"When you have students who say I was able to walk across the stage and be the first of my family to graduate because of your product or I was able to pay my rent (as a tutor) using your platform, it gives you something to work toward. Those are the stories that keep us going for sure."
Tampa entrepreneur Samyr Qureshi's tutoring business Knack is soaring
Samyr Qureshi, 28, Founder / CEO / Knack / Tampa
The Big Idea
Qureshi says apps, online lessons, Zoom School, artificial intelligence and other technology only go so far in helping students learn. He believes the future of education involves building a human community around the student experience, with technology facilitating access. “Sometimes you really do need someone to walk you through it personally and build a relationship along the way, and we think there’s a huge opportunity and still a long way to go. The best way to learn is generally from someone who has been there before.”
That perception was the genesis of his idea for Knack, a peer-to-peer, on-demand tutoring platform for higher ed. High-achieving students who want to be tutors create online profiles; students who need help browse the profiles of the tutors — all from their own school — and the courses they tutor. They can select either in-person or virtual sessions; most choose to meet their tutors online.
The Business Plan
In 2015, Qureshi moved to Gainesville to create Knack with a UF college friend and a former colleague from tech research firm Gartner. They joined the Gator Hatchery incubator, which provided mentoring and workspace for free. The team won UF’s Big Idea business competition and the $25,000 prize money. Since then, Knack has raised several million dollars from investors, including $2 million earlier this year.
Many investors are mentors: Charles Hudson, who runs Precursor Ventures, Knack’s first investor; Alex Sink, former Florida CFO; Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Arnie Bellini, founder of Connectwise; and others.
Qureshi’s initial concept was to recruit and train the tutors, then allow them to set their own hourly rates. Knack would collect a transaction fee as part of the direct-to-consumer model.
In early 2019, however, Knack pivoted to a business-to-business model. Universities now pay Knack to run their tutoring programs. This way, tutoring is typically free for students, and the startup can expand faster, helping more users more quickly. The colleges pay the student tutors, who typically earn $12 to $15 an hour. Knack recruits, vets and trains the tutors through its platform.
Setting Itself Apart
Qureshi says Knack differentiates itself from the competition by using only tutors from the school where the student who needs help is studying. “With Knack, you've created this relationship with someone on your campus.”
Knack is offered in six of Florida’s 12 public universities — UF, Florida International University, University of South Florida, Florida A&M (now in its third year with Knack), Florida Polytechnic and New College — and is expanding nationally.
The Pandemic Pop
During the pandemic, the company increased its customer lists fivefold, "given the need for personalized support at that time.” And the explosive demand has continued. Qureshi wouldn’t disclose revenue, but from January 2019 through mid-July 2021, Knack’s sales grew 900%. The startup’s team of 10 grew to 20 in the same period. Knack now has 30 partnerships with universities across 13 states and more than 7,000 tutors. Knack aims to have 50 university partnerships by the end of this year.
- FIRST BUSINESS: "Jailbreaking" iPhones in middle school
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- FAVORITE BUSINESS BOOK: The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
Path to Entrepreneurship
Born in the United Arab Emirates, Qureshi moved with his mother and sister to the Clearwater area when he was 7. His mother had him tested for the gifted program, but a school official told her that her son wasn’t gifted and would need special schooling to get anywhere in life. His mother, a teacher, didn’t accept that assessment. She tutored him, and he excelled, becoming student body president at his high school and taking courses at St. Petersburg College before graduating high school.
He went to the University of Florida as a pre-law student and interned at Apple. After graduating from college early, he went to work for research firm Gartner. His contact with innovators led him to think about his own experience with the education system and how technology could be used to help others.
Read more in Florida Trend's September issue.
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