The website 24HourAnswers.com was started with the idea of providing live online tutoring to college students eager to learn and determined to get help from the best possible online tutors. Much to our surprise when we opened our doors, the demands from college students centered squarely and stubbornly on written solutions to homework problems they were submitting. While we were happy to provide them on the condition that they used the materials in an ethical manner, we were frustrated by the feeling that we were not providing our core service, live online tutoring, much more often than we were.
At some point early on in our business, a community college in Florida contacted us and asked if we wanted to respond to their request for proposal (RFP), a formal process whereby the college attracts bidders to compete to become the school's online tutoring service provider. We were excited by the opportunity and readily accepted the challenge. It would later prove to be a disappointing, not to mention humbling, experience.
From the beginning, we were fooling ourselves with a vast array of naive thoughts such as: "They contacted us, so they must think we would be a good online tutoring service provider" and "We must have a good chance of winning the contract" and "Wait until they see how good we are - I'll bet they choose us." It was thinking like that which inspired us to ignore the vast amount of time, energy, and money required to prepare a 50-page RFP response, send one of our marketing tutors down to Florida from New York, and give a live demo in front of college administrators. If we only knew then what we know now.
We were the last of the three vendors to perform, and our on-site demo got off to a very rocky start due to the obvious - we had never done anything like this before and had no experience broadcasting a live mock tutoring session into a room full of inquisitive college faculty. For a while, we thought we were doomed, but the system finally started working, and toward the end of the demo we had our shining moment. One of the college professors gave our volunteering chemistry tutor a trick math problem about absolute value and she delivered the proper answer and explanation without a moment's hesitation - we thought we had sealed the deal. That was clearly the high point of the entire RFP process. It was straight down from there, and the drop was anything but subtle.
Within one hour of our tutor's stunning delivery of cool mathematical knowledge under pressure, we found out that the college had made its decision and selected the market leader, our largest competitor, to be its online tutoring service provider. There is only one explanation for how this decision was made so quickly - the college knew from the start whom they were going to choose.
Essentially, we had been set up from the beginning to satisfy the bidding requirements of the college's RFP. We felt used. We were also exhausted from two months of non-stop work, not to mention somewhat bitter about all the money we had spent trying to become partners with a college that knew from the start they were going to use someone else. We've been licking our wounds for quite some time, ignoring two more RFPs that have come knocking on our door. One of these days, we are going to try again, and perhaps with a bit of luck, who knows........