uGuru: re-envisioning tutoring at UC Berkeley

Michael Koh and Samir Makhani, co-founders of tutoring service uGuru

What do beer, Asian-fusion hot dogs and a lack of going to lectures have in common? They all contributed to Michael Koh’s latest enterprise, a website called uGuru. uGuru is a site that provides tutoring services to students at UC Berkeley by pairing registered tutors in specific subjects with students who have requested a tutor. The site works based on demand, with 1,000 students currently registered as tutors and 4,000 registered to receive help.

Koh graduated from UC Berkeley in the fall of 2013 and began working full time with uGuru co-founder Samir Makhani, another UC Berkeley alumnus. The two met during their undergraduate careers at UC Berkeley in 2011. Makhani was the GSI for CS10, and Koh was a struggling student in the class in need of help. And he wasn’t alone. Makhani was frequently overwhelmed by the volume of students that would show up to his office hours seeking assistance. It was difficult for the students to find the help they needed and hard for Makhani, who simply couldn’t support all the students the way he wanted to.

As a GSI, Makhani began to pair up students who were struggling with students who had done well in the class. He made about 30 such student pairs, which were very successful. He then began to think about a way to automate the process to make it easier and more accessible for everyone. He developed the idea of uGuru and brought Koh on board to brainstorm and develop the idea with him.

The two began working on uGuru full time in January of this year. Koh thought the idea was brilliant. He had not spent enough time in class when he was in college, though that was in large part due to the events of one fateful night: In his sophomore year, Koh and his friends went to Top Dog after a long night out. So intoxicated that they forgot to put any condiments on their hot dogs, they returned home and were forced to improvise.


Michael Koh/Courtesy

“As Asians, we opened our fridge and had Sriracha and all sorts of Asian condiments. We tried it, and it tasted amazing,” Koh said. He began to make these Asian-style hot dogs for his friends, who began to want the dogs on a regular basis. Koh found that the easiest way to turn his creations into a business was through a food truck, which he bought, designed and called “Dojo Dog.” But Koh was spending so much time cooking in the truck that year that he began to struggle in his classes. “It’s really shitty when you can’t get help when you don’t know anyone in the class or when your friends and classmates are equally struggling,” Koh said.

So when the two partners decided to expand the brand and build a marketplace for their service, Koh could see that their service would be appreciated by students in all different subject areas at Berkeley, not just those in CS10. “If you’re good in econ, then you can be a tutor in econ and make some cash for your beer money, which is a big expense in college,” Koh said. “On the other hand, if you’re struggling in econ, all you have to do is meet up on campus,” Koh said.

The way the site works is that if you are struggling in a subject, you log on and enter which class you need help in, how much you’re willing to pay and where you want to meet. “I’d fill out, ‘I need help with CS10, I’ll pay $15 an hour and I’d like to meet at Moffitt in two hours,’ ” Koh said. The registered tutors for that subject then receive a text notification alerting them of the request. They can either choose to ignore the request or follow up on it, meeting the person at the assigned time at the assigned place to make some money.

“We’re trying to build a really simple solution for people to get help and make money with the knowledge that they have,” Koh said. “We want to build a collaborative learning environment. I think it’s a big problem at Berkeley that everyone is so competitive. We want to make it convenient and give a bit of a monetary incentive for that.” uGuru is unique in that it offers tutoring services in real time, making essential help easy for students to access whenever and wherever they need. It offers flexibility to both the students and the tutors, who are able to work around their own schedules.

The pair is currently working to develop an iOS and Android app, though they don’t have a timetable for when it will be available. They are also hoping to expand uGuru’s reach by bringing it to other large public universities. Koh and Makhani want to keep the service within public schools, where students are underserved and have more difficulty getting help from services such as the Student Learning Center, which has limited resources.

The two are also looking into how they can subsidize tutoring for students who receive financial aid and student loans and who would not be able to regularly afford the tutoring help they might need. uGuru already offers tutoring for an average of $15 an hour, which is much cheaper than the average market price of $60 an hour.

And Koh’s food truck? After a year, Koh transferred ownership of Dojo Dog to a new owner so that he could travel abroad to South America. But he still stops by the truck when he’s in Berkeley and likes to order the Triple Threat off the secret menu.


Contact Rachel Feder at [email protected].