[Transcript] Episode 066 – Chris Swan
Transcript: Episode 066 – Chris Swan
066 – Chris Swan on Iterating in an Early Stage Music School
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Today I’m talking to a piano teacher who is in the early stages of transitioning his private studio into a multi-teacher studio.
In order to be sustainable, there are some foundational things that have to change to when you scale up from being a solo teacher studio to a multi-teacher studio, especially for owners who want to be strictly administrators and not also be teaching.
I really enjoyed this interview with Chris because you get to hear how he’s experiencing and troubleshooting some of the challenges through this growth. On top of that, he’s super honest and I always appreciate that transparency. Enjoy!
Andrea: Hi Chris. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Chris: Thanks for having me. I’m really honored to be on the show and chat with you a little bit. My name is Chris Swan. I run a piano lessons school here in St. Louis called STL Piano Lessons. I’m also a full-time musician and I’m an inspirational hip-hop artist as well so I have my own record company doing inspirational hip-hop, but I think today we’re here to talk about the piano lesson stuff.
Andrea: Yeah. All those other things can be another topic. So tell us how you came to start teaching and then eventually start a music school?
Chris: I’ve been a working musician my entire adult life and so I’ve just kind of been gigging around town and I also spent some time in the Caribbean and just around the country playing gigs and what started to happen is I do a lot of piano bar type entertaining. So people started coming up to me on gigs and saying “Hey, can you teach me how to play the piano? And so the funny thing is I didn’t set out to be a teacher at all. It wasn’t even on my radar but people just started asking me and honestly I was just like, well, it’s irresponsible to say no like this is extra money.
I know it’s not the way it’s supposed to get into teaching but for me it was just like, well, this is the way I can make some extra money. It feels like I should not say no to this but also, these are people I like and I was friends with and they really want to learn piano so I’m like “Cool. I guess I can do that. I never thought about that, but sure, why not? Come on over and I’ll show you some stuff.” So that’s kind of how it started. That was around 2009. It just started on gigs and people are asking me to teach them some stuff and then it just kind of started to grow from there by word of mouth.
A: Alright. And who were your students then? Were they mostly adults like friends?
Chris: I mostly had adult students for whatever reason. I think part of that is just because I’m playing in bars and stuff and so I think a lot of adults see me and I would get a lot of people who said “Yeah, I use to take piano lessons when I was a kid and then I quit and now I wish I’d never quit because I’m older and I have more time and I really want to play piano.” I think they get into a piano bar environment and they get inspired. They’re like, “Ah, I want to be able to do that.” So a lot of my students were adults, but then along the way, definitely, I started to have a few kids here and there as well.
A: In its original form it was like kind of ad hoc, people are asking for lessons, and you taught them?
Chris: Yeah. I had no name for it. I was just “I’m Chris Swan” and I think I had a web page like my gig page and then I just had a page off of that that was like “piano lessons.” So there was no name or branding or anything. It was just kind of like word of mouth.
A: When did it become more than that?
Chris: Then I started to see that I could make a good living doing this. A few of my early students were really connected with the way I taught and then maybe kind of feel excited about it. I’ve always taught more of the teaching playing by ear stuff because that’s more what made music exciting for me was when I started figuring out how to learn songs on my own like from the radio. I used to have a tape recorder–remember the cassette tapes?
A: Oh yeah, vaguely, yeah.
Chris: So I used to have a cassette tape recorder and I would play and rewind, play/rewind, and just figure out songs one note at a time. I didn’t even know how chords work when I was like five, six, seven years old and I would just figure out note by note how to play these songs. But that’s what is fun about music to me was figuring it out, you know, Bon Jovi songs and Michael Jackson’s. I’m old so this is like the 80s, but that’s what made it fun to me. So I was just like “Well, I’m just going to teach people the way I learned.”
I took classical lessons as well. I was traditionally-trained as well which was also helpful and important. But I just wanted to teach in kind of the way that music was exciting to me. So I started teaching playing by ear like how to just figure out songs on your own along with some fundamental theories stuff as well because it’s not going to make sense unless you know the basic theory stuff. And so by telling that story, I totally forgot what your question was.
A: That’s good; more context. So when did you decide to take it from just you teaching to something more formal?
Chris: Yeah. So that’s what it was. Thanks. Because it was kind of connecting with people, I think a lot of people don’t teach that way. They just teach, get a book. We just go for a method book and here’s how to play classically. And I think because I was doing something a little different, more around like this is how chords work and learning the numbering system for chords based off of the scales and all that kind of stuff, and here are some chord progressions that you are going to hear a lot in songs.
So I started teaching this kind of chord progressions and students would say “Oh man, no one’s ever taught it like this before.” They are like in the book it seems overwhelming and they don’t totally get it but when you go write it into like a 6-4-1-5 chord progression, then here’s all the songs you’ve heard that have that chord progression, people are like “Oh man, I totally get it,” and within a few lessons they’re playing songs that they love. So they were getting really excited about that. When I started seeing students gets kind of excited connecting with that that made me realize that this is cool. Maybe this is something that I can build on and grow and find some more students.
