Sean McCleese is straight out of the TV show Big Bang Theory. A computer whiz who wrote his first video game at 7 and started college when he was 15, Sean majored in physics to prove he could handle tough problems. His mother, like Sheldon Cooper’s mother on the show, is a psychologist. And yes, Sean now works as a genuine rocket scientist.
But instead of spending his spare time obsessing over the details of Chinese take-out orders, going to Star Trek conventions and striking out with women as do Sheldon and friends, Sean spent nights and weekends obsessively working out what it takes to build a successful web company.
The idea for Student of Fortune came when Sean’s quantum physics class was assigned a homework problem due the next day that nobody could solve. The professor had gone home, and there was no way to search for the equation online. Sean didn’t need an hour of tutoring, he just needed help with this one tough problem that many tutors wouldn’t have a clue about. Sean’s Big Bang realization: this was a normal, usually unmet need.
Sean says his self-financed company solves the problem by leveraging all the experts still in school “who are living on ramen and French fries because they have no way of monetizing their expertise.”
The company has been successful beyond his expectations. Not having any money, Sean and his small team built their online tutorial marketplace to minimize operating costs. Everything was automated, from dispersing questions to spreading the word about the site. With the processes handled, Sean was free to worry about customer satisfaction with the site’s customer service reps.
StudentOfFortune.com reflects Sean’s focus: spare compared to other homework sites, but very efficient at matching people who need homework help with those whose tutorials can help them. Automatic follow-up Q&A allows tutorial authors to make sure their customers achieve the “aha” moment that assures high ratings, and highly rated tutorials can sell to many who have the same or similar homework problems, allowing tutors to thrive despite very reasonable prices.
Sean removes questions he becomes aware of where someone is cheating on homework rather than just asking for help. “None of us wanted to make a site where people cheated their way through school," Sean says.
And indeed, the vast majority of Student of Fortune posts are for help with tough problems and key concepts, although no doubt Sheldon would wonder why on earth anyone would need help with ANY problem, because he with his 187 IQ certainly didn’t.
To be fair, Sean resembles the likable if nerdy Leonard more than the compulsive and lacking in humility Sheldon. And although Sean admits his propensity to strike out with girls is in line with that of the guys on Big Bang Theory, maybe the success of Students of Fortune means his luck is about to change.
Theo Schwartz is a student at the University of California who hopes to publish a novel and run an ultramarathon before he graduates and gets a job in whatever journalism is becoming.