■ This boss, 27, started booking tutors for pals at 17. Here, he gives a lesson in how to make your business first class
How did you start?
WHILE at school I sold anything and everything from sweets to T-shirts. I moved to a private school for sixth form but I’m dyslexic and struggled. My parents paid for home tutors but I couldn’t engage with them as they seemed so ancient. I noticed that lots of my classmates were having home tutors so I offered to find them ones they liked and the business grew from there. My first move was to buy a clamshell mobile to look more businesslike. If anyone wanted a private tutor for a subject I’d go to a London university, stand in the foyer and stop students, asking them, ‘What do you study and do you know any postgraduates?’ Then I’d invite them to an interview.
How does a 17-year-old market the business?
With guerrilla tactics. We had 10,000 pens printed and I would stand outside schools handing them out until the teachers shooed me away. I’d move six steps away and carry on. We had posters printed for community halls, flyers to stick on lampposts and chalk for pavements. I remember one person going mad because he thought we’d graffitied outside his restaurant. One day I saw a bicycle in a skip so I took it to a friend and we attached a strip of metal with our company details and painted the whole thing orange, including the tyres and handlebars. I parked it around private schools in central London and started to get loads of business.
Did you get strange looks?
They never bothered me. Because my bright orange bike was such a success, a year later my business partner Luke and I spent £1,000 on a second-hand G-Wiz car, which we had wrapped with the company name. We parked it in Mayfair outside law firms and estate agents. The only problem was getting to meetings. Luke is 6ft 3in tall so come rain, snow or hail we’d only fit in this tiny electric car with the sunroof open, getting soaked.
How did you get started properly?
For the first five years we interviewed tutors in our office, otherwise known as Costa Coffee, upgrading to Pret and then Paul. We saw about 30 tutors a week and would interview them back to back, giving them half-hour slots. The coffee tables were full of prospective tutors — in fact, often the entire café was filled with applicants. The best thing I ever did was start young and live at home with my parents because I didn’t have to worry about bills or rent. In the first year we made about £8,000 profit, which as a schoolboy is a nice figure, and there was no capital expenditure.
The tutors — we’re talking schoolchildren, right?
Actually, no. Everyone’s a student for life now and we’re getting calls from people in their early thirties asking for help. In fact, we’ve been helping people in their fifties with Excel, paid for by their companies. Jobs are changing quickly. Back in the day you’d learn at school, uni and then get a job. Now people are having to be retrained for so many different things.
What’s the strangest subject you’ve ever been asked to arrange a tutor for?
Tuition for playing the computer game Fifa. Someone had a competition coming up and they wanted to brush up their gaming skills. It proved incredibly easy because we have a pool of about 1,000 graduates and postgraduates, and it seems many of them spent all their time at uni playing Fifa! When we started ten years ago many existing tutoring agencies would only supply tutors for GCSE and A level. But when we started we introduced guidance on thing like biochemical engineering, how to pass Oxbridge entrance tests and writing a degree dissertation. Now we have tutors flying to European cities for just a day’s interaction with a student. Every potential tutor has to conduct a trial lesson with us before we take them on and if they enthuse us when we’re in a busy office with loads of distractions we know they’ll be fine with a student.
What advice would you give a teenager who wants to start a business?
Try everything — you’ve got energy and time. Teenagers may lack life experience but 17-year-olds have distinct advantages — they understand Snapchat and Instagram, they know what young people want and they are quick to master online marketing.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few?
Yes, quite a few small ones in those early years, but also a massive one. When we first got a client in Hong Kong we realised there are a lot of international students who want to study in the UK so we found publications over there and spent thousands of pounds on inserts — and got nothing back. But the big mistake that nearly cost us the business came five years in as we were really taking off. I had no experience of online marketing, having pages ranked for certain subjects, and we wanted to be ranked higher, so we hired a company to do that for us — search engine optimisation and e-marketing. Unfortunately, in order to inflate early results they used techniques that led to our websites being penalised by the big search engines. We went from being highly ranked to losing almost all our traffic overnight. It took two years to recover.
£40 to £250 an hour, depending on experience.
Tutors need to work evenings and weekends for school pupils during term time and often fill in daytime hours with corporate clients.
Short and sweet advice
If you don’t understand it, don’t do it.
Don’t worry too much about waiting for the exact perfect opportunity because perfect timing rarely happens.
■ For more information visit tavistocktutors.com