There are online tutors, and then there is Stacey Howe-Lott. Her confidence, verve and mastery of the virtual teaching format make our business look downright sexy.
I was thrilled to sit down and chat with Stacey about her journey from the traditional to the digital classroom, and what she’s learned along the way. Keep reading to learn how she finds (and keeps) students, how she handles marketing and admin, and how online tutoring has enabled her to be the best teacher (and mother) she can be.
Tell us about your background. Are you trained as a teacher?
I have a Master’s degree in Education and spent ten years working in corporations helping them create and implement training initiatives. I always considered myself a teacher first, but that corporate mindset must have seeped in when I wasn’t looking, because I’m very comfortable with ROI and looking at the numbers.
How did you come to online teaching?
I left the corporate world when I had my daughter and planned to stay home full time. About five minutes later, I realized I desperately missed my students and started tutoring the local neighborhood kids in math.
I was thrilled to get out of the house but quickly realized it wasn’t sustainable. I had to contact each kid’s teacher to figure out what they were working on and then come up with my own materials to fix the underlying problems. I was paying my babysitter $15 an hour and only making $20 an hour, and I easily spent 30-60 min prepping for each hour-long session…so it was costing me money to be able to work!
To solve those problems I needed something that provided 3 things:
A stable curriculum so I could learn it once and then teach it to many kids
An age range that matched my intensity level (you can’t push 4th graders, but you can push high-schoolers)
A higher perceived value in the marketplace
Someone asked if I did SAT tutoring and I said that I would look into it. I started off teaching for other companies (making $15/hour while they charged parents $70+/hour). I was appalled at their materials and teaching and realized I could do much better.
So I did!
Do you consider yourself primarily a teacher or primarily an entrepreneur?
I consider myself a teacher first who fell into being an entrepreneur.
Industry standard is 30-60 hours of a class. My kids get better results in about 4-8 hours of tutoring. That combination of trained-teacher and subject expert is incredibly powerful…and valuable in the marketplace.
There are lots of teachers who add on SAT teaching, but they don’t know the ins and outs of the test. And there’s lots of people “teaching” the SAT that aren’t teachers–they don’t know how to teach.
I have the credentials and experience. I know how to tell info to kids in a way they can actually hear it and take action on it. I’m also a subject matter expert. I spent about a year working through every SAT question I could get my hands on–about 10,000 questions.
What are some ways that you have carved out your niche in the marketplace?
I’m more specific than just another SAT tutor. I work with kids in a very short time frame.
Kaplan and Princeton (two of the big box stores here in the States) and many other independent places focus on SAT classes, which make sense from a business perspective. Parents have to pay $1000 and commit to 6 weeks of 3-hour classes.
But from a teaching perspective, I don’t think they’re effective at all.
I saw an opportunity to be different:
- I specifically DON’T offer packages. I only work by the hour. So parents aren’t locked in to anything. I created a marketing message out of it: “If you’re not happy with how much your child has improved each session, than you shouldn’t hire me again.”
- I DON’T offer score guarantees. I will do everything in my power to empower your child to do the very best he or she can on the test. But at the end of the day, it’s up to them. In my testimonials you can see how I’ve helped all sorts of kids. But I’m very very clear with parents that I don’t promise high scores.
- I ONLY work online. Even the kids I work with in the same city as I live choose to meet with me online because it’s so convenient. No schlepping back and forth–this is such a huge convenience factor for parents.
- It’s ONLY me. I’m a one-person shop. I personally answer my phone, answer all my email and make it very clear on my website that it’s just me. So every interaction you or your child has with my company is going to be with a highly-trained expert.
In additional to all this, I’m a mom. Children’s well being is more important to me than high scores. In fact, I usually turn away parents who are looking for perfect scores. In a marketplace that is pretty corporate, anonymous and money-focused, I stand out. (It also helps that I get outstanding results.)
How tech savvy were you when you started?
I am not techie in the least (though I am married to a computer guy). But I’m also not scared of learning new things. When I started, I figured I could either figure it out myself or find someone to help me.
I learned how to write a blog post, how to set up an email list, how to record lessons, how to create video lessons, etc. It really is all figure-out-able.
Now I can hire someone to do the tech stuff I don’t like to do, but for years I did it all myself.
Don’t let tech stop you. Keep focused on your kids and providing solutions for them and solutions for making your life easier.
How do you find your students? (Or how do they find you?)
I started out working for other local businesses and got referrals from that. I also started on a teacher clearinghouse called TeachStreet. Since I had so much business, I never took the time to set up my own website–big mistake. When TeachStreet went under, 90% of my business leads dried up overnight.
My advice: Even if you work for other organizations, have your own website and build your own email list.
Build a website (usually under your own name), start collecting email addresses and sending out a weekly or monthly newsletter to stay in touch with everyone who has signed up.
Have you encountered any resistance to the online format, either from students or parents?
Students usually take to it like a duck to water. About once a year, a student isn’t a good fit for online tutoring. So I call the parents and recommend they find an in-person tutor.
Years ago, parents were more worried about it than they are now. For any parents that are concerned, I reiterate my policy of just hiring me for one session and seeing if their student likes it and gets results. (I also will jump on a free fifteen-minute video session to show them exactly what we will do in class.) But it rarely comes up any more.
