Can you tell us how you got your start in the tutoring business? What age did you start, and you were in college at the time?
“I got my start during my freshman year of college. I got high scores, so when I saw a recruitment ad for one of the larger test prep firms on campus, I figured I’d apply. I went through their training, but immediately realized that it wasn’t for me – I’ve always hated the classroom learning model, and I refused to be a part of perpetuating it. I found work for a boutique one-on-one firm in the city, and quickly realized that I’m not much of an employee, either – they required that I do things in a certain way, and I was quickly developing my own ideas on what worked best. Within a few months, I was on my own, using word of mouth and some crappily-designed flyers on bus stops to get clients. The rest is history.”
How many employees do you have working for you right now?
“Currently, I don’t have anyone who I’d consider to be an employee. I’m the only tutor in the business, and I work with my business partner on the software/web end of things. We have a lot of people who help us out as contractors, but no one salaried or coming into the office. This keeps things simple. Every one of our contractors is amazing at what he or she does, and we tap them when we need them, but because our priorities shift so frequently, and because we always need different quantities of different work at different times, actual employees would be a nightmare. I’m vehemently anti-employee.”
You’ve said in past interviews that you are not a manager. Can you tell us how you realized this?
“As I just mentioned, I really don’t like the idea of employees. On the face of it, the concept makes sense: “I’m only one person, but I have more than one person’s worth of work to do, so I’ll bring people on to help.” The problem is that the employment model, as it stands, is really inefficient and screwed up – for both employers and employees.
We don’t live in the industrial age anymore, and knowledge work is constantly shifting. As a result, you can’t just train someone once and then leave him to his devices. Managing employees requires constant feedback, re-training, monitoring, and updating. When I was managing a large number of tutors, I realized that I was spending as much time managing and training them as they were saving me by tutoring in my stead.
There are people who have the managerial gift – I’m not one of them. And I realized this by seeing how unfair I was being to my employees by failing them as a manager. Sometimes they had more clients than they could handle – other times they didn’t have enough. I was either neglecting them or micromanaging their work, and had a lot of trouble finding the right balance. It was obvious that I wasn’t a good boss – I didn’t enjoy giving orders, but I’m also a bit of a perfectionist, and so it was really hard for me to just let people do their thing.
Getting rid of the tutoring firm and focusing on my own practice / publishing company was probably the best decision I’ve ever made – for both me and the tutors who had to deal with my (admittedly) horrible managerial skills.”
What have you learned since in managing other employees for TestPrepAuthority?
“Above all else, that everyone is unbelievably good at something.And when someone is awesome at something, she’ll let you know what it is. Take her at her word, pay her what she wants, and trust her to do her job properly.
As I mentioned, TPA doesn’t really have any employees – we just manage a monstrous network of top-notch contractors. The model works really well for all parties involved. When we find someone awesome, we hire her again and again – but when we don’t need her skill set, she’s not counting on us for employment – she has plenty of other people clamoring for her skills. If we hire someone for a job and he’s sub bar, we never hire him again. If you tell me you can do something well, I’ll take you at your word – but in the world of business, second chances don’t exist.
Working this way is a lot less stressful, a lot easier, and gives you a lot more faith in the people who work with you. You pay people what they want, you let them work when they want to work, and you both enter into a “mini contract” that’s easy to satisfy on both ends. Your contractors don’t need to rely on your managerial skills and more work, and you don’t need to worry that you’re letting your employees go fallow.”
You’ve said before that at first you hired people who are smart, but you quickly realized that wasn’t enough. What extra factor do you think a potential tutor must have for your business needs?
“A great tutor, above all else, needs one thing: the ability to see every student as potentially perfect, and then to see the obstructions keeping his or her from perfection.
If your student gets a 400/800 on the math SAT, that means nothing. He’s not a “400-level student.” All students are 800-level students – some just have more blockages than others, and if you quickly figure out what’s keeping your students from reaching their full potential, and you’re able to remove those blockages, you’re a good tutor. If you can’t do that, you’re no better than a book full of random knowledge – if you’re just spouting random facts and figures at your kids, why not just make a tape recording of yourself and send it to them instead?
Some of the really smart people I was hiring had all the knowledge they needed to ace their own tests, but they couldn’t figure out what their students needed – they were too self-centered, or focused on the material, rather than on the things preventing their students from understanding the material.
The same thing goes for potential employees. There are billions of incredibly bright, capable people out there. The amazing ones are the ones who can figure out what you, as an employer, need, and give it to you without your asking. Anyone can be told what to do and do it – but the truly remarkable employees are the ones who can help their organizations without instruction, through intense observation and a persistent drive to improve.”
Tutoring must be a very intense occupation in general. How do you spend your off time?
“Test prep is a year-round business, and I’m tutoring students 12 months a year. However, tutoring is absolutely exhausting work – it takes a lot to actively observe students and instruct them properly – so I take some seasons much easier than others, and I really try to make the most of the time I have off.
