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Supporting Learning Through Online Tutoring and Mentoring

Young stuent looking at a laptop and holding a notebook

The idea to create an online tutoring platform came to Will Li, EMBA 2011 many years ago. While the journey has been long, it was a proud moment when he finally brought his business idea to life. As a child, Will Li (EMBA 2011), was very interested in martial arts. He wanted to become the next Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. “I essentially left elementary school in grade one to pursue martial arts full time,” says Li.

“I studied martial arts at a special school for seven years, training for roughly 100 hours a week. It was tough. I had to be very disciplined and work hard. I was doing very well until aged 13 when I broke several bones which required multiple surgeries. I was told I would not be able to train at the competitive level anymore.”  - Will Li

Having to leave the martial arts training school meant Will had to return to a regular school environment and he and his family quickly realized his knowledge was far behind those of his classmates. His family hired two university level students to help him catch up. Will remembers, “an undergraduate and a Master-level student both came to my house to tutor me in learning six years of elementary school curriculum in just six months’ time – it was accelerated learning.”

During the six months, the tutors became mentors for Will – giving him the confidence to learn. The experience gave him an appreciation for giving back through teaching, something he continued to do himself long after he finished with his tutors. “I helped tutor classmates and friends in university and, I have tutored many immigrants who have moved to Canada and have the challenge of learning a new language and a new culture.” All of this factored into the reason Will created his company TutorOcean – an online tutoring platform that connects students in all grades to private tutors. Founders of TutorOcean next to a banner advertising their platform

The idea for TutorOcean came to Will during his second year of university. He was tutoring high school students in-person to help earn money for school. One February, there was a huge snowfall of 20-30cm of snow in Ottawa and Will was scheduled to tutor a student at their home and the only mode of transportation he had was his bike. As he was cycling in the cold and snow, he had to cross a very narrow bridge. Li recalls, “as I was going over it, a truck passed me, splashing slush all over me and nearly causing me to fall into the road. This was the day the concept for TutorOcean was born. That night, I started researching options for teaching people online. The only thing I could find at the time was Skype, but the quality of the calls was not very good.”

The idea of online tutoring stayed in his head for several years, but Will didn’t know how to turn the concept into an actual business. It was his personal experience with tutors along with his work experience as a computer engineer combined with the theoretical and practical knowledge, he learned in the Telfer Executive MBA which allowed him to connect the dots on how to bring his business idea to life. 

In 2018, Will started to build the company with a friend. They spent six months in Will’s basement office coding every single day, 120 hours a week, building the online tutoring platform for . Today, Demonstration of how TutorOcean worksthe platform is not simply a virtual classroom – it allows for bookings, workflow scheduling, analytics and prediction alerts for students who are at risk. After the coding was finished, Will recruited more people to help take the company to the next level. Since he didn’t have enough space for everybody to work in his home office, they started to work out of various coffee shops in the west end of Ottawa.

After several months of this, the decision was made to rent a small office for the team. To find tutors for the business, Will emailed 5000 people who had profiles for tutoring/teaching. Only 50 of these people agreed to be part of the pilot with TutorOcean. Will explains, “that’s how we kicked off the business – it was a consumer product for learning. Over time, we had more supply teachers join the platform as tutors which then brought more students. We didn’t make any money the year we launched however, in 2019 we had a major development. A senior leader from McMaster University contacted us about a customized platform. Just like that, we had our first enterprise customer. We started to build a new arm to our business which we call . Today our company consists of TutorOcean our B2C business– a quasi-student learning/success/retention platform that is accessible in 120 countries and QuadC our B2B business – a customized platform for 50 Universities/Colleges in Canada and US.” 

While completing his Executive MBA at the Telfer School of Management, Will met Henry Chin (EMBA 2010). After graduating, the two stayed in touch, meeting for coffee to chat about work and life in general. They both had a keen interest in start-ups and started a consulting business together in 2014. It didn’t take off and they went in different directions – each working on their own start-up, however they continued to stay in touch. In 2018, Henry was working at a company called which specialize in multi-platform streaming. was later purchased by Warner Media, and Henry was part of the management group that was affected by this change. In speaking with Will about where TutorOcean was headed, Henry became interested in Will’s vision of helping students learn anywhere around the world and agreed to come on board with the company in 2021.

"Hiring Henry to be the Head of Engineering was an easy decision for me. Not only did he have the technical skills and engineering background that we needed but he also went through the Telfer Executive MBA program as well, so I trusted the quality of his business skills.”  - Will Li

With 25 full time employees now, both Will and Henry agree their MBA has been instrumental in growing the online tutoring business. Will says, “taking the EMBA program was the best thing for me. The programHenry Chin and Will Li allowed me to look at business from multiple angles. I think the reason Henry and I work well together is because we’re both software engineers – we think very logically but without the EMBA program, that would be our only perspective – we never would have been able to look at things holistically end to end. The Telfer EMBA helped us learn how to look at an idea or a problem from multiple angles - organizational structure, the human resource function, accounting, marketing, operations etc.”​​​​​​​

Henry adds, “I am using concepts that I learned in the program to help make decisions for TutorOcean and QuadC, for example, leading the engineering team, building business cases, and figuring out our return on investment. The program teaches you how to cope with constant pressure in terms of workload and dealing with change. We deal with this every day - we’re constantly having to think about what’s ahead - months ahead – how will it impact the company and we’re always under pressure from competitors so it’s important that we have a mindset that is open and comfortable to change. We try to emphasize in the company, the need to keep learning. If you are in software development, learn sales; if you’re in sales, learn marketing etc. and when you’re learning, you’re not going to get everything right all the time - that’s okay, as long as you continue to learn along the way. These are values that we learned in the Telfer Executive MBA program."

About the Author

Jennifer Hyland est chargée de promouvoir les relations du programme de MBA pour cadres avec le réseau de diplômés. Elle organise des activités de réseautage, aide à satisfaire les exigences liées aux anciens et assure la promotion de la participation des diplômés aux activités du MBA pour cadres. Parmi ses initiatives, notons le programme de recommandation du MBA pour cadres de l'École Telfer, qui vise à favoriser les discussions entre les anciens et les candidats éventuels sur l'expérience du programme. Mme Hyland agit en tant qu'agent de liaison avec l'Association des anciens du MBA pour cadres. Elle est également responsable du premier des deux voyages à l'étranger, soit à Silicon Valley, et de la préparation des activités de convocation et du forum sur le leadership. Diplômée de l'Université d'Ottawa, elle détient un baccalauréat ès arts avec spécialisation en anglais et mineure en arts de la scène, de même qu'un baccalauréat en éducation.<br/><br/>Jennifer’s role is to establish and to maintain the Executive MBA Program’s relationship with its alumni by way of building networking opportunities, supporting employment search, promoting participation of alumni, managing the alumni database, maintaining communications with alumni, assisting in planning and implementing alumni activities, as well as supporting the fundraising efforts for the Telfer Executive MBA Initiative Fund. Her other duties include supporting the Director on special projects, managing the convocation and overseeing the Telfer Executive MBA Referral Program. A graduate of the University of Ottawa, Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English and a minor in Theatre Arts as well as a Bachelor of Education.

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