In a poor job market one of the best ways to survive is to create a job rather than looking for one. Many small businesses that are conceived as a dream job, a career change or a retirement and are begun with the utmost confidence end up in failure. On the other hand, sometimes a successful venture simply begins out of economic necessity. So it is with my own freelance tutoring business.
In May of 2010 my wife and I moved to Boulder, Colorado after spending three years abroad teaching English in Turkey. I thought I had secured a position with Kaplan Test Prep, my employer for ten years in New York and overseas. However, when I sat down with my would-be boss I learned that the Kaplan office had too many tutors and not enough students to offer me a full time position, despite the fact that my credentials as a test prep instructor were outstanding. I did the next logical thing; I spent two weeks scanning the classified ads in the newspaper and the jobs page on Craigslist looking for work. Unfortunately the only jobs on offer were positions that either paid next to nothing (bussing tables, manual labor) or those for which I was woefully under-qualified (medical coding, windshield installation or medical marijuana bud tending).
It was at this point that I decided to start advertising my services as a freelance test prep instructor. Having learned enough about small businesses I knew that most successful businesses are started by those who have a wealth of experience in their given fields. I had been teaching for Kaplan for ten years. I had cross trained to teach SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT and TOEFL. I had trained other tutors and made hiring evaluations. I had worked with students of different ages, ability levels and even English levels. In the United States I had been immersed in Kaplan’s teaching methodology. While in Turkey, I was given the freedom to use other materials and techniques to help students earn their goal scores. All of this experience had made me a confident, knowledgeable and resourceful teacher. It made sense that I could create my own curricula and work with students successfully using the experience I had gained from Kaplan without violating my former employer’s confidentiality or copyrights. Thus, unless a student has already purchased a Kaplan book or has a text from a Kaplan course that he had paid for, I make it a policy to never use Kaplan materials.
It was rough going at first. It was June, one of the worst months for the test prep business when all of the students have finished school and have just gone on vacation. Still, I did the obvious: I put up fliers around town and I put up ads on Craigslist. After a while a few students inquired about my services and my rates. While an experienced instructor, I had never actually booked my own clients before and I had no idea what the market rate was for what I was offering. It took me a while to learn many of the most basic points of salesmanship. Be prompt in your communication. Be prepared to negotiate on price but don’t offer to do so too quickly. Be persistent in your advertising efforts. Be patient; students have a tendency to come in waves.
I booked my first student at the end of June, a recent CU graduate who had been struggling with the GRE. She found my rates to be a bit too high but since it was her intention to study all summer and into the fall, I was able to make a deal with her. A few weeks later I picked up three more students in quick succession. The first I found through Craigslist and the other two came as referrals from the first. With four students taking lessons at once I had actually managed a decent income for about a month. Then my business flat lined in August. Just as I began to worry about making ends meet September rolled around and with the beginning of a new semester at hand, I started reeling in students two at a time.
I’ve been self employed now for a year. I’ve paid my taxes. I’ve endured slow periods and I’ve also had maddeningly busy seasons when I barely have time to be with my wife. I’ve had many successes; I’ve had students gain acceptance to Colombia, Georgetown, Tulane and other grad schools. At the same time, I’ve struggled to help others. Without the backstop of Kaplan’s reputation I’ve had to offer what advice and consolation that I can to students who were not able to meet their goal scores. On the whole, however, the vast majority of my clients have been successful; some have even offered to give me recommendations (an offer which you should always heed carefully). I’ve also been subcontracted by two companies to offer lessons. I work as a teacher for the first company, delivering low cost GMAT lessons to classrooms of business students at CU. For the second firm I work as a private tutor offering lessons online through a web conferencing program similar to Skype.
For the remainder of this article I will detail some of the most important resources that I use as a freelance tutor.
1. Multiple Websites — The majority of my students come from Craigslist. Most of these clients are undergrads or recent graduates looking to take GRE lessons at a reasonable price. Such students are my bread and butter clients. I work with two other websites as well. Wyzant is a website where students and parents can find freelance tutors for a wide variety of subjects. The way it works is that prospective clients will contact you through the website and if you decide to work together they enter their credit card information, at which point you can exchange contact information and schedule lessons. After each lesson you teach, you submit a lesson report on Wyzant and the site bills the student. Wyzant keeps a percentage of your earnings; however, the percentage decreases the more hours you teach. You are then paid twice a month by check or direct deposit. While it does hurt to lose a chunk of your pay to the website, if you’re not fully booked, the website connects you with students you wouldn’t otherwise be able to find. Betterfly is another website that connects students and tutors. While students are encouraged to book and pay through the website, it’s not mandatory the way it is on Wyzant. Betterfly also has an option that allows you to create very professional ads that you can post on Craigslist. While you probably won’t find any students this way, LinkedIn is a way to advertise your business and find prospective employers.
2. Multiple Streams of Income — Let’s face it. It’s very difficult to go into business for yourself, especially during the first year. You are literally living off of the proceeds of your work. It helps to have as many sources of income as possible. In addition to the many ways that I am employed as a freelance tutor, I also work extensively as a freelance writer. I write for an oil and gas trade journal and a business magazine. I transcribe interviews. I manage my own blogs and submit articles to Associated Content and Yahoo. Beyond that, my wife earns her own income as a server at a popular sports bar in town. It is only through all of these forms of income that we earn enough to live well.
3. Multiple Payment Options — As a freelance tutor be prepared for people to be leery of you at first. I work with far more GRE and GMAT students than SAT and ACT students (even though I have more experience tutoring pre-College) because parents are far less willing to trust someone they find on the internet. It goes with the territory. Two ways that you can make people feel at ease is to force no commitment on them and to give them as many ways to pay you as possible. Thus, nearly all of my students pay per lesson. Some pay cash, others pay by check. Some online employers frequently pay by PayPal while I have Direct Deposit set up with Wyzant. Recently, after I purchased an iPhone, I discovered Square, an app that allows you to accept credit card payments. When you sign up Square sends you a small card reader that you plug into the headphones port of your iPhone or iPad. You simply plug it in, open the app, enter the amount and description and then swipe. Your customer then signs a digital signature and receives a receipt via email or SMS. Square is linked to your bank account and deposits the funds, less a 2.75% charge, in your account in 1-3 business days. Since I’ve started using Square, I’ve found most of my clients prefer to pay this way.
4. Business Expenses — As a self-employed worker you’re going to have to handle your own taxes. Thus, you need to keep detailed records of your lessons (a day planner will suffice) and your expenses. Find as many ways to knock down your taxable income as possible. During my first year in business I set up a small office in the loft of my apartment. I purchased a desk, chair, lamp, printer, head set, writing tablet and several text books, all of which I declared on my taxes. I also declare a portion of my rent and my laptop computer’s value as business expenses. Next April I will declare the cost of my iPhone and a portion of my phone bill because both are instrumental in promoting and running my business. This year I am looking into purchasing a health insurance plan, partially as a tax deduction. Premiums can be declared if they are more than a certain percentage of your income. If you set up a health savings account, what you put into it is deducted from your taxable income.
Sources: twelve years personal experience as a test prep tutor and one year of experience as a freelance tutor.