Inspiring Founders: GradeSlam’s Phillip Cutler keeps evolving in the school of life

Inspiring Founders is a new MTLinTech series that spotlights startup CEOs in Montreal who go above and beyond their work.

Phil Cutler lights up like a Christmas ornament when he talks about the children at his annual summer camps, who get to do incredible things. “The kids, they’ll remember this 30 years from now,” he says.

It was a chilly December morning at a McDonalds in Westmount (our suggestion) when Cutler sat down with MTLinTech to discuss his busy life.

It mostly revolves around GradeSlam, the FounderFuel alumni startup that provides a subscription-based, online tutoring service for students of all ages and levels. Cutler also runs a successful summer camp for Montreal kids, Laurus Summer Camp, and even serves as the youngest councillor in the history of Westmount, Quebec. There he’s the borough’s Commissioner of Public Security, and is credited with bringing the first pay-by-plate parking meter system to Quebec. He even has his own Wikipedia page.

Cutler, a born-and-bred Westmounter, started what would eventually become GradeSlam while pursuing an education degree at McGill University. The idea came on the first day of class, when a lecturer told the hundreds of freshmen sitting in a lecture hall that they needed to gain teaching experience if they wanted to become a teacher.

Cutler knew he couldn’t just show up at a school and start substitute teaching. In what would become a reoccurring theme in his life, he jumped the red tape.

“I leaned over to my friends and said, ‘Look, if I can get you some students, would you pay me a brokerage fee?’ They said, ‘Yeah, for sure.'”

Cutler put up a website, started advertising around Montreal and contacted every parent, teacher and principal he knew. The business grew, became popular in local circles around Westmount and Cutler was eventually able to expand to Toronto.

The founder made the decision to pivot GradeSlam’s focus to a hybrid model, three years ago. Tutors would do in-home teaching, but would mostly be available on video chat via GradeSlam’s new online tutoring platform.

It evolved more and more to what it is today, a nearly exclusively chat-based platform. “It works on any device, there’s a tutor available 24/7 for any subject and we have a really strong network of elite tutors who can always help students.”

Parents pay a $15-per-month subscription fee. The tutors won’t be making their $40 per one hour of work at a child’s home anymore. Instead, they’ll work four or more hours from where ever they want, earning much less per hour but still making up that $40 (or more). Cutler feels the tutors are happy to accept the discrepancy since they won’t have to use up time managing clients or travelling to their homes.

Since re-focusing to an entirely chat-based platform in September, Cutler said GradeSlam has been growing 30 per cent per week.

Cutler laurus

Phil Cutler poses with Laurus Summer Camp students.

Meanwhile, Laurus Summer Camps was a project that Cutler started while at McGill. They figured kids would respond more to a mixed-focus camp. Laurus offers children an hour and 15 minutes everyday of a specialized focus of their choosing, while the rest of the day is devoted to art, sports, cooking, health and more.

The enthusiasm in Cutler’s face is easily recognizable when he describes how Laurus students worked on real business idea pitches for investors for two months last summer. They went on stage at the International Startup Festival and did their pitches (some might even say better than their adult counterparts).

We’ve done a whole bunch of initiatives like that: we like to call it ‘age-inappropriate learning,’ so you have things a nine-year-old typically wouldn’t be doing. Science is a great one: they’re always doing crazy things. They built a mock heart a couple years ago. These are things kids aren’t doing in school for a variety of reasons. They’re learning just as much at camp as they do at school. If you can achieve that, it’s incredible.

Cutler feels he’s been able to do these things by cutting through the red tape.

There were hurdles to jump through, though. It took enormous amounts of time and effort to gain the trust of the parents who would be paying for these students to come to Laurus. Prior to Laurus’ first summer, Cutler said the team would go to parks on weekends to try to convince parents to send their kids. They were ecstatic when they signed up their first child, but not another would come for nearly two months.

Those two commitments take up about 95 per cent of Cutler’s time, with the other portion going towards the Westmount City Council. Cutler campaigned prior to the 2013 Westmount Municipal Election and won convincingly. His platform emphasized how more than half of all Westermounters are under the age of 45, but none of the existing, older councillors could relate to them.

During his time as a councillor, he’s been tasked with figuring out how technology can solve various problems within the borough. His new pay-by-plate parking system will be implemented in the Spring, something Cutler feels is a big achievement for any city in Canada.

“It’s the first time its being done here in Quebec. It’s a really cool system that only exists because technology advanced.”

The busy Cutler has no plans to stop either.

Just like his work on Laurus Summer Camp, he said, “To start anything and for it to be successful you have to stick with it no matter what.”

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