Going Against the Flow: Chuck Cohn, Founder & CEO of Varsity Tutors

Chuck Cohn founded Varsity Tutors in 2007 at Washington University in St. Louis. Varsity Tutors is a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. To date, students have accessed more than 1 million hours of live instruction on the platform. Additionally, through the company's free online learning tools and mobile applications, Varsity Tutors has created a learning ecosystem of more than 100,000 free practice questions, answers and explanation sets across more than 150 subjects and tests that have been used more than 40 million times.

Varsity Tutors has raised $57 million in venture capital from Technology Crossover Ventures, the CEO and CSO of Answers Corporation, TV personality and Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine, and education executive Stuart Udell, among others.

Chuck writes a weekly column for Forbes, and a biweekly column for Entrepreneur, and serves on the board of Gateway Media, a digital media company with ~100 million monthly visitors.

Chuck Cohn

What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Chuck: Entrepreneurship means having a vision for how something can work better and then devoting your whole being to accomplishing that vision. Characteristics I see in successful entrepreneurs include tenacity, willingness to tackle the hardest problems, conviction in your idea, ability to constantly iterate and try new approaches, capacity to force yourself to learn new and hard-to-find skills that can help solve important problems your business is facing, and possessing a broad enough skill set that you can help different functional areas in the company evolve and improve.

What are you most proud of in your professional career?

Chuck: Building the business with no outside investment other than a $1,000 loan from my parents. It forced me to build the business in the most capital efficient way possible. Every step of the way, we had to decide how to spend that next dollar. It forced us to focus on making the customer experience exceptional, not adding any labor to the business that wasn't additive, and digging deep into the data so we could make the best possible decisions and avoid wasting any time or resources. I think if we had raised capital early on we wouldn't have found a system that works so well.

Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

Chuck: I consider it my job to go against the flow and think way outside the box. When I started the business, my marketing professor told me it would never work. When I quit my job working as a VC, one of the partners I worked with told me I was crazy (although most were supportive). When we started building our proprietary online tutoring platform, many people in our company told me it wouldn't work and that few people wanted online tutoring. Right now lots of of people have told me that mobile video tutoring won't work and I plan to prove them wrong. I think part of being an entrepreneur is taking calculated risks that others wouldn't take that you're willing to because you better understand the opportunity and facts.

How do you measure success for yourself? What drives you?

Chuck: One way is how happy your stakeholders are. For us that is tutors, students, employees, and investors. We have responsibilities to each of those groups and it is important to us that we're doing what we can to ensure we meet and exceed their needs and expectations. A second is the objective results we achieve. I like to look toward other companies that have achieved important milestones and measure our results (like annual growth rate) against those high-performing companies. Success is a relative measure, so we try to benchmark ourselves against some of the best companies across all industries that we aspire to be like. Third, is we want to leave a legacy. I think we have a pretty big opportunity and nothing would make me happier than to build a company that people would talk about for another 30 years.

How do you see your industry evolving over the next 10 years?

Chuck: Right now, it is incredibly difficult to get access to expertise. You can ask someone you bump into a question. You can Google an answer and read information on websites. But what if you have a very specific question that only someone with deep expertise knows? How do you find that person so you can ask them your question without putting an inordinate amount of time and effort into finding them? The internet, and especially mobile devices, will allow you to connect with someone who has the very specific expertise you need in real time and get you that very specific answer in seconds. It is this vision for how people will eventually access expertise instantly that informs how we think about tutoring and learning. Students need to be able to get access to the help they need in real time and we are building a platform that is consistent with those long-term internet trends.

What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?

Chuck: I would tell my 22 year old self to trust the data and metrics more. I worked for 4 years after college in investment banking and venture capital working countless hours as I tried to build the company while holding down a day job. I probably should have quit my venture capital job two years earlier to focus on scaling Varsity Tutors but didn't out of fear of failure. I convinced myself that there was more risk than the data and metrics indicated. Metrics can be indicative of things working really well or something being way wrong. In all cases, there is an explanation and trusting data has helped ensure Varsity Tutors builds better products, diagnose and fix management issues faster, and otherwise constantly evolve and improve. We recently raised venture capital and the thing I'm most excited about in regards to that is building out a deep analytics team that ensures we understand every facet of our operations and can ensure students and tutors have an exceptional experience.

Follow Chuck Cohn at @ChuckCohn, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ or goagainsttheflow.com.