These Edmonton girls can teach you a thing or two about marketing
Teenaged sisters Hania and Ghalia Aamer have fought the red tape and launched a tutoring company. They think they’re on to something big
by Michael Ganley
Photograph Paul Swanson
Young execs Hania and Ghalia Aamer, founders of Teen Tutors
History The girls launched Teen Tutors last October to serve what they saw as a gaping hole in the market
Number of employees 7
Senior exec Catherine Vu, founder, Pro-Active IT
History Vu launched Pro-Active in 2003. Through contractors, she builds IT infrastructure
Number of employees 7 (contractors)
Hania and Ghalia Aamer are teenage sisters already well-acquainted with the grind of starting a business. Last October, they launched Teen Tutors, which pairs students from kindergarten to Grade 9 with tutors not much older. They provide services for French, English, math and social studies, matching tutors and tutees based on age and locations. “The struggle is that sometimes we get clients that don’t match because they’re in different areas from the available tutors,” says Hania, the elder of the two girls, at 17. “That’s why we’re always hiring.”
Getting out of the gate hasn’t been easy. The sisters were able to get a provincial business licence with minimal hassle, but when it came time to get a federal business number (for payroll and tax purposes) they got rejected for being under 18. They had to appeal to proceed. Then came the cheques. “Because we’re under 18 it’s been really difficult to make our own cheques with our own names or our company’s name on it,” says Ghalia, 14. “So my mom’s name is on the cheques.” Plus, the permit they need to hire 13-and 14-year-olds was denied because the employer would not be present on the job site. Assurances that a parent or guardian of the tutee would be there were not enough (for now, they’ll stick with just the older tutors).
But that’s all behind them now. The business is up and running and the girls have a roster of seven tutors and five regular clients. They use a software program, TutorPanel, to handle accounting and scheduling. The girls say their business has four strengths: price; the one-on-one nature of the sessions; friendly tutors of a similar age to clients; and tutors with a recent knowledge of an ever-changing curriculum. “Having a tutor close to your age really makes a stress free environment,” Ghalia says. “I had a tutor that was quite a bit older than me and it made me feel intimidated.”
Now that they’re on their feet, they want to chart a path to growth.
They have a few questions for Catherine Vu, whose own business, Pro-Active IT, runs on a similar model. Vu maintains and grows the client base and hires contractors to deliver the service (building IT infrastructure). Hania and Ghalia have questions about pricing, marketing and building a culture.
“So what are your challenges?” Vu asks.
“Mainly it was the permitting,” Ghalia says. “It’s also to prove ourselves to parents, because we’re under 18, and the interviews. Other teenagers are surprised that they’re being interviewed by a teenager.”
“Do you have a set list of qualities you’re looking for in a tutor?”
“Our requirements are that you have above 80 in your core subjects, and we require a resumé,” Hania says. “If they don’t have one, we expect them to make one.”
“Do you care about their personalities, too?”
“Yes, that’s why we have the interview,” Hania says. “It gives us an opportunity to know who they are rather than just their grades. We need to know if they’re friendly and if they can easily relate to younger people.”
Right now, the girls are paying tutors $12 an hour, and they’re wondering if it’s enough to attract and retain the quality of talent they want. “Every employee is going to want a starting rate, then after three months or six months they’re going to come to you and they want a rate increase,” Vu says. “You have to give yourself room. There’s going to be a maximum that you can’t go over.”
Beyond wages, Vu says the girls need to build a company that tutors will want to be loyal to. With no brick-and-mortar space where employees gather, they’ll have to work to build community with and among tutors so everyone feels they’re part of something. “Your tutors are the ones building the relationship with clients. How do you stay connected so that you don’t get cut out of the equation?” she says. “People are going to say, ‘Well, can I just pay you $20 an hour?’ ” You prevent that by having relationships with the parents and the tutors.” A monthly meeting, even over Skype, would help build a bond.
On the other side of the ledger, clients pay $20 per hour for kindergarten to Grade 6 and $25 for Grades 7 to 9. The girls are confident that their rates are considerably lower than the competition, which are generally over $40 per hour. They’re thinking about raising their rates to $25 for all grades and paying tutors $14, but they do want to remain affordable.
Vu says their margins should be around 50 per cent, so if they paid $14 and charged $20, they wouldn’t be making enough. She thinks they should raise rates regardless – for new clients only. “The old ones, it’s nice to give them a grace period of six months or so: They’re your loyal people and I wouldn’t even think of increasing those people. But you can launch your new rate to anybody starting tomorrow.”
Vu doesn’t think Teen Tutors should be going after the price shoppers. They should be flaunting their strengths and be known for quality. Right now, their prices are too low to attract the quality of tutor they want and to pay themselves a reasonable margin. “But whatever you set it at, you’re going to be stuck with it. So if you’re not comfortable with the $20 and $25, then change it. It could be $25 and $27. It could be $22.50.”
The girls have done a remarkable job of marketing their business on a shoestring budget. They have a website, they’ve had ads on Kijiji and Facebook and have produced a slick, illustrated video, all for less than $500. They do want to promote the business more, but find advertising expensive.
“Have you tried going to the schools and asking them if you can put up flyers or get in their newsletters?” Vu asks.
“We’re not sure if the schools would let us, but we are planning to put posters up in public libraries,” Ghalia says.
Vu thinks they should go to the schools, one at a time. Start with a few of them. Pick up the phone and call the principal. “Schools can be a lot of bureaucracy, but it would be great if you can get it in their newsletter,” she says. “They can always say, ‘No,’ but you should at least ask.”
Vu also suggests they put posters up at arenas, soccer fields and other sports venues with lots of kids: potential tutors and tutees. “You have the advantage of knowing when the report cards are coming out,” she says. “That’s how you should time your advertising blitz.”
Vu has a few final words for the girls: They should try and come up with some way of proving to parents that the tutoring is helping, and they should have detailed onboarding plans for both tutors and clients. Then she says what is customary in the Lunch With crowd: “You have my number. Call me anytime.”