University of Pretoria: UP student entrepreneurs win Best Seed Pitch at AfricArena Summit for tutoring startup

The recipe for success as an entrepreneur includes a clear vision, “passion to resolve the problem” and a solid candidate to start the company with, say Aaron Bornmann and Joseph Nyamariwata, two UP students whose startup, 123tutors, recently won Best Seed Pitch at AfricArena’s Southern Africa Summit, beating eight other startups from southern African countries including South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana.

Having made a name for itself on campus with hard-to-miss pink posters with a playful design, the tutoring business is making just as much of a splash online with memes, free tutorial videos and a web app to attract more users – adapting to the virtual world. The win at the AfricArena Summit has bolstered the business’ online presence and strengthened its reputation as a startup to be reckoned with.

AfricArena is a tech accelerator based in Africa that aims to cultivate an ecosystem of tech startups, corporations, and investors to promote collaboration, economic growth and innovation on the continent. The Southern Africa Summit is one of four regional events, with the others being hosted in north, east and west Africa. Winners of these regional events will advance to the final stage, the Grand Summit, which will be held in December 2021 in Cape Town.

Reflecting on the three-day regional event comprising workshops, panel discussions, keynote addresses and the pitching sessions that led to their win, Nyamariwata and Bornmann said they feel vindicated to receive validation they “needed from an ecosystem of investors and [venture capital] managers”. They had opportunities to network with the event speakers and other startup founders between events and look forward to the Grand Summit, where they will be pitching against startups from all over Africa, and to expand their network.

The company was started by BEng (Mechanical Engineering) student Bornmann. In its first year, it had a clientele of 33 students and 50 tutor sign ups who were all based at UP. By 2020, these numbers had grown to 1 000 students and 3 000 tutors at multiple universities across the country, including UNISA, the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town, as well as primary and high schools. Bornmann worked on the idea of establishing an online and in-person tutoring company in 2016 and 2017. He had made a name for himself as a tutor among engineering students, and when the demand for his services outgrew his capacity to tutor, he knew he had to start his own company. From its inception in 2017, he knew that 123tutors would distinguish itself from other tutoring companies by (1) creating its own database of tutors with standardised processes, including vetting tutors and centralised pricing, and (2) leveraging an algorithm to automate a lot of menial tasks that competitors were doing manually, such as matching tutors to students, notifying tutors when students request them, and invoicing students. Essentially, automating the logistical behemoth of handling hundreds of tutor requests. All a student has to do is type in the subject they need a tutor for and the algorithm takes care of the rest. Resolute to bring his vision to fruition, Bornmann taught himself to code and would spend days camping at his local KFC to use their free Wi-Fi to develop the company’s website as he had no internet access at home.

Nyamariwata, a serial entrepreneur with multiple startups under his belt, joined 123tutors in 2019 when Bornmann asked him to take on the role of co-founder. Their business relationship is firmly undergirded by their close friendship, which they formed while serving on the University of Pretoria Business Incubator (UPBI) Executive Committee. Bornmann found Nyamariwata’s industrious work ethic, enterprising and marketing skills – as well as his calm countenance – to be perfect for the co-founder role. Nyamariwata’s admiration for Bornmann’s business acumen, vision and approach to business led him to suspend some of his business ventures to pursue co-founding 123tutors.

Both Nyamariwata and Bornmann cultivated their interest in entrepreneurship as students at the University. Nyamariwata describes his entrepreneurship journey as occurring by osmosis. During his second year undertaking a BSc (Actuarial Sciences) at UP, he began reading books that sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship. As he read more books on the subject, his conviction grew, and he has been engaging in entrepreneurship ever since. Unlike his co-founder, Bornmann had been looking for problems to solve in university, pursuant to entrepreneurship. He was provided with opportunities to apply his conscientious personality in his engineering degree and proved to be divergent from the typical engineer when he found that he also enjoyed the management role. He had tried his hand at management in an engineering group project, taking on the role of group leader, and subsequently in the UPBI where he and Nyamariwata first worked together, in the entrepreneurship development space. Today, they are able to apply the lessons from their UPBI days to 123tutors.

Asked what advice they had for young people considering entrepreneurship as a career, the co-founders asserted that: “Entrepreneurship is a journey as opposed to a career ­­– the path is not set. The journey is not clear and can be very daunting. The bad helps the good; you go through challenges and hardships from which you come out a better person, knowing how to make better business decisions, which lead to even better business decisions.”

The future of 123tutors includes an app with more automated features (which is underway and almost market-ready), the AfricArena Grand Summit, and scaling 123tutors to the rest of the world.