So then I started advertising a little bit. It was a lot of word of mouth, some stuff on Google and on my gigs. I started using Takelessons.com. That’s what it was. I got a lot of my early students from takelessons.com and there were a couple of others like lessons.com and then thumbtack and so I just started putting up some profiles in there and really focusing on playing by ear and that’s what I think attracted people and I started building it from there.
Andrea: Awesome. So it’s still just you at that point but you’re like, “Hey, I can actually make a more stable living with this and it’s not a bad thing.”
Chris: Yeah. I was like, Oh I think I could actually do this and I was able to build a roster of around 35 to 40 students.
Andrea: Nice. And at what point did it become STLPianoLessons.com?
Chris: In 2018 I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years now. I was getting to the point, honestly, where I was getting a little burned out and I’m having 35 to 40 students. It was like all day about four days of my week was just all day long lessons and then I was still gigging on the weekends. It was kind of getting to the point where I just had to make a decision around to either see this grow to something bigger or I need to make a change or something. I wasn’t sure what that was but I’d also been learning a lot about business and marketing and stuff like that because I had a record label that I started in 2017 called Soul Motivation Records. Through that venture, I have just been learning a lot about business and marketing and how to leverage and grow.
So that’s when I just kind of started getting an idea around what if I was able to hire some awesome teachers, because you’d get to a point where your time is capped, right? 40 students, I was like I can’t do any more than that. I have no more time and even this feels like almost too much with all the other stuff I had going on. I was like, “How can I leverage this and make it bigger? I am out of time. So I was like, “Alright. I need teachers.” I need to think about maybe turning this into a real business and hire some other teachers so then we can grow beyond what I can just do with my time, right? So I really came from that.
I think around that time I just started looking at what domains are available piano lessons and STL Piano Lessons was available. That’s one of the first ones I’ve searched and I couldn’t believe it was still available. This was 2019 so this was only a couple of years ago, and not even a couple of years ago–a year and a half ago. STL Piano Lessons was available and so I bought that and I bought a few others but that’s the one that just really seemed to have good Google potential and that kind of stuff so I’m just going to name my company after the URL I got and I’m just going to build it off of that. That was in May of 2019 and I got the LLC and made it official.
Andrea: I’m really happy for you. We’re all friendly here in St. Louis. So now you’re STL Piano Lessons and you are thinking about hiring other teachers. Did you start hiring teachers in 2018?
Chris: Yeah. Right around the time I did the LLC I had a couple of teachers. They were just friends of mine and I was like “Hey, can I just send you some students?” and they kind of worked through this company. It kind of started that way, which is just a couple of guys, and it took a little bit to get the bugs worked out. It’s hard to hand things over and know the things are happening the way that you want them to happen but also give your teachers freedom to be who they are and not tell them “You have to do it my way because my way is right.” I don’t want to do that. These are professional amazing piano players. I’m not going to tell them how to teach but there are a few things that kind of need to fall in line with what we do.
I think those first couple, since they were my friends, that kind of helped that we could kind of work through it together and like, hey, this is working and this is not working. And at this point I still had 35 students of my own. I was just trying to send them a few. Then I think it was the end of 2019 where I was like “Okay, I’m ready to transition to I’m going to give all my students to these other teachers,” because at this point I had six or seven teachers who were just kind of people who reached out to me. I didn’t really have to do a whole lot to find teachers. They have just kind of finding us through word of mouth, friends of friends, and stuff like that. But, I had enough where I was like “Okay. I think I’m ready to make this transition.”
So yeah, and that period was tough because it was like these students I’ve had for a long time having to go to them and be like “I love you and I’m so proud of you. I have another teacher that’s really great for you but I need to step down from teaching so that I can focus on building this business. So in late 2019 I started having those conversations which was really, really hard and sad. It was really more emotional than I realized it would be but I knew that I just had to do it or we were just going to be stuck where we were and we were never going to grow beyond what we were.
As a matter of fact, with students falling off, you know, we can talk about retention and all of that, but it wasn’t even just growing. It was even maintaining because students would quit. They’d have a couple of lessons and they quit and they get a few more and then they quit. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to sustain this and grow to where I needed to be to survive financially as well as just everything else by just doing it the way it was. So things had to change and that’s what it was. I needed to have some other teachers and I needed to let go of some students so that I could focus more on the business.
Andrea: And then, at that time I believe your school was just a travel studio, right, like teachers were going to students’ homes, is that correct?
Chris: That’s right. So we’ve never had a physical location. Our kind of whole USP thing is that you get to go and study with a professional piano player in their home studio. Technically, I had a school when it was just me because it was in my basement. I had a studio in my basement, but yeah, when we went to teachers, it was really more of like this isn’t a physical school. It was a “you go to the teacher and get to study in their home studio” environment.
Andrea: Okay. So the students are going to the teachers and not the teachers going to the students?