When I’m not tutoring or working on the software/website, I’m either taking long, totally disconnected trips with friends (zero phone, zero internet), or I’m trying to rope people into all the dorky new hobbies/projects I’m working on. I love trying new things and going new places, so a lot of my friends joke that I’m an “adult camp counselor” because I constantly try to get them to do random activities with me. I’m not a big fan of bars, TV, or just sitting around – I’d always like to be doing something new – so my good friends are the ones who’re down to try do something new or go someplace different, and not just fall back on the “dinner, bars, and TV” habit that’s so rampant in a lot of NYC.
I also read like a fiend. It’s my favorite thing in the world, and my vision of retirement includes a lot of book time.”
You tutor the children of the 1%. Have you ever had any obnoxious clients? How do you handle them?
“All the “obnoxious client” stories I have are identical. Certain people have absolutely zero commitment to this process – they expect that you’ll be able to improve their child’s test scores with no buy-in on their child’s part. But self improvement is a two-sided process. If a kid isn’t going to do his homework, show up to sessions, or pay attention, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to raise his scores.
Imagine being a personal trainer and having someone sign up and say: “I’m not willing to exercise, or diet, but can you just sort of wheel me around in a wheelbarrow and slide me against the weight equipment? I’m really trying to get slim.”
It’s the same thing with tutoring. You can’t help someone unless they do their part. Just like a personal trainer, I can tell my clients exactly what they need to do, in what order, and help them through the process, but I’m not the one who can lift the weights for them. Unless they do that themselves, they don’t stand a chance.
Whenever I have clients like this, I cut things short – almost immediately. I’ll return all the money they’ve paid for any unused sessions and make recommendations for other tutoring firms. I won’t be able to help them, so I’m wasting my time and their money. I’m brutally honest about this.
This isn’t a 1% issue – someone can be totally broke, or worth $100,000,000,000 – there are just certain parents who think that their kids deserve to go to a great school, even though they have 1.4 GPAs, get drunk all the time, don’t listen to their teachers, and don’t give a damn about their futures. But no one deserves anything – you get what you work for.”
What do you think is the most important component to the success your business?
“Honest, consistent communication. I work constantly to get parents the information that they need to make the right decisions. Advertising, in the traditional sense, doesn’t work anymore. You can’t just have a “brand message” and scream it at people until they pay attention to you.
Real, helpful information works. Share your expertise, write it in your honest, unaltered voice, and you’ll get plenty of clients. More importantly, if you come across as exactly who you are, you’ll get the clients who are right for you, and you’ll drive away the ones who wouldn’t be right for you or your product/service.
At Test Prep Authority, I try to answer every imaginable question that people have about this process. As a result, they trust me, and they see me as an authority in the industry. And that’s all that matters.
There are countless SAT and ACT tutors out there, but few are willing to spend as much time as I do sharing information and getting it to the people who need it. That, in my mind, is the main difference between me and my competition. Whether you’re a landscaper, a programmer, or you sell nachos, educate people. Get out there and give them the info they need and want.”
As someone who figured the supply and demand niche for your industry on your own, what kind of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to start their business out of college?
“Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Don’t just niche your product or service – niche the customer you’re serving. I know a lot of people out there say that “thinking big” is the key to success, but to think big, you need to maintain a narrow focus. Offer an extremely specific product or service to an extremely specific customer base, and don’t stop working until you dominate that space. Once you’re the best in one area, then you can scale up and start focusing on everything else.
Michael Jordan isn’t famous for being an athlete – he’s famous for being a basketball player. We saw what happened when he tried playing baseball.
More than anything, my advice would be this: start. Get out there, take punches, and start delivering products and services to your target market.
You know what makes you an entrepreneur? Clients and customers. Everyone alive has ideas – they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on. If you want to get good at business, then start doing business. And business only happens when people pay you for what you do. Stop being a perfectionist and just get out there. That’s how you learn, and that’s how you get better. I stunk at tutoring when I started, and I was a garbage marketer and a garbage businessman. With each passing day, I got better at tutoring, better and marketing, and better at business because I was actually doing it, not just thinking about it or planning.
Get out there, start serving people, stay focused, and you’ll kill it.”
Do you have new projects of plans coming up business-wise?
“Definitely. While my big focus right now is in the SAT and ACT prep space, I also plan on launching a new program to help people start and build their freelance careers. I love helping people with this stuff, and I want to share the principles that allowed me to get where I am today. Anyone who wants to know when that’s launching can go to Lessons in Freelance and sign up for my free newsletter.
For right now, though, I’m really trying to focus on dominating the test prep space. I just launched a new book, Why You Get Rejected, we recently launched our newest ACT software, and we’re about to launch new and improved versions of TPA and our SAT software to further enhance our results. I’m not happy until I’ve totally changed the test prep space, and until every single high schooler in the country knows that he or she has my software as an option. It’s the most effective on the market, and I’d be doing everyone a disservice if I didn’t work harder to spread it.”