Breck Yunits didn’t even have enough money to ride the Bay Area Rapid Transit system during a rainstorm last fall. It was then that he had an epiphany: What if he could teach people how to program for a few hours a day, and make just enough money for BART tickets and sandwiches?
On Jan. 5, Yunits and his roommate and business partner, Ben Zulauf, opened the doors on WageMachine.com, where they charge people US$8.25 an hour for on-demand tutoring in programming. The pair are currently earning nothing from the site, beyond their minimum-wage tutoring jobs.
Yunits said he was inspired by the artwork of Blake Fall-Conroy, who built a sculpture with a hand crank which, when turned, would result in pennies dropping from the contraption. The sculpture, called Minimum Wage Machine, would dispense pennies at a rate amounting to minimum wage, provided someone was there to continually turn the crank for an hour.
Yunits said that the initial reaction to WageMachine was hearty, and that an initial batch of around 30 students and 40 tutors were let into the beta. Yunits himself also tutored for minimum wage using his new site. He said his first two tutoring sessions were surprising.
“It was surprising that it actually worked, that people actually signed on and started conversations with me, and told me about their problems,” said Yunits. “We do payment before the service is performed with PayPal. There were very few bugs in the first beta.”
Yunits and Zulauf spent the first week watching how their users interacted. At the end of the week, they passed around a survey, from which they learned that they should set up office hours for tutors.
“We found that people loved the idea of getting office hours. People miss having the ability to drop in on a teacher or mentor to ask questions, and want some site where that could happen in an easier fashion,” said Yunits.
Yunits and Zulauf will continue to iterate on the WageMachine design, but they’re sure they’ve finally hit on something interesting: There are already over 90 people waiting to be let into the beta, ranging from students to hobbyists to professionals.
The pair have already tried their hands at the dot-com game, and were given seed capital last June in order to create an employment website, said Yunits. “Our initial product was Jobpic.com. It was kind of a similar space to WageMachine. We were new, made mistakes and it didn’t work out,” he said.
In fact, it was the failure of Jobpic.com that left Yunits unable to ride the BART that rainy morning last fall. And even if WageMachine doesn’t become the next Monster.com, at least Yunits now has a way to make money for the train tickets.
“A lot of people think there’s something cool about it,” he said of the new site. “Now we have to figure out what that is.”