Chris: Yes. We’ve already done it that way with a very few exceptions, but it’s just not time efficient or money efficient for the teacher to go to the student unless a student is really just in a crunch and like “Look, I’m willing to pay this premium to have them come,” then we do have a few students that we do that but, honestly, it was pretty expensive because you have to pay for the half an hour before and the half an hour after so 99% of our students go to our teachers.
Andrea: Who was your target market at that time?
Chris: Our target market at that time was definitely adults, so our biggest push since we’ve kind of focused on playing by ear. That resonates mostly with adult students. And again, our target was the 35-year-old something who is settling into the corporate life and looking for some other hobbies because now they’re kind of settling their life, they have time, they have money, and a lot of these people are people who took lessons when they were a kid and then they quit because of sports or whatever just getting into life and they just stick to it. And now, they regret quitting and they want to come back to it, I mean, that was 90% of my students can’t even go on STL Piano Lessons. That was really our focus was on the adult students. So that was really our focus.
Then, we’re switching a little bit though because we’re finding retention is tougher with adults. If you want retention, you need kids. Kids is where the retention is because kids have their parents telling them they have to go whether they want to or not, right, but adults can quit whenever they want and so there’s no one holding them responsible. There are some other things we’ve done on our policies to try and encourage retention as well, but one thing we are doing is try and focus a little bit more on kids. We still very much have a lot of adult students. We want to service our adult students but from a business standpoint, retention is a lot easier when you focus on kids. So we’re starting to focus a little bit more on younger kids as well.
Andrea: Okay. Talk more about that. Do you know numbers wise like what was your average monthly length of lessons for an adult student in early 2019?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a good question. So I do have that report actually here because I was just looking at the retention numbers. I know that it’s weird. The easiest way to explain it is earlier in this year and at the end of 2019, we were breaking even. So it didn’t matter how many new students we brought in we would lose just about the same. So typically, that was anywhere between 5 to 10 students a month. We used to do month-to-month lessons. So we would do month-to-month and you could quit after a month. That is one thing we just changed. We just transitioned into semesters and we’re asking our students to commit to a full semester because if we just go month-to-month, well most adults especially they’re going to try it for a couple of weeks “Oh, this is hard,” and they thought it was going to be then, “I’m going to quit,” (a) that is not helping us as a school and (b) that’s not helping our teachers.
It is so frustrating as a teacher to put all this time into a student and then they just quit after a couple of weeks because it’s too hard or whatever. But also, it’s not servicing our students because we’re giving them the out. We’re not keeping them accountable. We’re letting them quit and that was a bigger realization was like by doing this month-to-month thing, we’re not servicing our students the best way possible because we’re letting them just flake out when it gets hard. We need to be there and keep them kind of like “Look, man, this takes a little bit of work. This takes a little time but you came to us for a reason. You wanted to learn piano for a reason. We’re going to walk with you. We’re going to support you every way we can but you have to step up and be willing to see this as more of a long-term thing. We’ll give you the tools and we’ll help you.”
But doing a month-to-month thing made that really hard for a lot of people and we we’re letting them. We were letting them quit so why wouldn’t they quit when it got hard you know. So we had to kind of change that. But, yeah, all that to say like we would gain five and then we would lose five so we just hovered around this like 28 to 32 students forever. It was really tough. It was really hard and really frustrating for the teachers and for us as a school like we’re not growing. And so, that really would have been our focus moving forward in 2020 and then this fall semester and moving forward next year the student retention. We’ve implemented semesters instead of month-to-month so no more month-to-month. You commit for a full semester and we ask our students to sign an agreement that says they’re going to show up for the whole semester. If you want to drop out, that’s cool but you’re still financially responsible. We’re not going to just let you go off the hook like you need to show up and follow through with you said you’re going to do. So we went through a semester system and asking people to really step up their commitment.
We’re also focusing a little bit more on kids who can kind of grow with us as they grow up, kind of grow with us as a school and we’d like to see them kind of stick to it for a while. and another thing we did is we’ve always done student recitals but we are now really making the focus of our semesters, getting ready for the student recital so that the students have like a goal that they’re working towards each semester. I think a lot of time, especially adults, they’re like “Why am I doing this again? What’s the point of this?” So now it’s like “Because you’re going to perform this song or these songs at this date at the end of the semester and I think it just gives people a goal.
Andrea: Yeah. Did you do that for your adult students too?
Chris: Yeah, so all students are encouraged. As of now it’s not mandatory but we highly encourage our students to participate in recitals. We do two every semester, one online and one in person, because we do have students who don’t live in St. Louis who do online lessons so we do an online recital and an in-person too, but we highly encourage everybody to participate.
Andrea: Yeah. And that sounds like it makes sense, too, given like you said, a lot of your adult students are still the kind of a market that you want to service and they were inspired by seeing you at a piano bar or something then that performance aspect is a really significant part of why they’re in lessons in the first place.
