Three months before his final exams, Ed decided to travel the world with a family while tutoring their children. It may turn out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made. Ed talks about his business, Renewed Learning (co-founded with Benedict Yorston (2013, B), and why he is now expanding his business in Hong Kong.
Tell me about Renewed Learning.
It’s an education company where all of our tutors and mentors are undergrads or recent graduates from either the University of Oxford or Cambridge. We provide a variety of services: online or in-person tutoring, holiday mentoring, exam specific, or holiday courses, and offer educational support directly to schools. We help students with their university applications, whether it’s their personal statement, aptitude tests, or mock interviews. We launched our Hong Kong office in December 2022.
How did the idea first come about?
It wasn’t my intention to set up a business, it was a product of circumstances. During my first year at university, I did private maths tutoring for a family friend, which came about purely because I needed the extra cash. To my surprise, I found that I really enjoyed it, I loved seeing the student progress; what a great way to earn money! It made sense to tutor again during my second year, so I looked around at the agencies my friends were using. I didn’t like what I saw – tutors were treated as a very small cog in a big wheel, and not looked after particularly well. It didn’t appeal. I thought I would give it ago and create a website and a company, so I did.
Initially, I set out merely to get clients for myself and a few friends but then Covid hit. Obviously, I had university work but none of the social life or sports that went with it. Not only did I have more time, but parents were desperately trying to find alternatives for their children. As we know, most schools, private and state, were incredibly bad at the transition to online learning, they just weren’t set up for it. We worked closely with parents to listen to what they wanted and helped to fill this gap.
At what point did you team up with Benedict?
In Spring 2021 I was adding group revision courses to the services offered by Renewed Learning; helping children to prepare for their GCSEs and A-Levels in week-long intensive classes. Benedict was already a tutor with us at this point, and I knew from Radley that he would be a perfect person to lead a group Physics session.
As we were discussing the preparation for this course, Benedict asked very detailed and perceptive questions about Renewed Learning and told me that he had aspirations of starting his own education company. Our respective visions for an education company were strongly aligned, such as having a charitable aspect at the heart of the business. After a series of further discussions, Benedict formally joined Renewed Learning. We set targets that at the time seemed wildly audacious, but we both thought that there was the potential to grow the business as much as possible and then later to evaluate our options upon leaving university (I left in 2022 and Benedict leaves this summer).
What makes you different from other online tutoring companies?
There are two elements, obviously the Oxbridge side, but perhaps more importantly the personal touch. We work really hard on managing the relationship between the tutor and the client. Too many agencies leave the client virtually untouched after connecting them with a tutor. Clients receive reports after every lesson and we personally check in with clients every month to check that they are happy and to see how we can improve our services. Equally, we are in regular contact with our tutors. Tutoring should be a business where everyone is happy – from the students, the parents to the tutors.
How many tutors do you have?
Currently, we have 57 active tutors. Obviously, having tutors from Oxbridge is great for marketing but moreover, we know they understand what is involved in getting those top grades, and how hard you need to work. We personally interview every tutor we take on board as the most important aspect is their ability to engage – not their intelligence. We ask a variety of questions during our interviews, and what I’m really interested in is how engaging they are, are they thinking through a process logically and clearly, and can they explain something in a really simple way.
Are your clients mainly GCSE or A-Level students?
We actually teach students from ages 4 to 18. Many agencies say this, but we genuinely cover the full range. In fact, many of our first students were primary school students! Of course, exam preparation is a large part of what we do and we are fortunate to have expert tutors in all subjects from core subjects such as Maths, English, Science and History to Psychology and Mandarin. What’s great is that we have tutors who really enjoy teaching the younger ones and others who prefer older children so we can match accordingly.
How easy is it to teach younger children online, I imagine their attention might wander quite easily?
On the whole, they are very engaged; the sessions are sometimes shorter but the progress can be significant. Occasionally, the sessions come about because an older sibling has a tutor, and the child gets jealous and asks for their own session!
In addition, we have a few people who are now qualified as special educational needs teachers, including myself, which works well as we can help a wide variety of students.
It’s still relatively early days for the Renewed Learning brand, what was behind the decision to expand your business in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong looked to be an easy starting point as we already had a few clients there. I know one family particularly well having tutored the children while they travelled around the world with their parents – an amazing opportunity. The parents kept telling me how much value is placed on tutors in Hong Kong, and how I should come to join them. And here we are!
We launched a recruitment process, reached out to our existing network of tutors and placed adverts on the Oxford Facebook and Cambridge Facebook groups. Over 100 applicants meant Benedict and I spent a lot of last summer speaking to every single person who applied. It went really well, and we have some great tutors. Naturally, many of the people we spoke to didn’t come to Hong Kong, but many ended up tutoring for us in the UK and every conversation was worth having as they helped us to shape our operations out here.
