In today’s digital age, technology startups has become a staple of sort as more and more entrepreneurs capitalize on mushrooming smartphone and Internet use. This is particularly the case in Hong Kong. Forrester, a prominent research firm, estimates the smartphone penetration rate in this city at 73 per cent for 2015, as opposed to 28 per cent global average.
Over the next few weeks, the Lion Post is doing a series on tech startups by current HKU students and alumni. Each week, we will speak with the founders of a different venture for a glimpse into their business, their journey and outlooks for the future.
In line with reading week coming up soon, when we all “read” extensively (ha), our first startup will be a study app. Earlier this week, we popped into a trendy and modern-looking office in Cyberport to speak to 25-year-old banker-turned-entrepreneur and founder of SnapAsk, Timothy Yu. As the name suggests, SnapAsk is an app that allows students to snap and ask tutors homework questions through an instant messaging platform akin to WhatsApp.
Having been both a student at a tutoring center and later a tutor himself, Timothy observed that in Hong Kong, “students don’t like to ask questions in class. They prefer to consult teachers individually after class.” However, he believes that this is inefficient because teachers spend more time on individual queries and students don’t benefit from each other’s questions.
Timothy explained that SnapAsk was born initially out of the idea that Hong Kong’s “education landscape needed reform” in order to become more efficient. Learning these days should be more independent, and the role of tutors was “not to teach but to guide, grandma style.” He hoped ultimately to create “a platform for self learning, because this would help foster an environment in which students feel safe to ask questions.”
Timothy believed that to revamp Hong Kong’s traditional tutoring and learning culture, he needed to harness the powers of the Internet, smartphones and technology. And lo and behold, SnapAsk was born in January 2015.
The journey so far (and hiccups along the way)
In the earliest stages of his company, Timothy imagined an online forum comparable to Ask.com, where high school students in Hong Kong could ask for and receive help with homeworks. The team got as far as running tests and comparisons between the webpage and Facebook, but the desktop version, which they named SnapAsk CIRCLE, was phased out in its early days.
Interactivity was the biggest problem, with Facebook bringing in 2,000 responses as opposed to only 100 on the forum page. As any successful entrepreneur would, Timothy understands that some things just “don’t work.” Plans for SnapAsk envisioned since day one are vastly different from today’s version.
An upcoming initiative the team is currently still developing is ACE, a platform that will enable teachers to ask questions and collect data from their class. This will be SnapAsk’s take on the “reverse-classroom philosophy,” which Timothy believes is a service in high demand. ACE will come with a question bank and quizzes that teachers may use, saving them significant time and effort.
Another part of the game plan, Timothy explained, was to make short educational videos and share them via Facebook. During Lion Post’s conversation with them, a few girls from the SnapAsk team were making gelatin balls filled with water. “Our next video will show how the salmon eggs at Japanese restaurants could easily be fake,” he said, although some might be happier not knowing the fact.
Running the business
At the very start of the interview, Timothy admitted to making “more money then [while he was tutoring] than now.” So, I wondered, was SnapAsk purely philanthropic?
“The company does not identify entirely as a social enterprise,” Timothy explained. “Many companies claim to be so, however that’s not sustainable for the growth of a business.” Timothy believes that whether or not a company is socially responsible is contingent upon the “fundamental values it is built on.”
An app with 17,000 users, SnapAsk charges users via online payment, offering subscription packages of 200, 300 or 500 questions. The problem with credit card payment by high school students is that the money often comes from the parents, who are more often than not reluctant to leave their credit card details in the hands of their 17-year-olds.
Timothy said the app leaves room for other complications, including the inappropriate use of SnapAsk. After all, we are talking 16 and 17-year-old high school students using a photo sharing app.
Despite his efforts towards SnapAsk, Timothy does not ultimately deny the importance of offline teaching. He stressed that some topics, such as probability, must be taught in person. The team’s new initiative, ‘90:10’, denotes the ideal online vs. offline ratio for effective learning. The project aims to create a relaxed, Starbucks-style space that doubles as a classroom, where coffee tables are self-study desks and wait-staffs are part-time tutors.
“Actually, we approached Starbucks to suggest a collaboration, but… Starbucks hates students,” he said.
SnapAsk has already firmly rooted itself in five major Asian cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing. Timothy is hoping to continue expanding into global markets to bring low cost learning to all students. However, cultural differences will make it difficult to expand into western countries.
Timothy sees his biggest challenge as changing the mindsets of student and parents, who are already accustomed to the culture of tutoring centers. He sees this as a long-term task driven by the ultimate goal of reforming the global educational landscape.
Although SnapAsk caters primarily to helping high school students with math and science questions (so far), university students also play an enormous role. SnapAsk currently employs nearly 1,200 university students as part-time tutors, all of whom achieved the highest GCE or equivalent scores in their respective high school curriculums.
Sneak Peak: SnapAsk Update!
SnapAsk will be rolling out a new version of the app next month, with changes to layout and enhancements to many features.
Photo Credit: Timothy gave us a sneak peak into SnapAsk’s new layout for the next update.