Chris: Right. A lot of people come in and they’ve come in and they were like “I want to be able to do that.” Some people want to do it professionally and some people just want to be able to like play at the next Christmas party like “I want to be able to play for my family and everybody sing along,” And that’s a big drive for a lot of people. And I totally get that and want to help them achieve that in the best way we can.
Andrea: Do you talk about the semester tuition as a way? When you were describing it here you are talking about like how this is holding them accountable and it’s in their best interest in help them to reach their goals and you wouldn’t be doing your part. Do you use that when you’re talking to a prospective student on the phone?
Chris: Yes. What we also did is we raised our tuition. We’ve done a couple of raises over the last couple of years. This one wasn’t so much a raise as it was. We used to do variable tuitions so if it was four weeks you’d pay one tuition and if it was five you pay another. So we just consolidated it into one and we made it all of the five week tuition. We also started taking up front payment so if people pay upfront they’d get a little bit of a discount if they pay upfront for the semester. With that comes that conversation around what is the student looking for. So you get people who are looking for the cheapest lessons in town, that’s not us. And you could usually gauge right away if that’s what they’re looking for and I totally want to have the conversation and I want them to understand the value that we offer. Some people then get it and some people don’t and if you don’t, and if you’re just looking for the cheap lesson, then that’s cool and here are some other resources. You can look on Lessons.com and there are a lot of great teachers who would go for a lower rate. So that’s fine and I’m happy to share that.
But what we do, there’s a little bit more of a premium. We have the top professional musicians in St. Louis and those are our teachers. These are the guys who are studied, who are gigging or playing. You get like a mentorship. You get to go to their home studio and see how they do it. So yeah, when that comes in, that always comes into the conversation pretty much every time. First off is just really to show them the value of what we do and trying to get them away from just looking at it as a per lesson cost, but when people start doing that math and if you do that math then you’re going to be like “Whoa, this is way more than dah-dah-dah.” Yeah, it is, if you want to look at it that way, but we offer a lot more than just a “per lesson” cost here.
It’s a mentorship with a professional musician. You have your own online account and we video all of our lessons so you get a video of every lesson and you have your own account where you can communicate with your teacher and they send you lessons and assignments. So there’s a whole lot more than just your weekly lesson. So we really make sure we explain the value but then also, a big part of that is we want you to have some skin in the game. If you’re doing week-to-week lessons you can quit whenever you want and you’re just paying a low price and that’s where you’re focused on, I guarantee you that person is not going to hang in there and they’re going to quit. I’ve seen it over and over and over again. I used to try to be the cheapest piano lessons in town and those were the people who were there for two or three weeks and then they were gone because they had no skin in the game, time, commitment or moneywise.
And then, it’s okay. It’s not like those are bad people. I’m not saying those are bad people like we all have certain things that we’re trying to get a good deal on and I get that. But what we’re looking for is the people who are like “Whatever it takes I’m in. Let’s do this. That’s totally worth it. I see the value. Here’s my money and just show me how to become this.” Those are the people we want. So we had to make a conscious decision that we’re going to kind of let go of the nickel and dimers and we’ll try to steer them in the direction of some other resources if we can, but we are looking for people who are ready to take the next step to really go all in. That means a little bit higher tuition as well, yeah.
Andrea: What were those conversations like, because you’ve made some big changes and so how did you introduce those changes to your students? What was the pacing? Did you do them all at once or did you spread it out? Talk to us about that.
Chris: Yeah, that was tough. So yeah, there have been a couple of changes. The first big one was when I stopped teaching and I did take all of my students and paired them with these new teachers. Those are really hard conversations because you’ve created friendships and bonds with these people, you know. It was hard for me and it was hard for them and, honestly, we lost a lot of students. So that was the first time we lost a lot. I don’t remember exactly but I want to say it was 15 or 20 students that I lost when I did that. That’s a big hit.
But, it’s worth it because we have to make this move to grow to where we want to be. So it’s just something that we have to do. I tried to be as kind and as patient and tried to pair them up as well as I could and introduced them and one thing we did is we had the student do a recital and some of the teachers come to the recital so that the students could kind of meet the new teachers before they started their lessons with them and stuff like that. We just tried as much as we could but honestly, I think there were a handful that were kind of just hanging on because we were friends and we’re kind of having fun. They weren’t super serious about it anymore anyway so this was kind of their out.
I think a lot of people were just like, “That’s cool. I’m just going to call it now and I kind of knew that was coming. That’s cool.” So most of them was like that. It was just kind of like “Yeah, just kind of been hanging in because I enjoyed the time and hanging out but I think now is the time for me to call it.” And so that’s cool, you know. And there were a few of them that were just disappointed because they really had a hard time seeing themselves working with somebody else, so that’s okay too. But then we had the people that hung in there and saw the value. We paired them up with their new teachers and they loved it so we started moving forward. That was the first change.
