Samyr Qureshi and his friend Dennis Hansen turned an idea they had in their early 20s into an app that matches college students with student tutors on campus. The app, Knack, turned into a start-up that landed them on the 2020 Forbes 30 under 30 list, which highlights the country’s top innovators.
Knack is now used on more than 24 college campuses around the country. It became even more in demand as students went online during the pandemic and is being used for K-12 education as well.
“COVID definitely accelerated the need for campuses to provide this sort of service,” Qureshi said recently in an interview.
Initially students paid for their tutors, who set their own price, and Knack took a 2.9 percent cut. But as the app spread to more than 60 college campuses, leaders at a few universities were so impressed with the help students were gaining through Knack, they wanted to make it accessible to everyone at no charge.
The colleges started paying Knack an annual fee and paying tutors an average of $15 an hour. Having fewer big payors proved better than taking a cut from thousands of individual tutors. So, the company changed its business model. Most students at all partnered campuses are using the platform for free.
As it has grown, Knack is now valued at 20 times more than at its 2015 founding.
Qureshi, 28, knows about the benefits of tutoring from both sides of the desk. He attended St. Petersburg College in Florida and entered the University of Florida with 73 credits. He excelled, worked as tutor himself and landed jobs at Apple, then Gartner, Inc. after graduating.
While at Gartner, a leading information and technology research company, he learned from his mother that he had actually struggled with learning as a young child. English was his second language since he moved to the United States at age 6 from Dubai. She had found tutoring to help her young son.
“When she told me this, it helped me understand the value and benefit of one-to-one tutoring,” Qureshi recalled. “At the same time Uber and Airbnb were really taking off.”
He talked with Hansen about how college students should have easier access to tutors. The idea of connecting students who needed help with students who were successful in the same course was born. They called their project Knack and set about creating an app.
Qureshi quit his job and joined Hansen at UF’s Gator Hatchery, an incubator that offers students workspace, office support, mentors and other resources for startups.
“I was living off of my savings and pretty much poured everything I had into Knack,” he said.
David Soker, who had a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering and knew how to build apps, joined the team. He’s also a co-founder and now Chief Technology Officer at Knack.
“We intentionally put our team together to have engineers,” Qureshi said. Paying an outside company to build the app would have easily cost six figures.
They launched the beta version of Knack in late 2015. Students using it at UF and the University of Central Florida in Orlando proved the founders’ belief that there was a high demand for student-to-student tutoring. The users also offered critiques and tips for making the app better.
In 2016, Knack won first place and $25,000 cash in UF’s Big Idea Business Plan Competition. It was time to really launch the business and move out of the Gator Hatchery. They won a few grants and got investments from friends and family. These efforts plus the $25,000 prize gave them about $75,000 when they started Knack in office space in downtown Tampa. Qureshi worked part-time delivering cookies and some of the other co-founders had full-time jobs while also working at their startup.
They ran digital ads and started marketing the app to students on numerous campuses to recruit tutors and clients. The most effective way to do this was to hire campus ambassadors to represent Knack at college events around the country and gather small groups to learn about it.
“We recruited them cold from job postings and interviewed them then hired them,” Qureshi said. “We gave them $300 to $500 a month and a list of tactics that we had tested at UF: ‘Go buy pizza and entice some students to come hear about it.’”
At the same time, they were expanding the app, they were finding more people to invest in the company.
“The (Big Idea) contest put us a bit on the map,” Qureshi said. “There were really great judges who said we should come out to San Francisco and meet some folks.” They did, and secured some West Coast investors.
In Tampa, Qureshi joined a downtown business incubator he found by searching Google. A mentor in the incubator invested in the company and connected him to Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning NHL hockey team. Vinik has also headed successful investments funds and is a philanthropist who has given millions of dollars to education. He invested in the company as did others.
“We initially raised about $1 million in capital from the Tampa Bay area,” Qureshi said.
His advice to college students or recent grads who have an idea that could turn into an app or a business, is to “go for it.”
“We were pretty naive and that gave us some pause. I was a pre-law student so I didn’t have any business experience. The majority of our team did not study business,” he said. “We learned a lot from mentors. We were srappy, scraping up dollars where we could.”
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance editor and reporter in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps & Lessons Learned.