Employing people in Hong Kong has been a huge learning curve, unlike the UK our tutors here are not self-employed but have a salary, and accommodation. There has been a whole host of logistical challenges, but we’ve ploughed our way through the bureaucracy. It means for the first time I’m taking on a role as a boss which is a new experience; people look to me to get things sorted out.
How do you cope with the pressure: new country, legislation, being a boss?
I find that it’s really important to talk to people. At school and at university I was very self-reliant, I wouldn’t tell anyone my concerns or worries, I would work through it by myself and find a solution. Being here in Hong Kong it’s very different, the issues are very different, and not ones I can solve by myself. I have long phone calls with Benedict, and we chat through the issues and how to solve them. We’re very good at working together. Speaking to friends and family is important too, communication is key.
How is it going for you personally in Hong Kong, are you enjoying it?
It’s been great. I was fortunate that for my first month, I lived with the family I travelled/tutored with, and they have helped ease me into the way of life in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a brilliant place to spend time in, there is so much of interest culturally and the people here are very welcoming. Perhaps because it is such a transient city with people arriving and leaving all the time, people are very quick to welcome you socially – something which I doubt would happen as easily in London.
How did you fit in travelling/tutoring with a family while you were still at university?
Initially, I wasn’t meant to be me doing the tutoring. We had a tutor lined up but at the last minute she pulled out. We were scrambling around wondering what we could do, we didn’t want to let the client down, it was a really good job for us. I decided I would go, revise for my finals while travelling and tutoring, and come back for my exams.
Did your parents question your decision?
I knew by then that Renewed Learning was what I really wanted to focus on, and they knew that too, but it was still very much a surprise. My parents came to visit me in Oxford one Sunday for lunch, and I said ‘by the way I’m off to travel the world in 10 days’. This was about three months before my finals. Understandably they questioned it and checked my sanity. It’s in my nature to do things differently so while they weren’t expecting it, neither were they as shocked as some parents might be.
What are you working on right now?
The nature of the job means the majority of our tutors in Hong Kong are with us for a year or two before they start their own careers, so recruitment for the upcoming academic year is crucial. Likewise, Hong Kong has been a completely different challenge to the UK business. The UK business is easily scalable, with virtually no friction on the hiring side and so the business grows organically. By contrast, we came to Hong Kong with a team of tutors and barely any clients and so we worked hard in the first few months on our marketing strategies to find the initial clients. I am incredibly grateful to the tutors that we had out here for throwing themselves so magnanimously into this business development.
As we head towards the exam season in the UK, we’re very busy with clients, new and existing.
Finally, and very excitingly, we have recently partnered with a charity – Olive Branch Beirut. Benedict and I have somewhat crazily agreed to run from Cambridge to Oxford this summer (3 marathons in 3 days) to raise money for the charity.
Tell me more about this charity.
From the start, both Benedict and I wanted to do something charitable since tutoring is self-selecting as to who benefits. Olive Branch is based in Lebanon and provides an education to children who otherwise wouldn’t receive one. At the moment it’s a little ad hoc, the charity gets volunteers in from wherever they can to provide the lessons. This summer Benedict and I are going out to help them to set up properly: get systems and structures in place, devise syllabuses, how to teach volunteers who have never taught before. Many of our own tutors are very happy to take part and volunteer their time, the uptake has been amazing.
We are looking to raise £5,000 from our run this summer – and the first £1,000 will be matched by Renewed Learning. This will fully fund the charity for the next seven months, so we know that this will make a genuine difference to the hundreds of beneficiaries that they have.
You said starting a business wasn’t your initial plan on leaving university, what did you think you would be doing?
I thought there would be a high probability I would end up working in finance, that was my aspiration. Even though Renewed Learning took off while I was at university, I still did internships: strategy consulting, investment banking and a couple of others. I thought it would be sensible to try things, and I needed to know that there weren’t other opportunities that interested me. The main thing for me was that when I worked in these offices, I looked at the managing director and contemplated whether I would want to be in their shoes. This was an easy litmus test for me to ascertain that working for myself and growing Renewed Learning would be the most fulfilling thing to do.
What is your advice to current students looking to do work experience/internships or indeed starting a business at university?
The biggest piece of advice I could give would be to brave enough to start a business as young as possible – even whilst at school or university. I am so grateful that I started Renewed Learning at the end of my first year at university. This meant that I could grow the business whilst studying and I then had a platform at the end of my university studies. Choosing to start a business once in the workforce would carry a much greater opportunity cost than whilst at university, so I would urge anyone thinking about starting their own business to start as young as possible. Not only might you give yourself an unparalleled opportunity to take control of your career, you will also learn a huge amount along the way.
Getting in touch with Ed:
Feel free to reach out to Ed (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to ask him any questions or enquire about Renewed Learning’s tutoring services. Visit the Renewed Learning website, and their fundraising page.