The second change is when we went to the semester system which we just did in August and September. That was even harder than the first change because to get people that understand, especially current students that are so used to doing it in a certain way they totally understand, like we said this is what we do and you sign on for that and so we’re changing it on you. So we need to have the conversation and I understand that. But there are few that didn’t really want to make the bigger commitment time wise or moneywise. They just kind of like it the way it was and they wanted to be able to quit when they wanted to. Honestly, it was really hard for me like I mostly took a lot of it personally.
Honestly, there are a few people that are kind of mean about it, kind of rude about it, because they weren’t getting what they wanted and I had to learn how to separate myself from the business and not take it personally. I understand like “Look man, we’re in a free capital market,” like I can do what I want with my own business and you don’t have to agree with it and I’m not forcing you, like you can quit and you can go find other– I’ll even help you. I’ll send you some links to some other places to get lessons. That’s okay and you don’t have to continue. I’m giving you a choice here’s a raise in tuition if you’d look at it per lesson, but, yeah, so a big part of that.
I think some people thought I was like trying to force them into something. I’m like “No. I’m telling you this. Do you want to continue with us? And if not, it’s totally okay.” Most people got that but there were a handful of people that were kind of mad that things were changing. I don’t know. The majority of people who were like “Yeah, we like what you’re doing.” Some people were like “Yeah, I kind of like being able to bill month-to-month but I understand why you’re doing it so I’m in and let’s see how it goes.” So had most people continue on but we had a handful of people quit. I think there are maybe 10 or 11 people who left when we switched to semesters because they just didn’t want to pay the higher tuition and they didn’t want to commit to the semester.
But the big thing for me was to just be kind and patient and just learn that like me and the business are two separate things and I had to learn of not taking it so personally. That was the hardest part.
Andrea: Yeah. Those could be really challenging. And also, to know that the goal is not to build a business that serves this certain set of students forever. It’s to build the business that can get to 100 students or 500 students or 1,000 students or whatever and that sometimes means the 10 or 11 leave in 2020 instead of keeping the business books on them, but it’s really challenging. I thank you for sharing that because that will be hard for me too and I think most teachers can relate to that, having to figure out how to separate ourselves and because the business does feel personal. It is our lives.
How else has your messaging changed? When you talk to a student or when you are putting posts on social media or running ads, has that changed?
Chris: Yeah. So that is an ongoing growing, learning thing, like when I started this I didn’t have any kind of marketing plan and I don’t know what I was doing. Sometimes it still feels like I don’t know what I’m doing just because I’m still learning and it’s changing all the time. But, I’m learning a lot and through this whole semester thing I learned a lot. I think a big thing for us is just how to communicate our value that we offer. That was a big switch of trying to be the cheapest game in town versus starting our value over the class kind of thing. So instead of our focus being “Hey, we’re the cheapest in town,” to being like “We’re not worried about the cost, I mean, we’re going to make it affordable as we can for you but here’s the value.”
So, really, that’s been something I’ve been learning how to do is really and I’m still working on it like how to get across the value that we have and not focus on the cost of the value of what we give. We talked a little bit before in a previous conversation but just really work on like our targeting, like who exactly is that target market. So like sometimes we have like eight or nine avatars. I’m trying to keep it down in a way. Right now it’s two. It’s the adults, the 30 something and then there’s the kids, and really it’s the moms is who we target is the moms because they tend to be the ones that are like shopping for lessons. Dads can do it too.
We kind of focused on the moms of 6 to 12-year-old kids and then the 30 something adults. So that was another thing is just kind of really trying to find, and that’s always changing. But yeah, communicating the value, who the target audience is, how to best get that across. And then, I think the big challenge now is just to really kind of going along on the value thing, really trying to hit home the value of semesters over the month-to-month kind of model and really trying to set ourselves up as a school.
I think we’re now starting to think of ourselves as an actual school. For a lot of time I didn’t because we didn’t have a physical location, but I think recently, and doing the semester thing, realizing that no, we are a school. We just have a little different model. We don’t have a physical location but we are a music school and we have semesters just like a school. So I’ve been really trying to learn how to function more like a school would, like any school–high school or college or a music school–functioning like a school with semesters, with breaks, with vacations, and how to communicate that. Those are kind of the three main thing is I communicating our value, who really is our target and then really viewing ourselves as a school and a community and making that come across to people that “Hey, we’re a school, a community that your joining is not just you and a teacher, you’re part of this bigger thing.”
And that’s harder to do when you don’t have a physical location. So we’re trying to do that like on social media and then some other things we’re working on possibly doing and kind of creating an environment of the community more effectively.
Andrea: Uh-huh, so there are more consistencies across all the teachers even if you’re in satellite locations.
Chris: Right, exactly. We do that with a curriculum too. We do have a couple of key things that all of our teachers teach to make it a little homogenous. That’s a big word. The playing by ear stuff, that’s something that all our teachers kind of focus on and then they are able to kind of go from there and focus specifically on what the students want to learn, but there’s a few things we want to make sure that are congruent to what we’re doing as a school.
