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Photo Courtesy of Donny Ouyang
Donny Ouyang.

The Next Internet Sensation?

Donny Ouyang, a second-year commerce student, has high hopes for his online tutoring service. The question is: Will students pay?

Donny Ouyang is surely not the only undergrad to have fantasized about emulating Mark Zuckerberg and building the next billion-dollar Internet company. But when the second-year Rotman commerce student mentions that he plans to create the next Facebook, it’s not just the idle musings of a teenager.

This fall, Ouyang, 19, will launch – an online “peer-to-peer” tutoring service that allows undergrads to obtain real-time, interactive help with their assignments and problem sets whenever they need it. The site, he says, will function like an open marketplace, with students and tutors negotiating a per-minute rate before starting each session (40 cents is a suggested price). PayPal will handle the fee processing, while customers can buy credits– Ouyang’s version of prepaid phone cards – to use when they wish. receives a cut of the fee, depending on how satisfied the students are with the tutoring they receive.

Ouyang, who developed the idea with a team of seven programmers, says the site will also come with features such as an interactive “white board” that tutors can use as a teaching aid. Like an academic version of a dating website, the service will rank tutors based on their skills, work experience and area of expertise so customers can find the best match. “You type in your question and we generate a list of experts most qualified to help you,” he says.

Born in China, Ouyang and his parents moved to the U.S. when he was six, but eventually settled in Richmond, B.C., where he spent most of his childhood. He started building and selling websites at age 12. In Grade 11, he bought a gaming site for $6,000 and eventually sold it for $35,000. By then, Ouyang and several programmers he’d met online had formed an Internet consulting company but Ouyang wanted to do something more ambitious.

Ouyang’s “light bulb moment” for can be traced to a problem he encountered in his own life. In class, he often found his attention wandering to his business ventures, which meant that he’d miss key academic details. “I figured it would be good to be able to ask questions when I needed to [and obtain] one-to-one tutoring that follows my personal schedule,” he says.

When Ouyang scanned other online tutoring sites, he found what he considered to be shortcomings – especially with the quality and responsiveness of the experts. His alternative was built around the tutor ranking and a 24-7 instant-messaging system so customers can link up with a tutor when they need one – even if that need arises at 3 a.m. before the big exam.

Initially, will only be available to students studying math at U of T and possibly students at a university in B.C., or another one in the Toronto area. But, Ouyang adds, “We’re looking to expand pretty quickly.” And not just to post-secondary institutions: he eventually wants to make available to high-schoolers, as well.

His ambition and entrepreneurial instinct does raise one question: Can Rotman’s business program teach him anything he doesn’t already know? Of course, Ouyang says. “It’s very good to be in an environment where there are so many smart people around.” He’s getting strategic advice from one professor, and soaking up insights about consumer behaviour in a large psychology course. “Education is about the experience, atmosphere and connections,” he says. “It’s not just what you learn in class.”

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