Transcript 108 – Chris Swan on Selling a Studio and Starting Over
Transcript: 108 – Chris Swan on Selling a Studio and Starting Over
Transcript for 108 – Chris Swan on Selling a Studio and Starting Over
[00:00:00] Andrea: Hey, it’s Andrea with Music Studio Startup, the podcast about the business of teaching music. Learn from the startup stories of music teachers who are doing incredible things with their studios. Be inspired by creating musicians who are branching out and thriving as entrepreneurs. Be empowered by the insights of experts who will help you grow your own studio.
Let’s get started.
Today I have the pleasure of welcoming back Chris Swan, a guest who was on the podcast back in episode 066. In that episode, we talked about Chris’s studio, STL Piano Lessons, and all the changes he made in his first years in business to get his studio where he wanted it to be. Chris was super transparent about the highs and lows he had experienced as a business owner, and he was really good at articulating the challenges he was facing and how he was iterating along the way to address those challenges.
It was a great conversation and if you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend you do. When I heard that Chris has sold his business in St. Louis, moved to New York City, and started a new studio, I knew I wanted to talk to him again to hear about this new chapter. Here’s my conversation with Chris.
Hi Chris. Welcome back to the podcast. Thank you so much for being here again today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you’re up to?[00:01:30] Chris Swan: My name’s Chris Swan. I am a musician and music teacher. I recently moved to New York City from St. Louis. I guess maybe a year and a half ago or so. I run a uh, music school called My NYC Music Lessons, where I teach piano and voice as well as rapping and beat production and stuff like that. [00:01:48] Andrea: And longtime listeners might remember you. It was episode 066 was when you were on the podcast last, and we talked about your business then, which was STLpianolessons.com. And I enjoy that interview so much because I remember first you were really honest and transparent about some of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them and just iterated in your business.
And you took us through some of the shifts that you made and yeah, it was a really great interview. So now you’ve had another big change. You’re not in St. Louis anymore. Can you talk about what led you to move and how you ended up in New York?[00:02:22] Chris Swan: Yeah, it’s been a crazy couple years, just like it has been for everybody on the planet really.
So yeah, I, you know, I’ve always wanted to live in New York City. I grew up in Michigan actually, and then I moved to St. Louis when I was 18 to go to college. And then I lived there for 25 years-ish or whatever. I love St. Louis. I still love St. Louis. You know, it was a great experience there and did a lot of really fun things. Met a lot of great people, but I’ve always had this kind of desire to live in New York City and my band in around 2000, you know, this was the college band I had back in the day that we toured the country and stuff for a while called LP Outsiders. We, um, considered moving in New York. We were going to do it.
We bought the books cause this was before the internet, you know, so yeah. I mean the internet was out there, but it wasn’t like as prevalent as it is now. So we had actually physical books like How to Move to New York City and stuff, you know. So we were studying and we were like, we were going to do it and I was really excited about it because we had come out here to play a few times.
We’re like, look, if we’re going to go forward in music, let’s go to where it’s at. Let’s go to New York. But we ended up kind of bailing on it just for different reasons. Mainly worried we wouldn’t be able to afford living here and stuff. Which, you know, it’s a, it is a legit concern, but we kind of gave up in the dream and we just hung out in St. Louis and we toured and all good. But ever since then, I’ve just kind of regretted it. Like I’ve always wanted to live here. So, fast forward 20 years. I was just kind of in a transitional period in my life where I was kind of going through a thing where I wanted to kind of scale down my life and sell things and get rid of things, and watching a lot of minimalist podcasts and stuff like that.
And it also led me to like, I kind of wanted to make some changes in my music career. So I was running a music school, but I wanted to pursue some other things in my own music, creative endeavors. And so I consider moving to Nashville for a minute. Cause I have a lot of friends there and it’s close to St. Louis and I’m like, oh, I could do that. But then I’m like, well look, if you’re going to move, don’t go small. Like do the big, what would be the move? Like if you’re going to do it, let’s just do it. And I’m like, New York City, like that’s where I want to be. That’s where everything I love happens is in New York. You know, every time I’d come here I just would love it and I wouldn’t want to leave.