Andrea: Sure. Okay. And how about marketing? What’s been working for you? What have you tried?
Chris: Yeah, marketing. That’s fun. So I’ll tell you the things that worked the best. I can see the number one thing for us has been Google. So Google is where we get 90% of our leads and what we’ve been doing to make that one is the URL really helps us. So I’m super excited to have the URL and that helps but we do a lot of blogging. I do a lot of blogging and with SEO keywords and stuff like that in the blogs. So we do a lot of blogs around highly searched key words which help us bring traffic to our site. Another thing that we utilize, I think a lot of people forget about it and I actually learned this from another piano lesson podcast, these teachers on guides who are awesome. I’ve learned a lot from those guys. They’re really great and they have a great podcast. They had an episode on Google my Business and so I have everything on Google my Business. You just have to register your address and then you list it on Google and you should do that to be able to come up in rankings but I didn’t spend a lot of time on it and I realized from listening to them that the more you kind of engage with Google the better you’re going to rate with Google.
You can share your blog posts and pictures and that kind of stuff through your Google my Business account. So one thing we started doing that is really helpful is we started regularly showing posts and pictures on the Google my Business, Google sees you using their tool and they’re going to reward you for that in the algorithm by sending you more traffic. Of course I don’t know exactly how that works but you know they’re going to reward you just like any platform would. If you’re using Facebook, Facebook lets Facebook Live, right? So if you’re doing Facebook Lives you’re going to get more views than a regular post. It’s kind of the same thing with Google. By using Google my Business to send some stuff on there regularly, I think that kind of helps us get a little more traffic and Google rewards that.
And the other thing that’s really helpful with Google is Google Reviews. We ask all of our students to leave reviews on Google. That’s our number one place because Google has been good to us so we were kind of really put most of our eggs in that basket. So Google is a big thing for the kind of things we do and the kind of some SEO stuff to get rank and all that. But then, we also do Facebook ads which work pretty well. We use the idea of Facebook ad as some kind of a lead generator whether that’s a checklist of some kind or we have a keyword guide so we do a free keyword guide like if you’re buying your first keyword kind of thing you have some good ones so I made a little guide around that with some options. We use stuff like that to get emails and so we build the email list and we do email marketing.
Email marketing is kind of our main thing. I guess Google would be the main thing–SEO and blogging with Google–and then email marketing using Facebook ads to get leads in. And then we just use Lessons.com and thumbtacks to just kind of basically purchase leads as well.
Andrea: Okay. So Google, that’s just all free stuff, just SEO stuff that you’re doing there optimizing.
Chris: All free. Yeah, I don’t do any Google ads stuff at all. Google ads is great. I just think that Facebook ads is more affordable and there are 9 billion people on Facebook so once I master Facebook ads maybe I’ll look at Google ads but I just feel like there’s so much on Facebook to tap into and it’s just more affordable anyway. I just kind of focus on Facebook ads so yeah, with Google we’re not doing Google ads or anything and it’s all free—Google my Business, blogging and reviews.
Andrea: Alright. And then with the Facebook ads, what kinds of students do you tend to get out of there? Does it tend to be adults too? Where are you having the most success?
Chris: That’s a good question. I think it depends on what we’re doing. I think it’s mostly adults is the short answer but sometimes I do add kind of geared more towards kids so when I’m doing that it’s definitely more kids. It just really depends on the targeting but, really, most of our targeting with Facebook has been towards the adult students and I see that’s probably something that I need to look at for trying to attract more kids it probably should be more towards the kids. Honestly, Facebook has been mostly window shoppers like just kind of vaguely interested. They’ll get on an email list but we don’t get a lot of results. A lot of people were just like see a Facebook ad and like sign me up. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s more of an email list building tool. It’s kind of how I’m using it and hoping that some of those turn into leads. Now I have seen it, it does turn into some actual students but not immediately as I ever rate as Google does.
Andrea: And there’s a lot more follow through like the Facebook ad is really just the beginning of that funnel and then it’s fostering the relationship through email marketing, it sounds like?
Chris: Exactly. So we get them in with the free thing and then they’re on the email list and then they go through a series of emails, “Hey, here’s what we do. Here’s what we offer. Click here to read more.” We have a blog post, share value and that kind of thing and then we send “Hey, enrollment is open. Now is the time to get started,” and then we do a little bit of urgency because we have open enrollment and then we close enrollment so we don’t take new students all the time. That’s another thing we just started is we just do open enrollment for one month before each semester. There’s some urgency there and scarcity like you need to take action now or you have to wait till the next semester. So when enrollment opens then we kind of hit them with “Now is the time. Here’s how it works and here’s how to sign up.”
Andrea: Interesting. I’d love to hear like a year from now what you have learned through that because I can see the scarcity how that work and also kind of forces students to make decisions like, “Okay, September is here. Am I in or am I out?”
