Varun Tewari held his black Motorola in place between his cheek and his shoulder, using his hands to scribble a phone number on a purple post-it note. Once the conversation ended, he stuck the post-it on a desk already covered with purple post-it notes. Then he quickly picked up his other cell phone, which had been threatening to vibrate itself off of a tall stack of SAT books. The woman on the other line was from a test prep company in Chicago, calling to discuss a collaboration. He took down her number. His phone returned it to its perch on top of the SAT books. He turned to me, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. “Where were we?” he asked.
For Varun, a packed schedule and a messy desk are nothing new. During the six months before he founded Victory Step in June 2010, his desk was so cluttered with books and papers that he had to buy a second desk. “I wouldn’t want to go through that period again,” Varun laughs. “I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
The idea to start his own company came to him all of a sudden in December 2009, in the unlikeliest of places: the gym. While he was working out, he suddenly thought that maybe electrical engineering wasn’t the field he was most passionate about: maybe his passion was teaching. Varun was lucky to have a family who supported his unconventional decision. His father and brother loaned him some money to get Victory Step off the ground (although not without skepticism). His older brother, Karan, helped Varun manage the company for several months. In spite of currently pursuing his Master's at Duke, Karan has managed to overlook some of the more important aspects in the company
The name “Victory Step” was proposed by one of Varun’s friends, after Varun’s own attempts to name the company yielded names like “Best Texas Prep” and “Fun Prep.” All of this work went into fixing some problems Varun saw with the status quo of SAT and ACT tutoring. For one, he was disturbed by inequality in the distribution of college prep resources. “I saw a gap between high end tutoring prices and people who were only able to get a College Board book,” Varun said. “The Victory Step philosophy is to help out each and every student regardless of financial background.” He also saw a problem with the way tutors interacted with students. As a high school student studying for his own SAT test, he noticed that a lot of SAT instructors were much older than their students, and had no idea how to speak their students’ language. “After my first four classes, he didn’t even know I existed,” Varun said. “For him, it seemed like the most boring job you could ever have. That was something I wanted to change.”
Varun also had problems with the content of most tutoring courses. While most test prep companies only cover test questions, Varun thought that students would benefit from learning the fundamentals of a subject, too. “There’s only so much students can look at questions,” he explained. “They want to understand how things work. One thing lacking from all these books is the basic fundamentals.” He plans on remedying this problem through tutoring, and also by publishing his own test prep book. “That’s what keeps me motivated: I want to walk into Barnes and Nobles and find my own book on the shelf,” he said. “In terms of long-term plans, Victory Step is all I can think about.”When he thinks back to high school, and the SAT tutors who looked so bored while teaching him, Varun is amazed that he has now taken their place. “I had no idea I would be doing the same thing in seven years. Seven years? Wow. Time flies.”
Q & A
Eric: What was your first Victory Step class like?
Varun: It was a Wednesday evening at 6:00. While I was waiting for the students, I was really nervous. It was my class, with my company, using my curriculum. When the students came in, I started with a joke. One big philosophy of Victory Step is that you have to be in the Exam Zone, meaning you have to have no distractions. So I told the story of my first PSAT experience, where my proctor sounded like Borat. Then I did the imitation. One student laughed for ten minutes. It really broke the ice.
Eric: What did your family think of your decision to start your own business?
Varun: At first, my dad and mom were both like, “You should stick with engineering.” My biggest inspiration comes from my brother and my dad: my dad is an account manager at Dell, and my brother always had a 4.0 GPA, and now he works for Intel. I didn’t want to follow that traditional path, and my family supported that. Now my dad just loves my decision. I guess the tables have turned.
Eric: How many students do you think Victory Step has helped?
Varun: 1000 and counting.
Eric: What are your short term and long term plans?
Varun: Expansion is the only thing I can think of at this point!