Always a Greyhound: Chuck Cohn

How a $1,000 loan helped create the largest online tutoring platform in the United States.

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Chuck Cohn: Clayton High School Alumnus and CEO of International Company Varsity Tutors

Ever since he was five years old, Clayton alumnus Chuck Cohn has always known that his dream was to be an entrepreneur. What he discovered early, however, was that starting and promoting a business is never easy. Throughout his childhood and young adulthood, Cohn made several unsuccessful attempts at starting businesses, one of which included a summer camp in his front yard on Maryland Avenue. However, this early lack of success did not crush his interest in entrepreneurship, and during his time at Clayton High School Cohn took advantage of the many math and business classes and clubs offered.

Cohn’s company, Varsity Tutors, is the largest online learning platform in the United States, connecting more than 100,000 students with 40,000 tutors that teach over 3,000 subjects. Besides its headquarters on South Hanley Road in St. Louis, the company has expanded to include offices in Seattle, WA and Tempe, AZ, and other locations across the U.S.

Although he began in the company in his junior year at Washington University in St. Louis, Cohn’s interest in providing high-quality tutoring services to students stemmed from his experiences in high school. While he had some positive experiences, he also found the lack of available tutors who were experts in their field frustrating. Cohn remembers one class that proved the power of having a good mentor.

“There was one course, in particular, my freshman year in high school where I took an honors geometry course. I failed the first exam, which was on proofs and made absolutely no sense to me. I got a 30% on the first exam. There were some other classes [along the way] where I needed a little extra help in high school and also in college, and that was kind of the genesis of inspiration for the business.”

With the help of a talented and in-demand math tutor in the area, Cohn was able to bring his grade from an F to an A. Graduating from CHS in 2004, Cohn carried his interests in business to Washington University (WashU), where he studied finance and entrepreneurship.

Struggling in a calculus II course, two of Cohn’s friends offered to tutor him the night before an exam. Similar to his experience in high school, Cohn was able to pass the class. He came to the realization that there was huge potential in bringing students together to promote growth and learning.

“I probably would have gotten a zero if it weren’t for their help, and I had an epiphany that there was really an opportunity to pair students with people like them who were passionate and had great communication skills.”

I probably would have gotten a zero if it weren’t for their help, and I had an epiphany that there was really an opportunity to pair students with people like them who were passionate and had great communication skills.”

Inspired to make a change, Cohn suggested they join him in starting a small tutoring business. Borrowing $1,000 from his parents, Cohn created a three-page website to promote their services. His group then began to spread the word by posting advertisements in coffee shops and calling schools. In addition, Cohn was able to develop his idea further through an entrepreneurship course at WashU.

“One of the things I benefited from was going and seeking out smart people that were willing to provide their expertise. One of the life hacks I’ve had along the way is recognizing that there are people out there that have solved comparable problems and comparable challenges to what you might be experiencing. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work to find them.”

In his senior year, he was having to step out of class to answer phone calls from parents. Realizing that his business would require greater support and involvement, Cohn hired a full-time employee to help manage certain tasks. By the time he graduated WashU in 2008, Varsity Tutors was still a small business, and it was unclear what next steps should be taken with it. Taking a job in investment banking after college, Cohn continued working on the business on nights and weekends. A year later, he took a position at a venture capital firm where he was able to meet other entrepreneurs and learn about their methods and plans for future development.

“I had the opportunity to get exposure to a lot of great management teams, and hear them describe how they would take something from a concept or a small product to something that was truly special and industry-leading.”

By the end of 2011, the company had 11 full-time employees and 200 tutors. In order to make further progress, Cohn decided to quit his day job and focus his full attention on Varsity Tutors. Within a few years, what had begun as a small-scale project had become the most well-funded startup in Missouri. After two rounds of Series C funding, and the contribution of investors including Technology Crossover Ventures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and singer Adam Levine, Varsity Tutors had gained a total of $107 million in funding.

After slowly gaining local and national recognition, Varsity Tutors was bound to make an international impact. In September 2017, the company announced its acquisition of First Tutors, a multinational private tutoring company based in the United Kingdom, marking the first major step in the expansion of Varsity Tutors. Cohn believes the company’s success is the result of its goal: providing affordable, convenient, and high-quality services to the public through the medium of technology.

“We’ve [taken market share] through the application of technology, by taking complex problems, coding them into software, and trying to make them repeatable and scalable in a way that had never happened in this particular industry. It had been labor and data-intensive, which is why you had never seen a company be able to scale live learning on the internet in a way that we’ve been able to do at this point.”

Varsity Tutors is one company that has shown that technology is the future of learning, connection, and innovation, and Cohn says that this is just the beginning. In February 2021, the company announced plans to go public and was acquired by the special purpose acquisition company TPG Pace Tech Opportunities, making Varsity Tutors the first billion-dollar company based in St. Louis.

Learning is rapidly shifting from offline to online, there’s increased consumer acceptance of it. I think there’s the ability to help scale live learning and expertise transfer to an extent that has never occurred before, so this is what I consider a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a whole industry.”

“Learning is rapidly shifting from offline to online, there’s increased consumer acceptance of it. I think there’s the ability to help scale live learning and expertise transfer to an extent that has never occurred before, so this is what I consider a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a whole industry.”