PLUGGEDIN - Homework help site flourishes in hard times

PASADENA, Calif Thu May 21, 2009 3:15am IST

Sreenshot of StudentofFortune.com taken on May 21, 2009. REUTERS/studentoffortune.com

Sreenshot of StudentofFortune.com taken on May 21, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/studentoffortune.com

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PASADENA, Calif (Reuters) - Welcome to Homework: Recession style, where cash-strapped tutors and students meet in a spare, virtual marketplace called StudentofFortune.com to solve homework conundrums for an agreed-upon price.

The concept is simple: post your homework problem on the site with a price you want to pay for help, and either wait for experts to accept or raise your bid, or let the site match you with a tutorial that is already available.

The site is the pared-down, set-your-price entry in a fast-growing niche of homework help sites like Cramster.com, eduFire.com and TutorVista.com, which are slicker and charge subscription or flat fees for classes, exam prep and tutors.

Student of Fortune, launched in 2006 by software developer Sean McCleese and computer scientist Nikhil Sreenath, both aged 25, has grown revenue into the millions at a 12.5 percent average weekly clip for over a year on fees from transactions averaging $15 each with no help from outside investors.

The site is making money for its users, too. The top tutor, a college senior, made about $56,700 in less than a year by selling thousands of tutorials, the site showed.

"A lot of students have the same level of confusion about the same topics so people can sell the same tutorials over and over again," McCleese said.

Cheating is discouraged by the site's Academic Honesty Policy, by frequent checks to remove explicit requests for answers, and by the marketplace, he said. Users quickly find it pays more to craft quality tutorials that drive repeat sales.

The marketplace also took care of McCleese's and Sreenath's fear that users would go offline to avoid fees of as much as 40 percent on sales if they could contact each other directly.

But tutors value students' ratings too much to transact off-site, and the direct-communication feature tripled sales and traffic, McCleese said.

The site now clocks a conversion rate of over 25 percent, up from 4 percent, and an average 15 sales per buyer after the partners devised a system that tries to match new questions with existing tutorials.

OLD SCHOOL

Hit-and-run help was what McCleese felt was missing from the Internet when he came up with the idea for the site one night after searching in vain for help with a quantum mechanics problem as a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

"I didn't need help in quantum mechanics; I was doing fine," he said. "I just needed help with one problem."

He also knew college kids who were experts in their fields of study but had no way to make money from that knowledge.

"I just thought it was a great pairing," he said. "Sort of like eBay for homework."

By shooting regular emails to users, McCleese has tapped into stories about how the website has helped both students and teachers weather the recession.

"One guy emailed and said he was laid off five months ago and was making more on the site than at his old job," he said.

The site attracts tutors and professors and "a lot of stay-at-home parents" trolling for extra cash, and a growing number of students who can't afford regular tutoring, he said.

About every third or fourth question includes a plea along the lines of "Urgent! Need Help!! PLEASE!" or "Please HELP me!!!" and a bounty for quicker service.

McCleese and Sreenath have taken no investor money and have no offices or employees -- just some servers and contract Web developers and customer service workers.

Student of Fortune's growth came mainly through word of mouth, as the site doesn't advertise beyond Google's Ad Words.

The partners are seeking a "nontraditional" investor to help expand the site, McCleese said, but disdain the dot-com model that dropped millions of dollars on 20-something Web nerds who "got these huge offices and would have nerf gun wars and free sodas and Herman Miller Aeron chairs."

McCleese has no imminent plans to quit his day job at an aerospace research lab in Pasadena, California, and the firm's rising profits only recently afforded Sreenath the chance to work mainly on developing the site.

They envision Student of Fortune as "the homework go-to site," McCleese said, along the lines of Wikipedia.org.

"That's where people go nowadays for facts .... The idea is that if you had homework problems, you don't even think about it -- you come to Student of Fortune."

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