Chris: Yeah. It’s kind of an experiment so yeah, I’ll let you know how it goes because there are definitely reasons that we were fearful to do it but honestly, I would say it worked for the semester. It got people to take action and sign up and our enrollment for this fall really came out a lot better and I feel like that’s part of the reason because it made it like people have to commit. I will also say that now we have on our website a waiting list that we’re closed and if you want to get on the list I need your email and we got a lot of people responding to that. So moving into our next semester, I already have 20 or 30 leads ready to go of people who are motivated because they want to be on the list.
I think it creates a little bit of a VIP experience, right, so it’s like “Man, I can’t just have this whenever I wanted.” This is like “I want to be part of this club. I want to be part of this. This seems really cool.” It gives you a little bit more of like “Oh, I want to be a part of that.” Whereas if it’s like you can sign up whenever you want, come and go as you want, it’s just kind of “Yeah, I’ll need to check that out later,” and then people never check it out. So far it’s still an experiment in process but people are responding and they want to know when we’re open again. I’ll keep you posted.
Andrea: Yeah. We’ll check in again in a year and see what you learned from that. You talked a little bit about systems. You said you use Teacher Zone. What else are you using to keep your admin task streamlined?
Chris: Yeah. So TeacherZone is a godsend then because I was doing everything on spreadsheets. I can’t imagine doing that without something like a TeacherZone. I know there are other software like that out there but TeacherZone has been really helpful. It helps organize the schedules and all the teachers and people can communicate through it and people can pay through it. TeacherZone is our hub. People enter their payment method. That’s where we do all our billing. We process all their payroll through there and we do all our scheduling through there and students can communicate with their teacher through there. That’s really, really our main hub.
The other things we use, I mean, I use Drip for email marketing, which I love, especially we do ecommerce which we don’t do a lot of ecommerce right now like having an online store or something but we’re looking at doing that in 2021. Drip is really, really good for ecommerce. So Drip for the email stuff. We use Squarespace for our sites. I think Squarespace is awesome because I’ve learned some basic coding stuff but I’m not a coder, but Squarespace gives you the tools to make it look really professional. You can really customize it a lot more than you can with a lot of builders. It makes it really look good but it’s simple to use. There’s a little bit of a learning curve. You can update your website on your own instead of going to a guy that will deal with it when he gets to it. That’s been really helpful and then Facebook ads manager, Google my Business and I just use Excel spreadsheet for everything else. So finances and stuff, I just do my stuff through spreadsheets.
Andrea: I know you pulled that report earlier. What are some of the key metrics that you’re tracking?
Chris: I love metrics man. I love analyzing the data. That’s my favorite part. Some of the key metrics is it gets a little out of control. It makes you try and simplify a little bit because it gets a little crazy, so just some key things. I do a revenue report every month. It’s just kind of like a piano kind of thing but I just want to see what’s coming in. I’m kind of looking at it like our payroll percentage so like how much is staying in the company and how much is going out towards payroll because I think when I started almost all the money has gone towards payroll. We didn’t have much left for marketing and building profit and stuff like that. I really watch the revenue, the payroll and we track our website visits, so how many visitors we have, specifically to certain pages like our enrollment page. I want to see if we’re getting traffic to that. We track our social media. I just want to see if it’s growing over time or falling. Building an email list is really important to me so just kind of tracking our total subscribers but also our monthly cost or our per result cost on Facebook ads. I’m tracking that and trying to keep that under a dollar. It ebbs and flows. Student retention is the big one.
I think some of the key things I look at too is like I like to know the numbers as far as revenue so like what is our gross profit per student, what is our net profit per student, what is our expense per student. That sets me up to know like “Okay. What can I afford to pay per student for ads?” So knowing what I’m making from a student lets me know what I can spend to get a new student. Those are kind of the key when it comes to revenue. I do lead cost and I also do student cost but you can look at it either way how much am I paying per lead? How much am I paying per new student? And by using those two numbers I can see how much I can pay for ads to get a new student. That helps me know what my marketing cost will be. I think you know what I mean.
Andrea: Yeah. And retention plays a part in that too because if you know your average student is here for 6 months versus 18 months, then you can spend a lot more to get that student and maintain them too if they’re going to be around for 18 months or three years or something like that, so yeah.
Andrea: It sounds like you got a lot of numbers running around in your head.
Chris: Each one is kind of helpful in a different place. The only thing I started keeping track of is top search key words and also we started surveying our students when they do quit why they quit. That has been helpful to know why students are quitting and then also, popular blog content so we keep track of that stuff as well.
Andrea: Okay. Cool. What are some of your goals over the next year?
Chris: Yeah. So now that we’re in the semester system that was a big overhaul, just kind of getting to that. Survival was the goal there which we survived. Now the goal is to build. Like I said, we lost a lot of students and we’re at about 32 students right now and so our goal is to get to 60 in our next semester and then we want to get to 100 by our following semester. Our ultimate goal right now is to get to 100 students by the end of 2021, just to simplify it into one number. You know there’s a lot of other things that go into that but improving our student retention is a big focus like really focusing on our students, taking care of our students. I really want to feature them more, brag about them more, show their success more and we’re going to start doing more like a student of the month kind of things. We’re looking at some of that kind of stuff to really make it more real for them but we want to improve our student retention and build to 100 students.
