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Trevor Klee, a tutor with his own tutoring business

Executive Summary

Referrals, in any form, are not an effective marketing strategy for tutors. If you want to build a full-time tutoring business, you are going to have to rely on more effective marketing techniques.

It’s important to know the marketing techniques that work for tutors, but it’s also important to know the ones that do not. After all, part of being a small business owner is that your time is, to a very large extent, yours. When you’re looking for new clients (as you very often will be), you’re going to need to think about what exactly you want to spend your time, effort, and money on.

Before I get into the list, it’s important to note that these are just what I found did not work for me and my tutoring niche. Perhaps they will work for you and yours. If you ever want to test a marketing technique on your own, I’d recommend you use the Traction framework. It’s not brilliant, but it is a good way to think about marketing as experimentation (rather than art).

In the long run, the test of any marketing effort is the money you make from it. Or, in other words, the proof is in the pudding. So, for each of these, I’ve also mentioned the money I made from it.

Oh, also, I have an article on what marketing techniques do work for tutors. Long story short: Google ads, online directories/forums, search engine optimization, peripheral products, and (probably) email marketing.

Marketing techniques that don’t work for tutors

1. Referrals from friends and family

As soon as I ended up in Boston, I posted on Facebook that I was striking out on my own. Then I messaged all my Facebook friends and asked them to refer people. This was a frightening, big step for me. I was incredibly nervous doing this, and I was ready to be ridiculed. I was expecting for the people I know to write me back and say, “How dare you think you can strike out on your own? What sort of arrogant human being are you?”

Fortunately, this didn’t happen. Unfortunately, I was mostly ignored. A few friends shared my status. My sister, bless her heart, wrote her own status about me, and talked my skills to a fare-thee-well. She is a social person who is good at networking, and from her status I got 3 leads. Once I talked to the 3 leads, it became clear that they were only “leads” because they wanted to be nice to my sister. It went nowhere with them.

Long story short, my friends and family were not the right people to be asking for business. For one thing, it’s usually uncomfortable to enter into a transactional relationship with people you’re close to (transactional meaning they pay you, you provide services, no other expectations). For another, their referrals didn’t mean anything. My sister’s friends knew she was only recommending me because she wanted to be a good sister. They were happy she wanted to be a good sister.

But, they didn’t want to hire someone to be nice to them or their sister. They wanted to pay a lot of money to someone they trusted to help them with their needs. I was not someone they trusted to be able to help them.

$0 made.

2. Posting up flyers everywhere

When I joined the coworking space (which I would highly recommend any tutor do), I immediately abused their unlimited color printing policy. I printed out around 200 flyers, with two variations for A/B testing. I included a coupon code, my credentials, my picture, and what I assumed was eye-catching copy. Then I set out to get them widely distributed.

I tried lots of ways to market my tutoring. Flyers were one, and this is a picture of a flyer which didn't work to get me clients.

A tutoring flyer that didn’t work. Negative ads never play that well, and “free diagnostic test”, “score guarantee”, and “promo code” don’t work with a $110/hr audience.

I posted these flyers everywhere. I posted them on lamp-poles, in coffee shops, in colleges, in churches, in synagogues, outside of my competitors’ doors. There was no place in the city that was safe from my flyers. It took me about 2 weeks to get rid of all of them. I walked miles and miles and miles in blistering cold. It sucked, but I figured it was worth it.

It was not. About a month after I posted them up, I got a single tentative email about my flyer. I eagerly responded back, and then never heard from the guy again.

Flyers, ultimately, aren’t a great persuasive tool. They can work to make people aware of your business. If someone is already looking to buy, and they are just unaware of their options (or details), flyers are perfect. For instance, this pressure washing guy got a lot of business for his pressure washing company by leaving flyers near the houses of homes he cleaned.

The important thing is that those people already had the problem he was targeting (dirty driveways) and were likely interested in fixing their problem. His flyer told them the price, how to contact him, and employed some copywriting tricks to make it seem attractive (which I don’t love, to be honest, but probably don’t hurt).

Meanwhile, when I was posting up flyers, I had no idea who would see them. Given that I was in a small niche, it probably would not be who I wanted. I also was asking for a big commitment for my services, which is a tough sell off of a flyer. $69 for home services, which is what that guy was charging, isn’t a lot of money. $110/hour for test prep tutoring, which is what I was charging at the time, is.

I made $0, again.

3. Referrals from companies

Next up, I set up a spreadsheet with the names, emails, and addresses of HR people at major companies in my city. I got this by exhaustively trawling through LinkedIn, as well as working through phone trees. I crafted a form letter and form email asking them if there was any sort of referral program where their employees could get reimbursed for the sort of consulting that I do.

I figured even if there wasn’t, maybe I’d get lucky and they’d refer me to someone anyways. I was wrong. Out of the dozens of emails and letters I sent to HR departments, I got zero leads. Hell, I was lucky when I even got rejections. Almost all of them just ignored me.

In retrospect, the problem I had was that I was selling the wrong people. In a business context, most people have a pretty clear idea of what their job is. If someone’s job is to procure janitorial services, they will get their office a janitor. If they then get complaints about how bad the janitor is, they’ll get another janitor, and maybe spend more effort trying to get a high-quality janitor this time.

