When to quit…

Have you heard this joke? Jesus walks into a bar. Bartender asks, “What can I get ya?” Jesus says, “Just water,” then winks and walks away.

If only we, the self-employed teachers of the world, had the ability to turn water into wine. But alas, we are often stuck with just water. Or wine. But never water that we can turn into wine.

Over the past 8 years of my business, I have often found myself staring at water and hoping it would turn into wine. Or, more accurately, expecting that I could, if I just worked hard enough, turn it into wine.

Usually, an embarrassing amount of time later, I would finally admit that nope, it is water. It will always be water. It is impossible to turn it into wine.

For example, in the early days of our company we tried a drop-in English class. The concept looked good on paper, but no matter what we tried, we could not get the numbers we needed to make it work financially. We kept up the marketing. We persisted. We worked really, really hard. Eventually, we had to admit that no matter what we did, it was the wrong program for our client base and our business. It was water, and it would never turn into wine.

In fact, we have tried and eliminated several programs like this. The trick, of course, is the timing. Are you on the cusp of success, or on the treadmill of failure? Are you nurturing wine that just needs to mature, or are you just clutching a bottle of water?

I am not sure I have a simple answer, but the good news is that the more often you make these decisions, the better you become at making them. For major new business efforts, I have a 6-month rule. The new project doesn’t have to be profitable in 6 months, but it does need to start tasting like wine. There needs to be some visible progress: customer growth, user traffic, sales growth, etc. Then I make a decision: cut the program or give it 6 more months?

The other key factor for us has been our yearly review of our income breakdown. At least once a year I look at our financial statements for the specific purpose of determining which programs are bringing us the greater share of revenue. Then I try to focus more on the most profitable programs. Over time, this has resulted in the maturing of some pretty fine wine.

What programs have you cut? What has turned out to be just water, and what has matured into fine wine for your business?

Posted in Operating Your Business

Be unproductive to be more productive

Preserve one day a week when you do not work. No email. No business-related social media. No planning. No accounting. Nothing. Get out of the house and do something else. Anything else. Or stay in and watch a few movies. It doesn’t matter. Just do no work. Trust me. The next day, when you roll out of bed, you will have twice the energy, and you will be ready to dive into your business once again.

Posted in Operating Your Business

3 Ways to Get More Out Of a Conference Than You Paid to Get In

Conferences are expensive. How can you make the most of your time and investment?

maximize your conference investmentI recently attended the 2013 CATESOL (California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in San Diego. Total cost to attend, including admission for two, hotel, travel expenses, and food? $1000. This is expensive…but also on the cheap end in terms of what many conferences charge.

Thinking like a business person, I began to ask myself what, exactly, I was getting for my money. In the end, I did get my money’s worth, but only because I followed these three rules:

1. Flip the conference.
In education these days, there is a lot of talk about the “flipped classroom,” where the learning takes place at home and the “homework” or review takes place in the classroom. When you are trying to maximize your conference investment, try approaching it like a “flipped conference.” Think of the sessions, keynotes, lectures, and workshops you attend as your review time and approach the time when you are not attending sessions–your meal time, your after-hours social time, your time browsing exhibit booths–as your learning time. In other words, expect to benefit more from your time outside of sessions than from the sessions themselves.

2. Focus on meeting, not learning.
You may feel that you are at the conference to “learn” as much as you can. Trying to get your money’s worth by attending as many sessions and workshops as you can, however, will just leave you tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Even if you take great notes, you will most likely never review them. Instead of trying to learn as much as possible, try to meet as many people as possible. Of course, you will need business cards. Your goal is to try to meet people who may be able to provide value to your business. You may not find customers, but you will likely find fellow business people who have interesting ideas, potential partners who can help you expand your business, and even competitors who are interested in comparing notes. These short conversations can be invaluable.

3. Follow up
When you get home, reach out to your new contacts via LinkedIn. Get connected. If you met a potential partner, reach out to him or her and schedule a time to talk again. At the recent CATESOL conference, I met several teachers who were interested in starting their own business. I haven’t received an email from any of them. People consistently fail to follow up. What do you have to lose? Oh yeah, $1000.

By flipping the conference, focusing on meeting rather than learning, and following up with the contacts you make, you ensure that the $1000 you have invested in the conference continues to benefit your business long after the conference is over. Otherwise, you might as well spend your money on a real vacation.

How do you maximize your conference investment?

Posted in Marketing

People Matter

I am reminded daily that success in business — as in life — hinges on relationships with people. If you can connect to the right people and nurture those connections, you can find success.  This is true whether you are working with a single student or a large corporation. It is especially true when you make the jump from working with individual students to large companies. People matter.