Andrea: Awesome. Is there a book that has had a strong influence on you as a business owner?
Chris: Yeah. There have been a lot of great ones. Honestly, a lot of the ones that everyone talks about “Think and Grow Rich” is awesome. Essentialism was a really good book that taught me how to say no to things so it’s learning how to say no to good so you could say yes to great. It’s kind of like the tag line. One that has really helped me a lot, specifically with this business, is called Profit First. It’s just basically how to do your accounting. This was totally life-changing for me because I do my personal finances this way first but the promise of the book is that you put away your profit first instead of what’s left over at the end of the month, that’s your profit. So you designate, “I want to have 5% profit so I need to make everything else work so that I could put 5% profit away into a separate account. So that has really helped me.
I’ve had a few businesses over the years and they’ve all kind of struggled to stay in the black. Honestly, this is the first business I’ve had that has been consistently in the black and revenue growing and a lot of that I account to that book and that system of accounting. Basically, you got separate accounts that you allocate funds into. So instead of just having one checking account and then I don’t understand why there is no money at the end of the month, everything is in a separate account so I know this is what I have for a budget this month and then sticking to the budget and watching the numbers too. You got to have the behavior as well. But, by doing that, I’ve watched our profit grow. We have prudent reserves that are growing. We have money from marketing. All our accounts are growing. That book is a big part of that. And so then I took that to my personal finances and I was like let’s do the same thing here and it has helped me in my personal finances as well. It’s really good.
Andrea: We had another guest on the show, Joseph Rocha, who also really spoke highly of that book and I’ll link to that in the show notes so you can listen to that episode too because he had a lot of positive things to say about it.
Chris: Yeah, I want to check that out.
Andrea: Alright. And where can listeners get in touch with you and follow along this STL Piano Lessons?
Chris: Yeah. So the best place is just to go to STLpianolessons.com and that’s the hub for everything we have going on and if you’re on Facebook or Instagram we’re STLPianoLessons on those as well. We just do Facebook and Instagram. We don’t really do a lot of the other stuff right now, but really the website is the place to go. All the information are there and you can get a hold of us if you want some more information that’s all there at the website.
Andrea: Alright Chris. Thanks so much.
Chris: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It’s really fun talking to you and thanks for what you do for helping people like me when I was trying to figure it out. It’s hard to know what to do. A lot of musicians aren’t necessarily business people so that’s really awesome that you’re providing these services for them so thanks for what you’re doing.
Andrea: Thank you.
[00:46:35] [End of interview]
From our conversation, I noticed that Chris is really good at troubleshooting. He’s good at pinpointing the problem or bottleneck in his studio and then implementing strategies to target that specific problem, whether that’s with retention or studio finances.
As he shared, often this has meant making hard decisions, some of which cost his studio students in the short-run, but all are supporting the long-term viability of his business.
Chris is really good at making these changes quickly, too, rather than avoiding them for years!
I think his attentiveness to his numbers helps Chris notice when his business might be veering into dangerous territory.
BY COMPARING the actual numbers to his projected numbers, Chris can see right away when things are deviating and he won’t make his targets. A teacher who is only casually observing their financial or retention data might take years to notice the same problem.
Numbers have a way of revealing realities that we don’t always want to face and it’s why I make such a big deal about putting together a financial plan for a studio, ESPECIALLY before making big investments in equipment or studio space or before bringing on other teachers.
I also noticed that Chris has really worked to clarify what his school is all about and how he communicates that to students. Did you notice how unsurprised he was by my question about what he talks about in that initial phone conversation with prospective students? He had the talking points for that conversation down.
I loved the way he anticipated the common objections prospective students might have and he addressed them head on when he said “we’re not the cheapest place in town, but this is the value we offer.”
As a side note
I imagine those one-on-one conversations Chris had with students when he made changes to his school helped him hone his sales pitch, even if they were hard conversations to have.
When introducing changes, it may be tempting to just fire off an email and hope for the best, but these one-on-one conversations with students and parents are soooo valuable. When we’re talking face-to-face or over the phone we get to see and hear people’s gut responses.
If we’re paying attention, we can tell what words they bristle at and what phrases set them at ease. We can adjust our approach on the fly and keep adjusting until we’ve mastered the delivery of the message.
I use the insights from these conversations to inform all my other messaging, from phone scripts, to email sequences, to website content. They may not be comfortable conversations, but there is a lot to learn in them.
Thanks again, Chris, for your openness and letting us see behind the scenes in your studio. I look forward to getting an update on what you learn from the changes you’ve implemented this year.
Speaking of learning, the Business Building course I ran last summer will be back in the new year! If you want to join the next live cohort, check it out at musicstudiostartup.com/courses
That’s all for today. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week.