12 students in my community and tutoring them, and it really scaled out from there.”
“By leveraging an available and underutilized labor force of college students, we can provide high-quality personalized learning at one-third the national average cost of professional tutoring. Our real mission is to make high-quality personalized tutoring accessible for all students.”
Ethan had grown up Providence and had connections with teachers, mentors, and school administrators here. To test the idea for a tutoring service, he and his partners pulled together a team of Brown University students and got them involved in working face-to-face with students in the Providence area.
“We knew there were college students who are incredibly passionate about what they are learning and who are excited to share their knowledge,” he says. “And we knew there had to be K-12 students who would find it incredible to learn from someone who has navigated the same obstacles and the same stresses and overcome the same barriers.”
“Rhode Island is such an incredible place to start a business because you can see what it’s like to grow in one highly curated area.”
GoPeer’s first tutoring team included 20 highly-vetted college students, and they worked with about 100 local students. Each tutor taught two to five lessons per week. The most popular topics were in the STEM fields – algebra 2, geometry, chemistry, biology – in addition to English, essay writing, and languages. The tutors took on the work with gusto.
“It was really amazing,” says Ethan. “For a lot of college students, it can be can be very daunting to market yourself, and it’s hard to find flexible work that is in line with your course requirements and your schedule. Having that flexible work opportunity is incredible, and being able to truly share your knowledge and pass on what you’ve learned can be so rewarding.”
The face-to-face lessons slowly morphed to add a digital component as the tutors stayed in touch with their students from home during winter breaks. “It was a pilot program,” says Ethan. “We were testing the waters. Rhode Island is such an incredible place to start a business because you can see what it’s like to grow in one highly curated area.”
Through the process of testing out their concept, Ethan and his partners refined their mission. “By leveraging an available and underutilized labor force of college students, we can provide high-quality personalized learning at one-third the national average cost of professional tutoring,” he says. “Our real mission is to make high-quality personalized tutoring accessible for all students.”
In the midst of creating a learning environment, GoPeer realized they also had a lot to learn as the founders of a social venture. Luckily, the solution was right in Ethan’s neighborhood: He applied to join SEG’s 2018 Impact Accelerator and began to make regular trips from the Lafayette campus to Providence to attend the sessions.
The SEG Network Effect
“SEG took a risk on GoPeer,” says Ethan. “They took a risk on me and our team because we were college students. They didn’t know 100 percent if we would be there. I would come to Rhode Island once or twice a week, spend the day, spend the night, or be on the road sometimes very late at night, but it was all worth it. We’re incredibly thankful for the risk that SEG took with us because that helped us get to where we are today.”
Travel wasn’t the only obstacle to overcome. There was next to no budget. It helped that Ethan’s two partners were majoring in software engineering. “We have always tried to be very efficient, very lean,” says Ethan. “We are in the education space, but primarily we are building a software product that helps enhance the ability to learn. We build all the software in house so we are able to keep our costs low. We had a little money saved to keep the servers up and running.”
“One of the best things we’ve learned from SEG is to never stop learning and to appreciate and take hold of opportunities when they present themselves, such as advisors and mentors. I’d say the SEG advisor and mentorship network was the most beneficial thing for us.”
During the Accelerator, the learning intensified. After every lesson that took place though GoPeer, Ethan personally called the tutor, the student, and the parent to ensure the lessons were in line with expectations. That effort, paired with the SEG program and the mentorship from the advisor network, helped his team stay laser-focused on where the value was to the customer.
“GoPeer has a young management team,” says Ethan. “In order to compensate for that and to de-risk financing opportunities at GoPeer, we wanted to surround ourselves with mentors and advisors who we could learn from and benefit from.” One of GoPeer’s main mentors was Rob Panoff. Ethan and Rob met regularly to discuss the company’s strategy, financials, and marketing plan. Rob opened his network and helped the team form key connections that are still important to them today. In addition, the first angel investors were SEG board members.
“One of the best things we’ve learned from SEG is to never stop learning and to appreciate and take hold of opportunities when they present themselves, such as advisors and mentors,” says Ethan. “I’d say the SEG advisor and mentorship network was the most beneficial thing for us.”
Interacting with the rest of the Impact Accelerator cohort was also a big plus. “Every single person was passionate about what they were working on, disciplined with their work ethic, and driven” he says. “When you surround yourself with like-minded people, everyone benefits. Everyone accelerates their business forward, and everyone has personal growth. That collaboration within the group can really help provide information to you that you would not otherwise have had.”
Over time, the GoPeer model has begun to prove itself out. “Most people can’t afford a tutor for their children,” says Ethan. “One hypothesis behind our business is that people view education as an expense instead of an investment. So by driving costs down to the end consumer, and keeping the quality high, we can create a winning model. For college students, the GoPeer platform provided value to them from day one, even without the demand side, because it was a system for them to market themselves, acquire customers, and manage all aspects of running a tutoring business.”
As the 2019-2020 academic year starts, GoPeer tutoring has gone completely online. The goal of their digital classroom is to make learning online feel like an in-person lesson. It provides real time face-to-face experience along with a digital whiteboard, a collaborative notetaking environment, and many additional features. Families can view the qualifications and experience of available tutors or get recommendations from the GoPeer team. “We provide the best tutors to anyone, no matter where they’re located and right now that’s our vision,” says Ethan. “We believe the future of tutoring is going online, and if we can create an experience online that is personalized, collaborative, and effective, then we can really provide a great experience to a lot of families.”
“Keep social impact as a core part of your business model and don’t feel pressure to move away from that model. It will resonate with your customer and target audience, and you will be able to make that impact that you set out to create.”
GoPeer’s student body is now nationwide and numbers nearly 2,000. Sixty percent are in high school, 30 percent are in middle school, and 10 percent are in elementary school. Over 3,000 college students have applied to become GoPeer tutors, and the company’s current tutors represent 153 colleges and universities. The core team has grown, as has the budget – GoPeer recently closed on a seed round backed by a major West Coast investor – and Ethan can recount many moving stories from families that have seen their children thrive as a result of tutoring.
Ethan’s message for other social entrepreneurs comes from lived experience. “Design social impact into your business model from day one,” he says. “We got a lot of skepticism coming from investors and advisors and experts in the industry saying our pricing was way too low, but it was important for us to stay with that pricing model because that was the core foundation of GoPeer and why we started it in the first place. So stay true. Keep social impact as a core part of your business model and don’t feel pressure to move away from that model. It will resonate with your customer and target audience, and you will be able to make that impact that you set out to create.”