Is there a tutor in the house?

Education, education, education' Tony Blair famously once opined. But Frank Milner, President of Toronto-based in-home tutoring services provider, Tutor Doctor, doesn't just simply 'talk the talk'; he puts it into practice every day.

Is there a tutor in the house?

education, education’ Tony Blair famously once opined. But Frank Milner,
President of Toronto-based in-home tutoring services provider, Tutor Doctor,
doesn’t just simply ‘talk the talk’; he puts it into practice every day. Milner
tells Elite Franchise how he does it.

South African-born York University graduate (business administration) Frank Milner had been a decent enough student in high school, doing well in some subjects, yet struggling mightily with others – anxiety, fear, worry and doubts, especially when thinking about his future, never being far from the surface.

“Everything changed for me when my parents insisted that I get a tutor. I began to get good grades in those subjects that I was having such a hard time with. My confidence began to grow and eventually I began to believe in myself,” says Milner.

Speaking to Elite Franchise in 2018 Milner described working as a stockbroker for about a year before decamping to educational company Pro Maths, where he met John Hooi, Tutor Doctor’s original founder. Though their career paths were to eventually diverge – Milner not seeing Hooi on a regular basis for over a decade, his calling in life was to profoundly change when Hooi presented him with a business opportunity, following a subsequent chance encounter in a Toronto restaurant.

Hooi, who had meanwhile signed up as a franchisee for another tutoring company, had experienced no problems attracting customers. The issue he found difficult was to turn a profit due to the overheads of keeping learning centres open that he had been building.

Eventually, he had to throw in the towel, but rather than calling it a day completely, he began sending his tutors off to students’ homes. And so the concept of Tutor Doctor (founded in 2000) – with tutoring services provided in-home – was born.

Meanwhile, following the chance restaurant meeting in 2007, Milner offered what was then a struggling Hooi his expertise in franchising. Hooi, who by this time had recruited six franchisees of his own, took up Milner’s offer and while the pair shared the fruits of a hugely successful online marketing campaign – cut short due to excess demand – Milner soon realised Hooi’s heart was no longer in the project. Milner made an offer to Hooi for Tutor Doctor. Hooi accepted and the transaction was completed in December 2007.

Fast forward a decade – and not content with resting on the laurels of previous successes – Tutor Doctor embarked on a major push into Asia, having already undergone a rebranding exercise – the objective being to make the company a household name across the globe. And with 350 franchisees operating 680 territories in 15 countries, it’s now on its way to achieving that.

For Milner the rebranding exercise, amongst other things, has helped the company connect with and attract older (high school) students, as well as being readily able to communicate the company’s ethos, namely about being “present” for families and students. “We meet students where they’re at to help get them to where they want to go,” says Milner.

Yet in the intervening period, a significant amount of water has passed under the proverbial bridge – not least the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Despite this, underlying market fundamentals remain strong. An updated report (July 2020) from ReportLinker ‘Global Private Tutoring Industry’ estimating the global market for Private Tutoring will hit US$173.4 billion this year; reaching US$279.3 billion by 2027; giving a CAGR of 7% over the period.

Working on his own industry valuation of $105 billion – and where none of the major players own a significant share at present in what is a very fragmented market – Milner’s target is a 1% slice of that market.

Whatever metrics one uses – ranging from app developers pushing e-learning tools to other tutoring franchises, the education industry has undeniably been booming. The intervention of COVID-19 though has meant changes have had to be made – an obvious case in point being the migration of tutoring services online (during lockdown) where before it would normally have been in the student’s home before.

As Milner notes, in March the company had already begun to see its online tutors and platform being used by students and families, due to travel quarantines.

“Fortunately, our online platform is simple for tutors and students of any age to use,” he says. “At the start of lockdown, we saw a 120% increase in demand for online tutoring. It was just the beginning and we were prepared to handle much higher demand spikes than that. 

“But we didn’t take anything for granted. We kept communication going with our 94,000 tutors worldwide to ensure they were well prepared for what was to come,” he adds.

Yet as schools closed to keep children safe and healthy, the interruption to their studies, social interaction, and academic progress left families seeking alternatives.

And as Milner points out, families were looking for more than just an online resource; they also wanted a true academic experience best fitting for their children.

“Even in the online space, a tutor must know how to connect with their student, tailoring their programme while continually providing guidance and valuable learning skills,” says Milner.

The $64,000 question of course is whether online tutoring will become the ‘new normal’ after COVID-19 eventually becomes manageable or even fades away.

Milner is upbeat about the possibilities though, arguing that whilst there will always be families who prefer the in-home tutoring experience for their children, online tutoring has many benefits for students, tutors and franchisees alike.

In short, it means location is no longer a barrier. “No matter where you live, we can find the perfect tutor to match with the student.

“There’s no risk of tutoring being interrupted by bad-weather, accidents or vacations, because as long as you have internet connection, you are just a click away,” notes Milner.

Tutors in the meantime spend less time and money travelling between appointments and franchisees can accommodate more families. 

One particularly valuable feature in the online learning experience is the ability to record every session, so the student can review it later, thereby helping them retain information and refreshing their memories before an important exam or assignment.

“Tutor Doctor’s education team found this feature especially valuable to students who may have their class schedule fragmented or interrupted for unforeseen circumstances, as it allows them to jump back in where they left off.

“This is definitely something we’re considering implementing even when in-home tutoring is the preferred option for a student,” says Milner.

