By Nancy Dahlberg
For this education-technology startup founder, there’s customers to onboard and delight, a new marketing campaign to launch and expansion deals to seal, all the while taking programming virtual amid the COVID-19 new normal. And, oh yes, his 8th grade classes are about to start.
Matias Aviñó, 13, co-founded YTeach, a startup that helps schools support peer-to-peer tutoring with a mobile app platform. His school, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, has been pilot testing the tutoring and scheduling app, and Matias and his co-founder and mother, Lourdes Aviñó (pictured above with Matias), hope to roll it out in other schools as well. Each school that offers YTeach to its students would have its own network of student tutors from within its school.
Belen, like other schools, offered a peer tutoring program but as Matias saw it, it was antiquated. The program had shrunk in usage because it was an inefficient process to request a tutor and wait for the school to arrange a meeting. With YTeach, Belen students can easily make appointments on their smartphones with Belen student tutors (all National Honor Society of Junior National Honor Society members) for free one-on-one in-person sessions in designated locations before COVID and now on Zoom. Onboarding tutors is easy too: Tutors can designate their own office hours and they get paid in highly coveted community service hours.
YTeach is tutoring on-demand. Say a student didn’t understand the Algebra 2 assignment. After the class the student could make an immediate 30-minute meeting with a student to explain it and now it’s even more of an Uber-like experience to jump into a Zoom room. The app could be used to offer other educational resources and builds school comraderie, too.
In April 2019, the YTeach app launched in the App Store just before the Aviñós participated in the eMerge Americas Startup Showcase, where they were selected by judges as a top 10 early-stage finalist. After exhibiting at eMerge, local entrepreneurs offered guidance, including Felipe Sommer, co-founder of the stand-out ed-tech startup Nearpod, Lourdes said. What’s more, Melissa Medina, president of eMerge Americas, checks in on YTeach and offers continued support.
Matias has been the youngest co-founder ever to participate in the Startup Showcase and was chosen in the top 10 of more than 100 early stage startups, Medina said.
“Matias is wise beyond his years with a passion and a drive that is very rare to find in someone as young as he is,” Medina said. “I am following his journey closely and it is impressive to see the growth his company has had over the last 18 months. I have absolutely no doubt that I will be reading about Matias for many years to come as a top South Florida entrepreneur with an amazing home-grown success story.”
HOW THE JOURNEY STARTED
When he was 11, Matias surprised his mother with the startup idea when she was picking him up from school. As Lourdes did every day, she asked him “what did you do to help someone today?” Matias told her he thought of a way to help many people every day because sometimes kids don’t know where to get help and they have the resources all around them. Shortly afterward, he penned a business plan.
Over the next year or so, mother and son would form a team and help create and launch the app – in short bring his vision to life. ”It's been a great ride to do this with him and collaborate,” said Lourdes, a lawyer and YTeach's CEO.
There’s a big vision behind it, too. Said Matias: “I really see it becoming like a major educational app in South Florida, and some other states in the US. And that's really where as I see it becoming a program where we have at least like 150 schools, in the next eight years, say. We’re focusing mostly in the U.S. but my big goal is to help as many students around the world as we can.”
Lourdes reached out to a fellow Belen parent, Ramon Branger of the digital agency Branger_Briz, to develop the app, and Matias created wire frames and was involved throughout the process. “Ramon understands our values and we are aligned with what we are trying to do, so it was a no-brainer having them help us create and develop it,” Lourdes said.
Matias brought some tech experience. He has been interested in coding and robotics since the 2nd grade and had built a messaging app for a Congressional competition and created a few websites in elementary school. But rolling out a business is a whole different thing.
“I learned how hard it is,” said Matias. “Everyone puts it like it's so easy to start your business, you're the boss. They make it seem like it's so easy, but no one really understands or explains to people how hard it is. They try and sugar coat it, like you can get overnight success. That’s a big problem with my generation … we are so used to thinking that we will have immediate results and success, and it’s really not true.”
GROWTH IN YEAR ONE
The hard work is paying off, though. YTeach launched at Belen for the 2019-2020 school year, and after working out a few kinks and ramping up marketing efforts that included posters, email blasts and weekly #MakeItHappen motivational newsletters, users grew by 415% by April, Lourdes said. Then it grew another 95% the next two months as the pandemic forced online learning to the forefront. So far, about 25% of Belen’s 1,400-student population have used the app and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Another key : Startup life throws curve balls.
“We've had schools within South Florida and now around the country that are starting to reach out to see if they could provide it as an extra resource and learning tool for their students,” said Lourdes. But COVID has slowed those efforts to a crawl as schools have new priorities. Lourdes hopes to sign up some schools during the upcoming school year. The app and tutoring service is free for students but schools would pay a subscription to offer the app.
As YTeach pivoted to online tutoring, Lourdes said she was worried about the loss of the in-person experience but with Zoom “the students jumped right in. It was seamless.” This summer, YTeach embraced the virtual format even more by holding a mini-series of workshops titled “What School Doesn’t Teach You” covering topics like financial literacy, wellness, personal brand-building and entrepreneurship, produced by Matias and YTeach’s COO, Stefano Sanchez, who recently graduated from Belen and will be attending Wharton.
Matias, who originally named the company Young Teachers but then shortened it to the snappier YTeach, has this advice for fellow students interesting in entrepreneurship:
“Believe in yourself and believe in your ideas. I feel that with YTeach people often underestimated me, and this may have worked to my advantage. I myself being a student know that it helps solve a real problem students face. I had to believe in myself even though people may have not taken me seriously at times and sometimes not totally knowing ahead of time how difficult something might be gives you the courage to go for it.
“I also feel that students have the advantage of time and the ability to pursue many ideas, even if some might fail, just keep trying. I always had a passion for technology and the idea of creating an app seemed only logical since young people are used to using apps for just about anything. Students are being pushed more and more to learn how to use technology, especially with its role in education. In that sense it might almost be easier for students to come up with great ideas because technology is all around them.”
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