Posted in Marketing

Making Decisions

I hate making decisions.  I once spent 10 minutes choosing the color of my undershirt, even though I wasn’t planning to leave the house. Sometimes it takes me a week to re-make a decision that I have already made. For me, decisions are to be avoided. Business decisions? They are the worst. At best, they result in positive, transformative change; at worst, they cost me money, and I feel like an idiot. I know that I am not the only decision-challenged person out there, so I would like to share two realizations that I have come to recently:

1. Most of my decisions, as tortuous as they have felt at the time, have actually been pretty good.  My business has had strong, positive growth every year since we started.  I have tested, added, and eliminated many different teaching services.  Each was a painful decision.  In the end, almost all of the decisions moved us forward.  Takeaway: I may suck at the decision-making process, but that doesn’t mean my decisions suck.  Look at your results before you are too hard on yourself.

2. Most decisions don’t matter — at least not as much as you think they do.  Probably 9 out of 10 of my decisions are like my undershirt choice: They feel important at the time, but in the end, they don’t matter to anyone but me.  In business, it is easy to imagine (or expect) consequences that will never, ever materialize. Even if they do, you can usually fix them. Whether you have just launched an unfortunate new logo or just told your beloved customers that your product will be a little less good going forward, bad business decisions can almost always be reversed.  Takeaway: Next time you are making a decision, make sure you see it for what it is, not what it might possibly turnout to be 3 years from now when your worst fears possibly come true. They won’t. Just make the decision. You can always reconsider it next week.

Posted in Operating Your Business

What will you teach?

For many people, the hardest part of becoming a self-employed teacher is choosing what to teach. A skill inventory is a good first step.  Try answering these questions to uncover your hidden talents.

1. What activities or interests are you passionate about in your life?

2. Do you have a unique talent?

3. What did you study in school?

4. What were your favorite subjects?

5. What types of knowledge or skill have you gained from work experience?

6. Have you had any additional special training beyond what you’ve received at work or in school?

7. Have you ever published or sold any creative or academic work such as articles, stories, poetry, songs, artwork, crafts, or culinary creations?

Using your answers to the questions above, make a list of all of the areas you could possibly teach, no matter how far-fetched. Give yourself ten minutes, and write down every thought you have, no matter how outlandish it may seem.  When you are finished, sort through the results.  You might just discover a hidden talent that could be the perfect start to the new self-employed you!

Posted in Getting Started

Don’t Let Your Feelings Run Your Business

Don’t be your worst enemy.  Don’t let your feelings get in the way of real progress on your business.

Like many things in life, our business reality and the way we “feel” about our business are often not the same thing.  I remember being particularly frustrated one month because I felt that my business was stuck. We hadn’t had any new customers for a few weeks, and my to-do list was looking increasingly irrelevant. Then I checked the numbers. Contrary to my assumptions, we were actually making more money than ever before.  I had also forgotten about the three clients who were up for contract renewal in the coming week. I was so focused on my mood that I had completely overlooked my success.

To avoid letting your emotions control your business, follow this 3-step plan:

1. Check yourself. Next time you are frustrated, double check to see if your feelings are valid.  Feeling like your revenue is down?  Check your numbers.  Chances are that you have forgotten about a recent success.

2. Review your progress. Dig out an old email or to-do list from when you first started your business.  Reread the content and compare it with your current situation. Marvel at your own progress.

3. Get something done. Sometimes just completing a simple task on your to-do list, cold-calling a potential customer, writing a blog post, or just cleaning up your office can alleviate feelings of frustration or sluggishness.

How do you keep your emotions in check?

Posted in Operating Your Business

Create Systems

As you build your tutoring business, create a system for everything that matters. By creating a system, you eliminate the “brain space” needed to track the hundreds of details that keep your business running smoothly.  Good systems mean less time spent worrying about scheduling, receipts, invoices, cancellations, and planning and more time spent on teaching quality lessons and growing your student base.

Below are several systems you should have in place followed by a quick description of the system that we use.  You need systems for:

Tracking payments received — We use a plastic inbox to file our copy of the receipts from student payments.  Once a month, we enter these payments into our bookkeeping system.  Initially, this was an Excel spreadsheet.  Now we use Quickbooks.

Recording your expenses and filing your expense receipts — We use a plastic inbox to file copies of any receipts from purchases or payments.  Once a month, we print any receipts we have received by email for Web hosting and other Online services and then enter all expenses into our bookkeeping system.  We paste loose cash-register receipts onto blank, letter-sized pages.  These are organized by date, hole-punched, and added to a 3-ring binder.  This makes reconciling bank and credit card statements really simple.  Also, these letter-sized pages can be easily scanned and electronically archived at the end of the year.

