Jordi Llonch Esteve was a pilot based in Vienna when the economic recession hit, and the company he was working for had to sell the plane he was flying. Even though this did not mean the end of his career in aviation just yet, it changed the course of his life. He moved back home to Barcelona and enrolled in a university programme. A few years later he’s running a startup that is helping thousands of university students pass their exams by providing them with tutors – from among their peers. We sat down with Jordi and asked him to share the story of how he ended up giving up flying in a literal sense, and started soaring in a completely different way, as an entrepreneur and the founder of Sharing Academy.
From Pilot to Startup Founder
When he was left without a plane, Jordi had to take a vacation from flying.
“My job was waiting for me, but I had nine months to spare. And I wanted to make the most of it,” he recounts.
So he started studying multimedia in Barcelona, and, as someone who just cannot stop before he finishes what he started, he completed the course four years later. His final degree project? Sharing Academy.
“I created sharing Academy because I needed a tutor to help me pass my exams. It was a completely selfish project: I did it for me. And then, I decided to turn it into a startup,” he says.
That year, he was juggling several different projects. He co-founded another startup in London, and he also continued to work as a pilot, flying the new plane that was assigned to him.
“There was too much going on in my head. I had to focus. I said goodbye to the other startup, and, after two months of not sleeping, I decided to quit aviation for good.”
Building a Global Company
Now was the time to put all his efforts into Sharing Academy.
“Working as a pilot taught me a lot. I met a lot of people, I got to know different cultures and I matured enough to be able to start my own company. A global company. Being a pilot gave me the perspective to do that,” he says.
The idea of Sharing Academy first came to Jordi in an attempt to solve a very specific and personal problem. The “a-ha!” moment came when he realized just how scalable that idea was: it can be applied to absolutely anyone who is studying absolutely anything absolutely anywhere.
“We’ve always wanted to build a global company, but we didn’t have the resources to do it all at once. So we decided to go community by community. The first community was my classmates. Then it grew from there. And we try to let it grow as organically as possible,” says Jordi.
They launched in 40 universities in Spain, but now they have tutors in 53 institutions.
“We have 9000 members right now, and we’re trying to get to know them all, one by one. We want to replicate the Airbnb model. In the beginning, they were doing something similar to what we’re doing now: they wanted to empower every host. We do lots of meetings in person and online. We offer internships and we also have work opportunities for our users within the company. You see, we’re far from just a tutoring platform.”
“We made the mistakes that they allowed us to make, not the ones we needed to make.”
Jordi does not deny that there were hard times in the last three years that they’ve been running Sharing Academy: at one point, he lost his entire team. They ran out of money, and he couldn’t expect his team to work for months without a payroll. But he picked himself up and kept going.
Every experience was a learning curve, starting with the incubation programme that they joined at the very beginning.
“We were living in a bubble throughout the entire incubation programme. There wasn’t a lot of room to make mistakes. It was as if we were children again: if we tried to cross the street without looking left or right, our parents were there to take our hands and stop us. We made the mistakes that they allowed us to make, not the ones we needed to make. And we ended up thinking that we were the best, because we’d made no mistakes. Then, we entered into an acceleration programme, and we realized we had no idea what we were doing,” Jordi recounts.
However, for someone like Jordi, who is a true entrepreneur at heart, these types of challenges equal life.
“There is no manual. When you’re a pilot, you have a manual, and you just follow the rules. There is a procedure for everything. It’s all written down. But there is no manual for starting a startup. And now, I have the privilege to write this manual for Sharing Academy. And that’s what my team and I are doing right now. We are deciding how to run a company to make it viable,” ha says.
New Partnerships, New Opportunities
So far, they seem to have gotten the hang of it. A strategy that worked super well for them was going to startup competitions – and winning them all.
“We won so many prizes and got so much recognition from 2015 on that we got to a point where we just threw our marketing strategy out the window. All we had to do was sit there and answer phone calls,” says Jordi.
Their round of triumph at startup competitions and the exposure that followed resulted in a borderline miraculous collaboration with a group of French universities who, instead of picking a French competitor, chose Sharing Academy to be their sole provider of tutors in their circle of 13 universities. Jordi and co. have also started providing tutorship for high schools students through a partnership with education giant Abacus Cooperativa.
“Next to high school students, now parents of elementary school children and PTAs can also use our platform. If you need a tutor for your kid, you can search on Sharing Academy. Teachers will recommend it. We validate our tutors’ grades, their reputation, and, since we’re talking about such young children, we also ask for a certificate to prove that our tutors are not sex offenders. Every adult working with kids has to go to the police and get that certificate, and we are the only platform in Spain that requires it! Can you imagine? It also works as a filter. Do you really want to be a tutor? Prove it. Get the certificate. Demonstrate that it’s not just an impulse,” he explains.
“Anyone can build a platform. But the value is not there. The value is in the community.”
So what makes Sharing Academy so successful in so many different areas? Probably the fact that they allow the market to make its own demands and tell them what their next step should be. They listen to not only their existing users, but also those who have heard of what they do and came up with unique use cases for their technology that they themselves would never have thought of.
This openness has led to yet another pilot, one that they’re doing in partnership with big corporations to use their core technology to allow all the employees of a corporation to tutor each other – without the exchange of money, of course.
“Why would a company want that? Because every time that there is a new project that requires certain skills, tools or technologies, some of the team needs to be trained. What companies usually do is they have their own training teams, or they hire someone external to train their employees. But why spend a lot of money on this, when the knowledge is already in the company – you just don’t know where it is.”
Jordi and his team just wanted to become the number one tutoring platform in Spain: and now they have the opportunity to shoot for the stars and go much further than that.
“Anyone can build a platform. You can go to a company whenever you want and ask them to build you a peer-to-peer tutoring platform. But the value is not there. The value is in the community.”