Your website is super clear, chatty and full of personality. Any tips on marketing?
I think I’m really the world’s worst marketer. But I am helpful, so I leverage that–any time something comes up in a session that might be useful for other kids, I’ll write up a quick blog post and share it. My goal was to have my website be super-useful for anyone, whether they ended up hiring me or not.
This is where my thinking of myself as a teacher first comes in handy. My goal is to educate. If you happen to want to hire me for tutoring, that’s just icing on the cake.
I was lucky enough to get written up in a couple books – and those opportunities came to me completely by accident–I was just out there being helpful and had no idea at the time that it would lead to anything else.
Do you use social media to market your business?
Yep–I kept up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I was also on Linked In and Pinterest.
Twitter (and on Linked In groups) is where I connected with peers–other folks who had the same philosophy as I did. And they ended up sending me a lot of businesses–another happy accident.
What are your thoughts on pricing for your services?
I charge $200/hour. I started out at $20/hour and worked my way up, getting testimonials and recommendations and increasing my rates.
I hear tutors talk all the time about how they can only charge $X. But pricing is just a conversation!
For example, I got two calls on the same day, about ten minutes apart. Both people had heard about me from a book they had read.
The first happened to be someone in my home town. When I told him my rate was $200 he said “That’s so expensive!” and I agreed that he could find local tutors for much less money. I explained how I taught and wished him well.
The second was an ex-pat living in London and looking for a great tutor for her son because they wanted him to come back to the states for college. When I told her my rate was $200 she said “That’s so reasonable. I was afraid you were going to be so much more expensive.”
They both ended up hiring me.
People pay for what they want. They hire solutions to their problems. If you are the solution to their problem, they will pay for you.
My daughter is struggling with reading. I am looking for the perfect person to help her–she has to be supportive and yet still challenge her, knowledgeable about the school requirements yet inventive about her approach since the school way isn’t working, loving yet firm. And when I find that perfect person, if I believe they can deliver the result that I want, I will pay (practically) any amount of money for her or him.
People are always surprised when I tell them I rarely get questioned about my prices. (Actually, teachers are the ones who question my prices, not parents looking for help.) Since I publish my prices on my website, I don’t have to defend my prices to people. People who don’t want to pay that don’t contact me.
The other thing I do is I always have room for students who can’t pay those prices. I keep two seats a month for either free or low-cost students. I’ll occasionally offer pay-what-you-will sessions for my favorite charity. And I offer free consults for parents who want to learn more about me and how I might be able to help their student.
How do you run the administrative side of your business…especially the part that involves getting paid?
In addition to be the world’s worst marketer, I think I’m the world’s laziest entrepreneur. I hate admin stuff, so I set up systems where it takes me about one minute of time per hour-long training session for the admin stuff. Bliss!
- I pay $20/month for FreshBooks, an online invoicing program. I send the invoice after the session, and the software automatically sends out reminders every couple of days. Most people pay within 24 hours. If they still haven’t paid within 7 days (and about 3 reminders), I’ll send them an email and that takes care of it 99.99% of the time.
- I take notes during the session on Google Docs and send them to the student after the session. I also record the session and send them (and their parents) a link to the recording.
- I pay $20 a monthly for an online calendar that has saved me HOURS of time. Everyone has to book a session via my website; first come, first served. I have a 24-hour cancellation policy. If you cancel within 24 hours, I’ll still charge you full price.
- The heart of my tutoring is my reports. Before I had those, I spend probably 30 minutes per hour session prepping for the class. Hugely inefficient. Now that I’ve finally put my reports online, kids enter their own answers online and poof! A report is sent to me, to them and to their parents. Now I take about 20 seconds to look over the report and know exactly what we are going to do for the session.
Zero admin, zero overhead. I spend 99% of my time working with students–which is exactly what I love to do.
Any tips for those thinking of taking the plunge into the world of online tutoring?
Do it! 🙂 It’s easy and inexpensive. Skype is free, Google Docs is free, my favorite online whiteboard Scribblar is free, websites and videos are practically free…the list goes on.
Are there any drawbacks that you’ve found to online tutoring? (Other than having to be lipstick ready for your class)
Haha! My business works around my life, so there are plenty of times I have a session right after I get done with yoga–all sweaty, hair up in a ponytail, and no makeup in sight.
Every now and again Skype will crash, so we’ll drop back to a phone call. I think one time in five years my internet went down because we lost power. But really, it’s mostly all upside.
How has teaching online changed your lifestyle?
I love teaching online. I’m able to be a (practically) full-time stay at home mom and take my daughter to school every day, pick her up every afternoon, go to all of her special activities during the day, and put homemade meals on the table every night because of being able to work my teaching schedule around my other commitments.
My parents are retired and travel all over, and my daughter and I will often meet up with them for a quick holiday. And my students don’t even know (other than the backdrop behind me is not the normal wall of my home office).
It’s been such a blessing to my family. I’m able to work and do what I love while still prioritizing my family. I’m able to help kids get into colleges (with amazing scholarships) and show them how brilliant and capable they are. And I’m able to contribute to our monthly budget. Everybody wins.