Processing student cancellation requests — We require students to send cancellations by email, so we have written proof of their cancellation request.  We record the cancellation request date, the reschedule date (if appropriate), and whether the student was given a credit for the cancellation on a cancellation tracking sheet.  There is an “added to calendar?” checkbox on the sheet.  When we update our calendar/schedule to reflect the cancellation, we check this box.

Tracking and reporting student progress — We keep a file on each student.  Each student file has an “instructor notes” page. We make notes on the student following each lesson.  This helps with planning and allows us to informally track learning progress.

Logging credits for paid lessons not yet taught — We have found that the easiest way to track lesson credits is to have the student sign and date a log sheet at the end of each lesson.  If a student buys a package of lessons and pays in advance, we mark the payment date on the log sheet and highlight the number of lessons purchased. As the student completes and signs for the lessons, the highlighted portion of the log is filled up.  When there are no more highlighted lessons without signatures, we know that the student needs to pay again.

Scheduling regular marketing activities, such as email newsletters, blog postings, etc. — We track all of this using an Online calendar system.  Many Online calendar systems allow you to set alerts and reminders for upcoming tasks.

Archiving materials from former students — We scan, electronically archive, and then shred all former student materials.  Using a high-speed scanner can make this easy to do.  Also, many office supply stores offer bulk shredding.  It is inexpensive and much, much easier than shredding documents one at a time.

Organizing instructional materials — This may be as simple as buying a bookshelf or a file cabinet.  We create almost all of our own materials, so (in my spare time…) I built an Online system for organizing our lesson content.

Tell me about your systems.  What have you tried?  What worked and what didn’t?

Posted in Getting Started, Operating Your Business

What Do Business and Dieting Have in Common?

A friend once told me that losing weight is easy:  Make sure more (calories) are going out than coming in.

Business is easy too:  Make sure more (money) is coming in than going out.

Of course, understanding how to lose weight is not the problem for most people.  Similarly, understanding business is not difficult either.  The problem is in the execution, not the concept.  Business and dieting both require discipline.

Before you make any business decision, ask yourself these two simple questions:  1) Will this decision increase the amount of money coming into my business? and 2) Will this decision decrease the amount of money going out of my business?  If the answer to both of these questions is “No,” it is a bad decision. Don’t do it.

Posted in Operating Your Business

Set Your Boundaries Early

When you are first starting up, you will feel that you need to do anything you can to accommodate your students’ needs. If you are not careful, you will end up with one student on Monday morning, another on Friday night, and another on Sunday afternoon. After just a few weeks, you will hate your business, complain about how it is controlling your life, and fret about how you are not making any money.

After 6 years in business, I can count on one hand the number of students I have lost due to scheduling conflicts. The point is that it simply doesn’t happen that often. Your students see you once a week. They can usually adjust their schedule to match yours, but they can’t do this if you don’t set your boundaries and stick to them. My advice is to set these three boundaries now: Time, Money, and Location.

First is time. Get a calendar or a daily planner. I use Google Calendar – more on that in a future post. Cross off any days you don’t want to work. For us, it was Saturday and Sunday. If you think you really don’t mind working every day, you are kidding yourself. Cross off a day anyway. Next, mark your morning and evening boundaries.  What is the latest time you will meet clients? The earliest? Take a big black marker and cross off all of the times before your earliest and after your latest available time. Finally, find a block of four hours when you really want to work. Highlight it with a yellow highlighter.  Make it your goal to fill these four hours first.

Occasionally business reality will set in. All of our clients are business professionals. They want to meet us after work. We were reluctant at first, but eventually took evening clients. We accommodated by refusing requests for morning lessons. I’ll work mornings or evenings, but not both.

Next, decide your self-worth. What is the absolute minimum hourly wage you are willing to work for? Write it down, but don’t show it to anyone. It may be different from the hourly price you advertise to your students. Whenever you accept new business, make sure you never accept work that pays you less than this number. If you offer a discount, never discount to a price lower than this number. As your business matures, I recommend adjusting this number up.

Finally, set your location boundary. What is the maximum distance you are willing to travel? Will you teach at your students’ homes? At your home? At a coffee shop? We only meet students at offices–our office or theirs. Period. That’s our location boundary.

Good fences mean good finances and a happier you. If you don’t contain your business early on, it will consume you.

Posted in Uncategorized