From Side Gig to Successful Business: A Fireside Chat with Raven Smith, Founder of Crystal Clear Tut
Raven Smith is a chemist by trade and a natural educator. After finishing college at Northwestern University in 2014, Raven began working as a Quality Assurance Specialist for a large manufacturing company, while tutoring as a secondary source of income. After just a year, the demand for her tutoring services had increased so much that Raven was able to work solely as an educator and legitimize her business. Working from 8:00am to 10:00pm, tutoring consumes much of Raven’s life, but when she isn’t busy tutoring you can find her traveling the world.
During this Fireside Chat, Raven and I discussed how she turned her side gig into a legitimate, burgeoning business with employees- Crystal Clear Tutoring.
What led you to create Crystal Clear Tutoring?
Crystal Clear Tutoring was really a result of several things coming together. I never set out to start a business. As a side job, I was tutoring eight students at the beginning of the school year in 2015. I just enjoyed teaching and being a resource for students and parents, but then I wanted to provide something that was both accessible and affordable. At this point, I was still working full-time, so my tutoring schedule was limited to the weekend, but this didn’t work well because students needed assistance with their homework during the week. I felt really bad having to turn people away when I couldn’t fit them in my schedule; I thought about hiring people, but you can’t have a staff unless you are a legitimate business. That’s really why I took the next steps to becoming an LLC.
How did you make the transition from being a student to being a full-time educator?
Most people assume that I was some kind of super genius in college. In reality, my college coursework was incredibly challenging for me. As a chemistry major, studying was my life. I didn’t have many of the fun stories that most college students had of partying several days out of the week. In fact, the majority of my schedule (especially the first 3 years) consisted of going to class, studying, the occasional study groups with friends, and going to countless office hours and tutoring sessions that didn’t always increase my understanding of material. It seemed like the effort that I was putting in didn’t correlate to the grades I was getting. The fact that my learning style was different was a huge push to help other students who struggled to understand material, no matter how much they tried. I coordinated the Chemistry Study Tables during my Sophomore and Junior years, hiring TAs to teach the students present, in hopes that even though I was unable to help friends with the material, someone could.
In the beginning, I was very hesitant. I taught ACT/SAT prep and high school math with my first student, all of which I was comfortable with. As the business and my students’ needs grew, I told myself to suck it up and tackle those subjects that hadn’t come super easily to me in the past. Knowing that some of the subjects that I had trouble with were now stressing out my students really forced me to learn more. The funny thing is that when I began re-teaching myself the material as an adult, it came so naturally! When I finally had students come to me asking for assistance with college chemistry, I was very nervous. However, I gave it a try and candidly assured them that if I was not comfortable with the material, I would refer them to someone who may be able to help them better. In the beginning I would have to take a moment to think, even studying the material for my next session the night before, so that I would be prepared to teach it effectively. However, over time, I became an expert chemistry tutor. In school I was motivated by grades. Now, I am motivated by the fact that my students are dependent on me.
What were some of the logistics behind legitimizing Crystal Clear Tutoring?
I never had a business plan or did any of those things that people say you must do before you start a business. I was just sort of going with it.
Employee training was the biggest thing. I wanted to make sure that my product was reproducible. I didn’t want to send out employees who weren’t providing the same level of service and experience that I was providing. It is important to make sure that any tutor will meet the needs of and have the same impact on the student, regardless of who is tutoring them.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
When you start a job, someone tells you what you are supposed to do. While I was able to train my team, there were a lot of unexpected things that came for me. I had to learn how to handle different situations, such as a tutor arriving late or a student being outside of the distance that we typically travel to our students. These were things that could have a negative impact on my business, so the question was how to incentivize the tutors to follow the guidelines provided, as well as, ensure that I could be a resource for students outside of our typical network.
How do you generate your clientele?
Most of my students come to me by word-or-mouth. Parents have been very pleased with our services and not only keep us for years throughout their child’s educational journey, but also tell their friends and family! After being in business for about a year, I created my website, so that definitely helped a bit as well.
What does a typical day look like at Crystal Clear Tutoring?
During the school year, I meet with my students who are homeschooled or may be working towards a GED or others who don’t have a typical 8:00 to 3:30 school schedule. Once students get out of school around 3:30 or 4, I begin to meet with them as well. Most sessions take place between 4:30 and 10pm .This is my full-time job, but my staff works on a part-time basis. I don’t want the job to feel like a hindrance for them, so they work according to their availability.
What’s your favorite aspect of being a founder and owner at your own tutoring company?
Just the fact that parents trust me with their children’s education. The more years that I have tutored them, the more engaged I am with their day-to-day lives, and the stronger my relationship is with the students and their families. From the beginning I have been building my resources so that no matter what problem a student is having, I will have something to help them.
A lot of my families have been with me since the beginning and lots of them give referrals. I treat all of my students as individuals and lots of them don’t even realize that I have 25 other students. It is important for me to create a personalized experience, so every time I go into a session I review my notes from our last meeting, so that I know what they did well in, I know what dance program they had last week, and so on. For me it’s not just tutoring, but mentoring as well. I try to incorporate that with aspect with each of my students.
Final words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t quit your day job until your side job can support you. I stopped working full-time a year after starting the company, which enabled me to incorporate more students into my schedule and pursue my passion – teaching.
Don’t get so caught up in the planning of your business that you let it hinder you from starting in the first place! I never had a business plan or an outline for how to do things. I had never even taken a business class, outside of high school Accounting. I just started tutoring and took it from there. Literally every policy that we have in place at the company was through trial and error. We learned what worked for us.
Running your own company is, by no means, less work or effort than working for someone else. In fact, it may be more, since the success of your business and your livelihood are directly dependent on your efforts. But no matter how much you have put in to be successful, it never feels like work if you’re doing what you are called to do.
Reach out to Raven today! Phone: 773-644-7177