Chuck Cohn – Founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors

[quote style=”boxed”]I would tackle all the hardest operational aspects of this business first, rather than tackling the easiest items first.[/quote]

Chuck Cohn is the founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors, a private tutoring service in NYC and 13 other metro areas. You can connect with Chuck on LinkedIn.

What are you working on right now?

We’re currently focused on building out our team, as we’ve experienced a lot of growth recently. It is critical that we’re always recruiting talented people. One of the great aspects to managing a virtual company is that there are no geographical recruiting limits.

Where did the idea for Varsity Tutors come from?

I struggled in a couple of advanced placement courses in high school, and when I tried to find a qualified tutor to assist me, it was extremely difficult. When I was an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, I realized that a few of my peers would make terrific tutors. They had been valedictorians of their respective high school classes, had incredibly communication skills, had expert-level subject knowledge, and were fun to be around. Over time, our tutoring network grew into something much bigger.

What does your typical day look like?

I always spend the first 30 minutes of my morning reading tech blogs. I find it stimulates my creativity and leads me to “think big” for the day. Then I take about 90 minutes to go through my emails. Much of my afternoons are spent on the phone or on Skype conversations — touching base with all of my regional directors, calling potential hires, working with our web development team, etc.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Talking to a lot of people is a very important step in this process. It‘s important to flesh out the details and explore them to the fullest extent possible. Most ideas I have aren’t actually good enough to be implemented. I like to pitch other people my ideas. That way I can weigh the pros and cons of an idea before pursuing it.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Managing our operations virtually has allowed us to operate substantially more efficiently than brick-and-mortar tutoring centers, and we are able to provide a better service for less money. I believe that our experience is indicative of a broader trend in service industries in which best-in-class national companies will outcompete local service providers by better leveraging information technology and pursuing excellence in operations.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

During one summer, I literally picked up rocks off of football fields for a job. Going through about 1,000+ rocks per day in 105 degree heat was, needless to say, far from enjoyable. It was for a great cause (helping inner-city youth have a safe field to play football on), but it made me realize how awesome it actually would be to be able to work at a desk in an office. It’s made me appreciate all the “desk jobs” I’ve had since. It also makes me appreciate how hard many people work in manual labor jobs.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would tackle all the hardest operational aspects of this business first, rather than tackling the easiest items first. Each time we’ve tackled a big operational problem, we’ve end up finding a solution that made us far more effective and efficient. Many big operational problems are more intimidating than they are hard to solve.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

We’re a data-driven organization, and I attribute much of our success to the data we track, the conclusions we can draw from it, and subsequent improvements we’re able to make to our business. I recommend tracking every single data point you can. Inevitably, much of what you learn will surprise you.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

None of our initial attempts at traditional marketing worked. In fact, it took more than a year of trying out different methods to finally identify the best way to structure relationships with schools in order to effectively generate leads and business. Once we finally figured that out, our business took off. If you iterate enough, something will work.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A company should consider upgrading its brand’s image every time a potential consumer can no longer differentiate your product and its quality or value from that of your competitors. This requires constant monitoring of your own brand’s reputation, and comparing and contrasting your brand with that of others.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I’d like to help make better education available to more people at a fraction of the price it currently costs. There is an incredible discrepancy in education between cost and value, particularly in for-profit colleges. I believe that open educational platforms, like the one that MIT is pursuing, are a great step in the direction of making better education available for everyone.

Tell us a secret.

I really like exploring different craft beers. O’Fallon Brewery has a beer called the Five Day IPA I love.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Google Apps, Dropbox, and Skype are my favorite tools. They make it possible to operate a virtual company effectively.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I highly recommend any of Ayn Rand’s novels. Not only is her writing incredibly engaging, but the stories remind the reader of the power of capitalism and all the good it can do.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I follow about 50 to 100 venture capital and technology leaders who I find interesting. I don’t follow any one person too much. There’s too much different information out there to focus on what any one person has to say.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Every Samsung Galaxy S3 commercial in which they make fun of Apple has made me laugh. It’s funny that Samsung is doing to Apple exactly what Apple did to Microsoft with their “PC vs. Apple” commercials.

Who is your hero?

Any “super entrepreneur” like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, or Richard Branson. They’re motivated by a constant urge to improve big problems they experience.

What’s your office like?

I’m lucky enough to work from home, so I’ve somewhat regressed to my college days. There are usually stacks of paper all over the room, and I’m blasting mash-ups (hip hop mixed over rock) most of the day.

What Sports do you like?

More than anything, I am a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan and was ecstatic by their championship win last year and exciting post-season this year (I was floored that they blew a three-game lead in the NCLS). I also love college football. I played football in high school with current Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. When he played for the University of Oregon, I became a huge Ducks fan. It’s easy to be an Oregon fan when they’re putting up 60 points a game.


Chuck Cohn on LinkedIn: