It seems like online marketplaces are all the rage these days. We’re all familiar with AirBnB as a marketplace for people to find apartments and houses for rent. And recently, I wrote about Rtist, a marketplace for finding graphic designers for hire. How about a marketplace to help you find lessons of all kinds — from academic tutoring to cooking to fitness training? Well, we do have a home-grown portal that offers just that. It’s called AOne and it was founded by Darren Gouk, who at one time aspired to become a university lecturer. In fact, he was headed in that direction when he caught the entrepreneurial bug and decided to embark on an online venture instead.

Gouk had pursued a PhD in Nutritional Chemistry from Universiti Malaya in order to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a lecturer. He did well academically, receiving many awards and was even offered a post-doctoral position at Imperial College London. But he declined to take that up and other offers that came in in order to kick-start AOne in the country.“That was a life decision that friends and family members couldn’t understand,” recalls Gouk. “My mother, especially, thought that I was wasting my academic achievements pursuing an online business.” But he stuck to his guns and pursued his entrepreneurial dreams. Gouk talks to SAVVY about his online marketplace for offline lessons of all kinds, his plans for expanding and growing the business and the differences between running an online and offline business.

How did you go from wanting to be a lecturer to becoming an entrepreneur?

I’d attended a free Internet marketing seminar at the urging of a friend. There I was introduced to how online businesses work and I was so inspired by it. The very next day I set out to create the beta version of AOne, an online marketplace to match students and tutors.

How was the response like initially?

Word spread very fast and there was a lot of interest in what I was doing. What really encouraged me was the knowledge that I was offering something truly beneficial for society. I remember receiving a request from a single mother who wanted to find good but low cost tutoring for her kids. I managed to find a suitable tuition centre for her and she was very happy. Things like that told me that I’d made the right decision to do this.

AOne started out as an online marketplace for tutoring but it quickly grew to include many other types of lessons. Was this

always your plan?

I’d initially thought of doing just a marketplace for tutoring. But then I started getting inquiries from parents about non-academic lessons, especially music and swimming. There were quite a lot of inquiries about this. So, it made me think, why not expand the offerings to include other types of lessons and not just academic tutoring. I started by including music and swimming because those were the most in demand. But once I offered those, people started asking for other types of lessons so I opened it up. Now, you can find out about all kinds of lessons through our portal: ballet, drawing, cooking, Mandarin lessons, photography, computer programming, you name it.

Which lessons are more popular — academic or non-academic ones?

Both are performing pretty well but there’s a lot more spending for academic-related lessons. I guess it must be an Asian thing. Parents like to send their kids for tutoring.

What’s your business model?

Lesson providers list for free and students use the portal for free. But the lesson providers have to pay for access to leads, i.e. the queries by the students.

Does that generate enough revenue to sustain the business?

It generates steady revenue but of course we have to offer more services in order to bolster our revenues. We’ve just launched a new service called AOnePay which we think will bring in more revenue than the lead generation fees.

Is AOne Pay a payment gateway?

It’s an automated monthly fee collection service for learning centres, kindergartens and gyms. Our experience in dealing with lesson providers told us that collecting fees from students is a problem faced by many of them. Many don’t pay on time and there’s a lot of work when you need to chase for fees and keep track of who has paid and who has not. And this happens every month. So we decided to provide an auto-debit service for their lesson fees. It solves a lot of their headaches. Of course we take a small commission from the fees that we help them collect.

Aside from this online business, you also have two offline student enrichment centres. What do they teach?

I run two enrichment centres focused on maths in Kota Damansara and Sri Damansara under the brand name of SAM (Seriously Addictive Maths). It features a unique problem-solving curriculum designed for preschool and primary school students from the ages of four to 12.

Being both an online and offline entrepreneur, how do you find each sector and what are the key differences?

Running an online start-up is akin to taking a roller coaster ride while running a bricks and mortar business is like riding a motorbike. A roller coaster is a wild and bumpy ride all the way. Riding a motorcycle is somewhat risky but more steady and predictable. That’s the difference between an online and offline business.

Ever thought of going beyond being a matchmaker and actually becoming a publisher of sorts of online lessons?

It would make sense that I’d go into this because e-learning is definitely a growing trend. There’s a company in the US called Skillshare.com which started off offering offline classes — like we do at AOne — but eventually they started adding online courses. That’s something we’d like to do too. It’d be great if we could someday create a localised version of Skillshare.com.

Have you thought of going regional?

Our long term vision is to be the central marketplace for all instructors and lessons in Southeast Asia. We’ve already launched a Singapore version of our site which currently hosts about 600 lesson providers. Eventually, we can replicate this across the region. But I know that doing so won’t be easy because of the differences in language, culture and government regulations. Malaysia and Singapore are quite similar, which is why we expanded there first.

Are you an ambitious person?

I’d say I am. My life goal is to create a business that can make a significant positive impact on society. For me to create such an impact, it has to be education or lessons because that’s something I know very well and is dear to my heart.

Do you have a role model?

Elon Musk. His entrepreneurial journey is amazing. His passionate, forward-looking, never-look-back and never-give-up spirit truly inspires me!

Any local online company you admire?

Yes, Grab. What an impact it has made. That company gives Malaysians the opportunity to earn extra income to support themselves and their families.

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