About five years ago while he was teaching statistics at MAST Academy, Carlos Delgado noticed a trend: His students, under increasing pressure to achieve ever higher scores on college entrance exams, were pouring their money into private test tutoring.
Then, inevitably, they’d come back to Delgado for help with their tutoring, completing what seemed like an absurd loop.
So Delgado, sharing his students’ frustration with inept instruction, started helping them after class, enlisting his colleague, Preston Scanlon, an English teacher, to tutor reading and writing. Meeting one-on-one or in small groups in a converted garage at Scanlon’s mother’s house in Coral Gables, they targeted students’ weaknesses, tailoring their work to their students’ needs.
Eventually, word about the two talented teachers spread and the number of students grew. They began seeing younger students struggling with the FCAT, or just trying to keep up in a world that expects 12-year-olds to master algebra. Delgado realized he could no longer squeeze his growing business into the converted garage, so he moved to an office on Red Road. Then, before the last school year began, he quit his job at MAST to focus on his business full-time.
With more time to devote to managing it, he made some small changes. He renamed it Gables Tutoring to better reflect his location. He leased a second office in the strip center to handle the increasing number of classes, which had grown to include three full-time SAT and ACT classes. And he hired additional teachers when he needed help. But he still struggled with defining an overall plan and strategy for the future.
“I really like what I do. It’s the challenge of growing and improving,” he said. “We’ve done well, but I really want to do better.”
So earlier this year he turned to the Miami Herald’s Small Business Makeover project and asked for guidance. The Herald contacted the Miami-Dade chapter of SCORE, a national nonprofit that maintains a roster of 13,000 volunteer counselors who, in 2010, helped create more than 56,000 businesses and 71,000 jobs.
SCORE, in turn, recruited volunteer Carlos Blanco, a former sales and Internet executive who has founded several successful Internet businesses, including Aftermath, which handles legal logistics for clients after divorce. It helped that Blanco has two teenage sons, and knew firsthand the perils of college entrance exams.
Private tutoring, or what SmartMoney dubbed the “tutoring-industrial complex,” has exploded in recent years, growing into a $5 billion business 10 times the size it was a decade ago. In addition to fierce competition among colleges and universities, demand has been driven by the No Child Left Behind Act that in 2001 required all Title 1schools not meeting assessment targets to offer free tutoring. Increased use of online classes only added to the need, along with an array of tests including the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) that high school students must take to enroll in college classes, and the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment (CELLA), for students learning English.
Today, students can choose from a long and varied list of services, from corporate tutoring companies like Kumon and Sylvan Learning Center, that offer a one-size-fits-all format in subjects like math and writing, to test prep companies including Kaplan and Princeton Review, where instructor-led SAT and ACT classes cost upwards of $1,000 for 30 hours. Website marketplaces like WyzAnt let students shop for neighborhood tutors, while online TutorUniverse can hook students up with, say, a differential geometry tutor in South Dakota.
It was this increasing, and often confusing, number of options that prompted the two public school teachers to start tutoring.
“We wanted discursive settings, where they could talk, and with specialized teachers. And we wanted to keep prices down,” Scanlon explained, who serves as the company’s lead teacher.
Up until now, the pair almost exclusively taught all the classes. But at their first meeting, Blanco pointed out that as the business grows, Delgado needs to change that model, assuring him that with the right planning, he can still achieve his core mission of delivering quality teaching at affordable rates.
“The fundamental first question is do you want to grow? And if you do, you have to admit to yourself that the business model you have is not scalable,” Blanco said. “How can I start building a brand around what we do, rather than Carlos? Rather than what can I do, what can the business do?....What I tell businesses is put processes and procedures in place to make it growable over time.”
Once a system is in place, Blanco continued, “then you bring in measurements to make sure it’s doing well. So you make sure when you’re not around, that person is delivering the quality you expect.”
Delgado indeed wants to grow, but insists any new teachers share the same experience and commitment.
“Also certified in a subject area,” Scanlon added. “A lot of people we knew were teaching the whole test, so they were doing both math and reading.”
Those qualifications, particularly in such a crowded market, could be what distinguishes Gables Tutoring from the field, Blanco pointed out.
So several weeks and several phone calls later, Blanco, Delgado and Scanlon reconvened with a new game plan.
After devising a system for hiring, retaining and evaluating teachers that included bonuses tied to student ratings as well as training to ensure uniformity of service, Delgado hired two seasoned teachers with whom he had previously worked.
Blanco had suggested Delgado find a more central location where he could have the business in one office rather than two, several doors apart. But Delgado pointed out that in order to keep prices down, he needed cheap rent. The strip center may be short on parking, but when students arrive in the evening, most of the other businesses are closed leaving plenty of spaces. And more importantly, the location needs to be safe and well lit for teens who might be driving themselves. Other locations, he said, rented at twice what he paid.
With the location settled, Blanco moved on to marketing and, by extension, Delgado’s website. Like many small businesses, the site offered information to users, but did little to help Delgado operate and market his business.
So with Blanco’s help, Delgado overhauled the website, starting with how both he and students use it. He created a student portal, that allowed students to pay and track their classes. The portal also allows him to collect data about classes and students.
“The website is the foundation for data gathering, so you can launch referrals or direct mail. You can do a million things once you have the data, but without that data, it’s blind,” Blanco said.
Delgado also posted schedules and teacher profiles, with links that let students and parents check the status of their state certifications. And he created an online resources page that takes students directly to SAT practice sessions created by the College Board or math worksheets at math.com.
Delgado also tackled the issue of accounting, one that invariably plagues new businesses, by switching from his little green notebook to QuickBooks.
“Once you get into QuickBooks, you’ll wonder how the hell did I ever live without it,” Blanco said. “Now, all I do with my accountant is send him a copy of QuickBooks and my last bank statement. It’s amazing.”
At the conclusion of the makeover, both Delgado and Blanco felt like Gables Tutoring was in good shape for the future, with a new model that will allow it to grow while maintaining the quality instruction that formed the basis of its early growth.
“There wasn’t a single thing he suggested that I didn’t do,” Delgado said.