While COVID-19 has dictated some tweaking regarding the logistics side of things, the underlying business model regarding franchisees is the same, given cost overheads are limited due to no recurring inventory, no permanent staff members, nor any requirements for office space.

Franchisees work with families to thoroughly assess a child’s needs and then carefully select the best-fit tutor based on goals, personality and learning style, according to Milner.

“Instead of the tired old centre-based model, our tutors visit students on and offline so that they can learn at a time that suits them.” – offline visits subject to local rules of course.

From a costings standpoint, the minimum investment for a would-be franchisee is £33,000 – this including a 4 to 6-week pre-training program (using e-learning technologies), a seven-day intensive training program, as well as all ongoing business support. 

As Milner is also quick to point out: “We confidently claim to go above and beyond for our family of franchisees, our tutors and our customers.”

Tutor Doctor’s Launch Support Program, for example, is designed to provide intensive remote and in-field support to facilitate growth of a new franchisee in their first year; including 80 hours online training, 25 days’ Road to Toronto series, 7 intensive days’ training in Toronto; 8 additional one-to-one days of in-territory support, monthly jump-start webinars, a sales training programme and dedicated Milestone Reviews.

In addition, a dedicated Launch Support Specialist (LSS) visits new recruits for a three-day roadshow of community marketing in their first 45 days – the LSS spending seven days with the franchisee over the first nine months, focusing on community marketing, marketing planning and business development.

Putting some numbers on it, typical year-one turnover for new franchisees is £78,294 on average. And, according to Milner, average franchisee growth from year one to year two is 55%. 

Yet growing any business requires not only the requisite marketing and promotional tools, it also means providing a before and after service.

Beyond strong leadership and collaboration between franchisees and the dedicated head office team, an important consideration is promoting innovative ideas to fruition. This means supporting network growth, aiding sales, marketing and tutor recruitment.

Key too, is tutor recruitment marketing – arguably the most important yet challenging aspect of the business.  This involves a comprehensive programme for franchisees to attract and retain the right calibre of tutors, with the right message to promote in their business.

As Milner also puts it: “Critical to remaining a market leader and a go-to provider in any community, no customer is more demanding of excellence than a parent looking for tuition and support for their child.”

“We created a marketing pack for each persona, which is available to franchisees, free of charge, in our Resource Library,” he adds.

With new in-house content regularly being created it has allowed for a scheduling platform that co-ordinates and posts content to franchisees’ social media pages – the purpose (for franchisees) being time/resource savings, ensuring consistency online, as well as the content reaching a larger audience.

Other developments include the utilisation of AI and Natural Language Processing to enrich customer loyalty and connection with the brand. 

“We built an Alexa Skill allowing parents to ask Alexa for an update from Tutor Doctor.

“Session reports are a vital part of our service offering and keep parents in the loop with how their children are progressing in their sessions,” says Milner.

Tutors write and submit these reports, which are then emailed to clients after every tutoring session. Parents can simply say, “Alexa, ask Tutor Doctor for an update” and the report will be relayed back to them – an important feature for customer retention and USP for those deciding on a tuition provider, according to Milner.

Indeed, such initiatives were sufficient for Tutor Doctor to walk away with the Innovation Award at the 2019 International Franchise Association’s Franchise Marketing Innovation & Technology Conference (MITcon).

Regarding would-be franchisees, Tutor Doctor looks for candidates who are motivated, people-oriented and who want to own a business that enables them to have more flexibility in their life, as well as greater control over their income. However, Milner is quick to caution that while most people would like to think they fit this mould, they may not always have the level of passion the company is looking for when it comes to its values.

Welcome too are individuals already running independent tutoring businesses who may be interested in hooking up with the Tutor Doctor brand, though self evidently the appropriateness of any match-up will be assessed in the same way as any franchise enquiry.

The key takeaway however is that while it’s easy to become a tutor and take on a few students, it’s far more difficult to actually build a tutoring business, according to Milner.

“The Tutor Doctor model would really benefit some of those tutors who want to scale from a tutoring practice into a tutoring business,” he notes.

Milner describes Tutor Doctor’s corporate vision as ‘Making A Difference in Lives Through Education’ – underpinned by values such as ‘Ingenuity’ – based on tailoring courses to cater to a student’s particular needs, in order to help them overcome any anxieties/problems they may have. It also recognises that while all students can learn, they learn differently.

None of this can occur in a leadership vacuum of course and core to Milner’s beliefs is that leadership is about having a vision and doing whatever it takes to achieve that vision.

A long time admirer of the late Jack Welch – former Chairman and CEO of GE – Milner also says leadership is about being bold and having the determination not to quit when the going gets tough, because it will be tough.

Looking ahead – COVID-19 may have forced the company to tweak a number of aspects of its business – but Milner is quick to state the company retains a steadfast commitment to meeting its longer term objectives, whether COVID-19 proves resilient or not.

The UK is a case in point. Some 80+ franchisees have been welcomed into the network since operations commenced back in 2009 and Milner’s five-year objective is to become the largest tutoring franchise and the number one name in trusted in-home tutoring in the UK. 

“We don’t profess to know it all, but we confidently claim to go above and beyond for our family of franchisees, our tutors and our customers and will strive to continue to do so.

“We admit no business is without obstacles: what makes us special is our openness, transparency and the service we provide all stakeholders.”

Given the company’s success to date Tutor Doctor is more than equipped to overcome any obstacles put in its way.

Martin Morris
Martin Morris