What do you do when you’re studying for your GCSEs and can’t find the right tutor to give you extra lessons? Starting your own tutoring company might not be high on the list for most 17-year-olds but that’s exactly what Marcus Ereira and Luke Shelley, founders of Tavistock Tutors, decided to do five years ago.
When the pair, who grew up on the same street in St John’s Wood in London, struggled to find someone to give them private tuition for their exams, they took matters into their own hands.
“We were speaking to agencies and looking for tutors but they weren’t responding quickly enough,” said Marcus. “The agencies also weren’t open in the evening [to answer calls].”
The pair also felt that some agencies were patronising to young people. “I felt they were prioritising parents and putting the parent first rather than the student,” said Marcus. “We [see] the student as the client as well as the parent.
“We saw a lot of gaps [in the market] and we knew what students wanted. I was always quite into business and I was never motivated at school, although over the years I’ve [developed] more of an academic interest.”
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Marcus’ parents said that if he could get the business to work, they would let him leave school.
“My parents didn’t take it seriously but me and Luke had a mission that we would make it work,” he recalled. “But our parents didn’t write us a cheque and say, ‘make it work’. We were literally cleaning cars at the end of our road to [fund it].”
Due to their age, Luke and Marcus struggled to be taken seriously when they tried to find tutors to work for the company.
“I was short for my age,” said Marcus. “We would turn up to universities and try to speak to students and see if they wanted work and speak to heads of departments.
“A lot of people would laugh and walk off but for those who stayed and believed in us, they’ve done well.”
With little money to do any marketing, they had to think out of the box. They found a bike in a skip, painted it with fluorescent orange paint, put a sign on it and parked it outside a school to get attention.
“We also did a 10,000 pen drop outside schools rather than hand out leaflets,” said Marcus. “I always lost pens at school.”
With enough tutors on board, they began offering tutoring in the conventional GCSE subjects.
“The big difference was that other people were setting their agencies up [based on] academic standards alone, but we started it from a business standpoint,” he said.
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“We were all about the customer and still take calls in the evening. Our turnaround is very quick and everything about our process [in finding customers a tutor] is about speed and offering good customer service.
“I wanted what we never found – that I could call after 5pm – and that our range of subjects is so broad. If it wasn’t something we could offer we’d find it, although there are cases where it might take a week.”
The company now has 400 tutors and uses an electric car to promote its services around London.
Marcus and Luke also thought the fee-charging structure of some agencies was unfair.
“We saw a lot of other agencies were charging commission of 50% and charging parents a £60 joining fee before they’d even found anyone for them.”
“We don’t charge a [joining] fee,” said Luke. “We get the return from our commission.”
Tavistock says it would welcome more regulation in the industry. “Schools are very transparent but the tutoring [industry] isn’t,” said Luke.
Marcus left school to run the business, attending university later. However, Luke went straight to university. “My mother said, ‘Do your A-levels first!’” he said.
They both attended Regent’s University where they studied business.
Tavistock Tutors now offers tutoring in everything from maths and English, to real estate, biochemistry and even stand-up comedy.
“People are really looking to broaden their horizons [for their UCAS forms],” said Marcus. “The landscape of tutoring has really evolved. Tutors see it as a possible career and it’s not just for people struggling at schools.”
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The business really began to take off when, instead of Marcus and Luke trying to find tutors to join the firm, the tutors started contacting them directly for work.
The pair have been running the business full-time for 16 months and turnover is set to double this year.
“People can make more tutoring than teaching full-time,” said Luke. “Plus people see a British education as the best in the world. So [parents] around the world are interested in sending their kids to school here and getting them 11-plus tutoring.”
Social media has also proved to be a happy hunting ground. “Until recently we were the only tutoring agency on social media,” said Luke. “Most agencies were very parent-focused.”
The range of assignments which the company responds to includes holiday work – when clients go abroad for long periods of time – and long-term residential positions.
“We’re working with someone who’s a junior skiing champion and needs to keep up with his school work and a tennis player in Miami,” Luke explained.
“We have an amazing mix. We have clients who call us three years ahead to get the best tutors and people who ring up at 9pm wanting a tutor the next day. The bulk of our work is short-term positions.”
The pair say they are seeing a “surge in demand” driven by the rising popularity for tutoring services.
“Competition for places at schools is one reason,” said Luke. “It’s harder to get jobs.”
“People are also looking at universities,” said Marcus. “[They might think], ‘If I get into UCL instead of Nottingham it will make [getting a job] easier’”.
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“And the higher achievers are looking at getting a higher percentage [pass],” said Luke.
Although there are many well-off clients, there are also low-income families using their services who are keen to give their children the best chance in life.
Some short-term or even long-term assignments can come with added attractions for the tutor, depending on the location.
“Some of them are great opportunities,” said Marcus. “We had a family going on a super-yacht for a few weeks and they requested a tutor for pre-GCSE studies. I think that’s quite a cool opportunity. They got to go jet-skiing.”
With the agency providing tutors around the world, often to rich clients, some tutors may find themselves in anywhere from Monaco or Riyadh, with their board and lodging paid for by the clients.
Typically tutors earn £130-£150 a day, says Marcus, although some of the most successful can earn £100 an hour.
However, according to the Financial Times, some so-called ‘super-tutors’ can command up to £1,000 an hour and even find themselves being paid thousands of pounds in bonuses or gold watches and iPads if they succeed in helping their students pass school or Oxbridge entrance exams.
Potential clients can find that the most successful tutors are already booked up for years in advance.
But not just anybody can become a genuinely sought-after tutor, says Marcus.
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“All of our tutors have to have a certain level of experience and qualifications,” he explained. “But there’s a big difference between someone who’s just graduated from Oxbridge and has a few clients and someone who has seven years of experience [in tutoring].”
A decent knowledge of the subject isn’t enough either – tutors have to be able to engage with their pupils where school teachers may have failed to do so.
“We’re looking for people who are outgoing and energetic,” said Marcus. “It’s not just about finding somebody who is academic.
“[When we interview people] we look for those that really wow. It’s all about engaging the students and you can see somebody genuinely interested in their subject. One tutor [who teaches classics] does breathing exercises and the parents love it. Other tutors offer memorisation skills.”
But despite media tales about gold watches and bonuses, Marcus insists their clients do not just throw money at the problem and expect tutors to achieve miracles with mediocre students.
“We’re not going to send somebody in there to get a C-grade student into Oxbridge,” he said.
“I’ve never seen our clients behaving that way. If they contacted us they’re interested [in their child’s education] - they’ve done their homework.”
In terms of advice for other business people starting out, Luke says it’s important to work hard and not expect the business to take off overnight.
“You really have to stick at something if you want it to work,” he said. “You really have to focus.”
Marcus believes it’s also vital to improve on the competition and not to be put off by other people’s doubts and negativity.
“Be available for your clients and offer a better service,” he said. “When we were still at school people were very pessimistic about the credit crunch and that was the attitude. It can put you off starting something, but being young you’ve got fewer responsibilities.”
Looking back, the pair are pleased to see that their hard graft has paid off. “This is such an organically growing business and it was great to see our hard work [take root],” said Marcus.