One of your biggest challenges in selling to businesses is to get in front of the right person. For instance, if you look at this sales guy’s advice on selling to manufacturing business, he has an entire spiel designed to get him past the receptionist. Why? Because the receptionist’s job isn’t to buy from salesmen, it’s to handle greeting strangers so they don’t interrupt the flow of the office. Once the sales guy gets past the receptionist, then he can embark upon a straightforward sales pitch of the materials procurement person (emails them info, then calls them with the value proposition).

Unfortunately, there was nobody I was trying to get to whose job it was to get tutors for their employees. Even if they reimbursed for tutoring, their only goal with that was to make sure people were aware of the policy, and didn’t take advantage of it by reimbursing ridiculous expenses. They did not remotely care if their employees actually received quality tutoring.

Long story short, I made $0 again.

4. Referrals from non-profits or from volunteer work

My next try turned out successful in a strange way. I came up with the plan of volunteering my services to people who couldn’t afford them through big non-profits, like hospitals and colleges. This, I thought, would get me on the radar of these non-profits, and then I’d get referrals through there. In retrospect, it wasn’t super well thought out.

So I emailed a bunch of people at a bunch of big non-profits. I emailed everyone who seemed like they would have anything to do with my tutoring niche, which I didn’t really have good selection criteria for. I was just hoping for any sort of luck.

Luck struck. I received an email back, “Actually, Dr. So-and-so has been looking to implement GRE instruction for our minority students. Can you come in and talk to her? I’ve cc’d her on this email.”

Hell yes I could! I made a total of $1500 my first year with them, and $1800 my second year.

And what did I do? I put up on my website immediately “Official GRE Instructor for Fancy College”. This was probably more valuable than the amount I was paid, in the long run.

The lesson for this one is hard to parse out. Most colleges only offer tutoring through their own, in-house systems. They are, after all, educational institutions, and pride themselves on being able to instruct students themselves.

Of course, most colleges also aren’t great at instructing students, which is why I get a significant amount of business from college students. But, even when individual college administrators realize that, they still feel like it’s not their problem. They aren’t in the role of directing students towards individual tutors, and they don’t care if students get a good tutor.

The best lesson I can draw from this, then, is that sometimes you get lucky. Through a random email, or chance meeting, you can come across an opportunity that really helps your business. The important thing is to put yourself in situations where these things can happen, and to be ready to take advantage of them when they come.

My dad, who worked on Wall Street, used to have a chart up in his office that was entitled “Time in the market is more important than timing the market”. The chart made the point that most of the gains in a stock’s price happened almost randomly, in jumps on random days, rather than predictably in increments over a period of time. If you just so happened to miss the one day that the stock went up, you would not make nearly as much money.

Business success is similar. You can’t always predict when success will come, but you should be in a position to take advantage of it when it does.

So far, I’ve made a total of $5400 directly from this, and I’ve gained an immeasurable amount of credibility.

5. Referrals from complementary businesses (in my case, business school consultants)

This seemed like it really should have worked. Unfortunately, as I found out, even if you offer to pay for referrals, nobody has spare referrals to give. If they did, they’d hire someone directly as a contractor. This is very different from the way it works for lawyers or accountants, which, from my understanding, are heavily referral based businesses.

I think the issue with tutors specifically is that we have no barrier to entry. There’s a question of credibility, and that’s a really important issue. However, it’s not a barrier, and there are far more tutors than there is work. That’s why so many of us find it hard to become full-time.

So, a lawyer or accountant might find themselves with too much work, and also be unable to find someone legally qualified to help them. Or, a physical therapist might be able to refer out to a personal injury lawyer, because that physical therapist has no legal ability to help someone recover damages for injury.

But if any tutor consistently found themselves with too much work, they could just hire someone pretty easily. There are always more tutors than work, so professional referrals do not work.

I made like $200 from referrals from business school consultants, and it was painful to get.

6. Youtube and Udemy video courses

By the time I was entering my second year of doing business, I felt pretty comfortable in how I was going to do my advertising.

The only other experiments I tried were doing video lectures over Youtube and Udemy. With Youtube, I advertised through Reddit (which I’ll talk more about later) then charged people to get the link to my private lecture. It was pretty successful, and I got a lot of interest initially, but I lacked the desire to really capitalize on the opportunity. Video editing is not fun for me.

I think there’s a ton of money to be made from creating videos on Youtube, marketing them, and selling access to them. You might try the venerable strategy of a free, high quality intro video, then charging for the advanced videos. Or, you might create multiple high quality free videos, and rely on advertising (sponsored, presumably, because Youtube’s native advertising is not worthwhile for someone not making videos with popular appeal).

Unfortunately, you can only do what you’re interested in. I’ve learned the hard way many times that there are some annoyances I’m willing to put up with, and some I’m not. The vagrancies of video recording and editing is not something that I can stomach, so eventually I just gave up. Perhaps in the future I’ll go back and record more content, but only if I can hire someone to do the unpleasant work for me.

I made a total of $380.50 through Youtube.

Udemy, a website to sell video courses, was actually less successful for me than Youtube. Udemy is really crowded with content, and I could never quite pin down what people were on the Udemy website for. Youtube is a place for anyone to find videos, and Reddit has specialized communities. These make sense to me. I could market myself as a subject matter expert, and the people who bought access to the Youtube videos were interested in the specific subject matter.

However, Udemy seemed to be a community of people who regularly buy video courses on all sorts of topics. I got the sense that my test prep videos would just be another video course that they buy, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Quite frankly, I was confused about how to market it.

I made a total of $72 through Udemy.

Trevor Klee, a man who can teach you how to start a tutoring business

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