Big China push for NZ video tutor company

By Ben Chapman-Smith

LearnKo team members (left to right) Dirk Verboom, David Cameron, Mark Cameron and Matthew Harris.
LearnKo team members (left to right) Dirk Verboom, David Cameron, Mark Cameron and Matthew Harris.

An ex-teacher has gained strong investor backing for his online start-up which helps people in China learn English through face-to-face lessons with Kiwi tutors.

David Cameron was in his third year as a secondary school teacher in Dunedin when he decided to start an online business last year offering maths and physics tutoring.

LearnCoach was initially aimed at New Zealand students and the business took off quickly, prompting Cameron to leave teaching, start hiring staff and working on the business full-time.

"In the six weeks it was active we had more than 3,000 students and teachers signed up for our learning resources and were delivering over 40,000 learning tutorials per day," Cameron said.

He received funding through AMP's Regional Scholarship programme and was then accepted into a three-month business accelerator programme called The Lightning Lab.

The Lightning Lab - which gave Cameron $18,000 in seed funding, an office space, and mentoring - prompted him to refocus the business on China.

"They really encouraged us to move faster. We thought 'how can we create a more scalable business that can help more people in a way that's more profitable," he said.

"It just got to a stage where we thought China was the bigger market."

Lightening Lab culminated in a "demo day" at Te Papa in May where Cameron pitched the new idea to 150 investors and ended up attracting $750,000 in capital.

Cameron, 25, then relaunched the business as LearnKo, offering English language lessons to people living in China.

He has now shifted the business from Dunedin to Wellington where he has six full-time staff and another thirty part-time staff around New Zealand.

LearnKo is a "premium product" aimed at high-value students, offering tutorial packages which range from five to 50 hours, and cost $40-$50 per hour.

All lessons are currently carried out over Skype but LearnKo is about to launch its own video platform, allowing students to meet face-to-face with a tutor in an online classroom.

"For many of them it's been the first chance to speak with a native English language speaker," Cameron said.

About 100 Chinese students had signed up so far but Cameron said he was in no rush to ramp that up just yet.

"We want to make sure we're getting ourselves set up right before we pour resources into the wrong strategy."

He aimed to have 200 students by February next year and then 1000 by May.

"We're all set up with our systems to really springboard growth once we go hard with the marketing."

Cameron said he was planning to partner with English language organisations in China and deliver the service through them.

He has three people working in China - two have moved up from New Zealand - but is still deciding whether to set up an office locally.

"It's quite a big process to open an office over there. At the moment, we can observe everything but we can't make sales on a local basis and it's hard to hire staff."

AMP is currently calling on people with great ideas to apply for an AMP Scholarship and applications close on August 31.

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