Seattle tutoring app founders learn to harness TikTok to build a huge base of potential users

The Kadama team, from left: Dani Shaykho, Amin Shaykho and Marwan El-Rukby. (Kadama Photo)

The young founders of Seattle-based tutoring app Kadama have been learning for years how to launch and grow a startup, and even pivot in the face of a game-changing pandemic. Their latest lesson has been on TikTok, where they’re getting an education in how viral content can be used to promote their business.

Amin Shaykho is CEO of 5-year-old Kadama, a free iOS app he built at the University of Washington alongside COO Marwan El-Rukby and his younger brother, Dani Shaykho, who serves as VP of product marketing. Amin Shaykho and El-Rukby both graduated from UW, with degrees in computer science and business, respectively, and Dani Shaykho is a freshman currently studying computer science and marketing at the school.

Kadama launched as a multi-services app, with plans to connect users with a dozen service providers for things such as yard or house work. The team took part in the UW’s Dempsey Startup Competition, but around December 2019 they pivoted to offering just in-person tutoring for college students. They completed the Jones + Foster Accelerator, hosted by the Foster School of Business Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, in February 2020.

As Shaykho and El-Rukby graduated in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting in the U.S. and they realized their entire business was doomed if it was in person. They pivoted again, to an online tutoring service for students needing help and tutors looking to connect with those students.

“I guess it was kind of perfectly timed in terms of being able to help and provide opportunities, job wise and learning wise,” Shaykho said.

Kadama also timed its big push on social media just right, specifically on the video-sharing app TikTok, where it has grown to just under 1 million followers in a few short months (there are another 100,000 followers on Instagram). The hope is that young people sucked into the scroll of social media might also be the people looking for help on homework or exams during the pandemic — and most in need of tutoring services.

But only about 10% of Kadama’s videos are related to the company’s product. Instead, Dani Shaykho serves as host to an endless offering of “hacks” related to everything from smartphone shortcuts to homework tips. The Kadama team meets every day to brainstorm ideas and the videos are shot against a green screen as Shaykho uses assorted props as a “microphone.”

A video of Shaykho holding a stick of deodorant and offering up iPhone tips went viral with 14 million views; Shaykho biting into a raw onion while discussing random apps to help with schoolwork attracted 4 million views.

It’s educational, right? Kadama’s Dani Shaykho and animated hot dogs in a TikTok video. (Kadama via TikTok)

“We joined TikTok at the golden era. This is how we’re going to build a massive audience,” Amin Shaykho said of the focus on attracting Gen Z eyeballs. “It’s all about growing a following base that down the line will be users of our product.”

Shaykho said online tutoring services that Kadama competes with, such Wyzant or Varsity Tutors, aren’t capitalizing on that type of viral marketing.

Kadama serves as a marketplace where students set their own budge in their search for a tutor. The going rate is generally $20 to $25 an hour and mainly attracts college students working as tutors on the side. Tutors are primarily sourced through places like Indeed and Shaykho said they can build a strong profile on Kadama by providing any certifications they have, a background check and through earning strong reviews.

Kadama makes money by taking a transaction fee when the student pays the tutor.

The co-founders, all between the ages of 18 and 22, think that between the product and the social stuff, they’ve figured out an audience.

“We know what they like. We’re trying to make learning fun,” Shaykho said. “You don’t see any other educational apps approaching it like we’re doing it.”

Something is working.

Kadama is ranked No. 7 among education apps in the App Store. The company has been functioning on $25,000 it earned through the Jones + Foster Accelerator, $10,000 it won as best student-led startup in the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition, and $30,000 in personal savings. They’re currently looking to raise a $1 million seed round, move to phase two of the app and release an Android version.

“If we want to scale this to the next level we need to bring in more people, because right now it’s a team of three,” Shaykho said. “We don’t sleep anymore. It’s so intense, but it’s been really fun and rewarding at the same time.”

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