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

How to Find Students

The secret to making money teaching for yourself is to have lots of students to teach. Everyone knows that. What most people don’t know is how to find those students.

Almost every teacher I meet who is interested in teaching or tutoring as a business asks me how we find our students. It’s a fair question; however, I think it is the wrong question. Here is my best advice: Stop looking for “students” and start looking for “a student.”

For our first 2 years in business, we could trace almost every one of our students back to one individual. He was our first student. He liked our teaching style. He told his friends. His friends told their friends, and so on. Today, we still have students we can trace back to him. More importantly, however, we have learned that this is the rule, not the exception. A very large percentage of our business still comes from referrals from other customers. This is word-of-mouth marketing. It is the best — and the cheapest — way to grow your business.

There are ways to improve your word-of-mouth marketing. There are ways to encourage your students to refer their friends. Down the road, I will give you some suggestions for doing this. When you are starting out, however, your focus should be on finding just one student. This is easier than you think. Tell everyone you know what you are teaching and what kind of students you are looking for. Don’t push. Don’t talk too much. Just mention it. Let all of your friends, family, and other contacts know what you are doing. If they ask you questions, answer them. Be polite. Be helpful. Be visible. You will be surprised how quickly you find your first student.

Posted in Getting Started, Marketing, Sales

Turn Your Service Into a Product

Students want to know what they are buying and what they will get for their money. If you tell them that you charge $25/hour, they will understand what they must pay you but nothing else. How many hours will they need? How often will they meet you? What happens after the first hour?

If sell your services for $25/hour, you will get $25. If you want another $25, you will need to sell your services again, either to the same student or to a new student. That’s a lot of work for $25.

You can turn your service into a product by creating a package. Instead of charging $25/hour for “tutoring,” charge $200 for an “eight-week learning program that includes eight 60-minute, one-to-one, weekly tutoring sessions.”

If you make your service into a product, you will make more money, spend less time on planning, and grow your business more quickly. More importantly, your students will know exactly what they are getting for their money. They will be willing to pay you more because you are offering something of value that they can clearly understand. They will also be more willing to pay you in advance, which will keep them committed to learning and attending sessions.

Posted in Marketing, Pricing