Jazz, Broadway, opera, classic, whatever you’re into, like, you know, we all know New York City, it’s all here. So I’m like, you know what, I’m just going to, I, I’m going to look into this. And so, trying to make a long story short, but I just started researching it. Uh, of course everyone was saying, it’s too expensive, you not going to be able to afford it.
And I’m like, I know that is a concern of mine too. But I started doing the research and realizing it was very possible. And at the time, so this was during Covid shutdown, so I had lost all my gigs. I still had my teaching business, but I was doing like Shipt, like delivering groceries and stuff to kind of help pay the bills and stuff. Which was a fun job during Covid actually. I really enjoyed it, but so I didn’t have like a set career or job waiting for me in New York, I had a lot of financial things going on that were stressful. It was in the middle of a pandemic, but I just decided I was going to do it anyway. So I made up my mind and three months later I got on a plane and I flew to New York City.
I actually never even came here to find an apartment first because of the covid restrictions. Then you, you added quarantine for 14 days and stuff. So it’s not even worth, I’m not going to spend all this money to go. So I just did it all online. I found an apartment, found a realtor. Looked at a place I’m like, looks great.
She FaceTimed me and everything. And then, uh, I got on a plane and I flew here. I’m like, all right, we’re just going. I had like one friend. I knew one person here. That’s it. I didn’t know anybody else. And once I moved here, he moved like a couple weeks later. So I literally didn’t really know anybody, but it was just a dream of mine to live here.
And I decided to just get on a plane and do it. And the great thing about the Covid thing, obviously there’s not a lot of great things about it. You know, COVID wasn’t fun, but I’m just saying that one of the benefits was the apartments in New York were super cheap because everybody had left the city.
So it was actually a good time to move to New York because everything was still closed down. So I got in my first year here, was super, super affordable for New York.[00:06:16] Andrea: Okay. So, okay, so what month was it? [00:06:17] Chris Swan: So that was February of 2021. So it was just almost a year into it, basically. Yeah. [00:06:23] Andrea: Wow. What a story. [00:06:24] Chris Swan: It was nutty [00:06:26] Andrea: Okay. So you had been teaching online in St. Louis previously. Did any of those students follow you? What happened to your studio? [00:06:33] Chris Swan: Yeah, so good question. There’s a lot that went into that. So with the move, I sold everything I owned. I sold my house, I sold my car, I sold all my belongings not all my belongings, but a lot of my stuff.
But I also sold my business. So since my business was called STL Piano Lessons, I was like, that’s going to be weird if I’m a New York running STL Piano Lessons . I thought about that, but I’m like, ah, I think this might be time to just start over. So I did a bunch of business valuation work and decided I was going to sell the business.
So I had a little project there while I was packing and moving and selling things, I had to learn how to value my business, and I did the best I could. I’m sure I missed a lot, but I read some stuff and talked to some smart people. So I sold STL Piano Lessons. My agreement with them was I would continue to teach a couple of those students online, but I didn’t run the school anymore, so it was weird. I sold it and then I kind of worked for my school as just a teacher, you know? Cause I had teachers at that point too. But anyway, I, so I was working for the same company, but I had sold it. So I had, I think literally two when I moved to New York who were still online students.[00:07:40] Andrea: Okay. talk about the valuation process. What did you learn in that? [00:07:44] Chris Swan: I learned a whole lot. And then I forgot 90% of it after I did it . [00:07:48] Andrea: Well, there’s not a lot of precedent for selling music studios, and I think that’s unfortunate. Because you do build a lot of value when you’re creating them. So yeah. [00:07:56] Chris Swan: Yeah. I think the biggest thing I learned is that, that the, it’s really subjective, you know? I didn’t have inventory. I didn’t have like things that usually put real monetary value on a business. Mostly what I had was I, what is called Goodwill or something like that? Where it’s like, it’s my reputation, it’s my website, it’s the domain.
You know, I had a lot of assets like that. I had a huge database of former leads, current leads. I keep all that stuff. So I had a database of leads. I had current students, I had current teachers. So I had a business model that was already working. I did have the business model and we did have revenue and we were profitable.
So for sure the numbers were good, but a lot of it at the end of the day was just the question we had a lot was like, are those people there because of me? And if I leave, are all the students going to leave? How do you like put that into paper of how that’s going to work? I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re going to stay, if they’re going to go. I think they’re going to stay, but I can’t promise you anything.
You know? So, I mean, there was a lot of that. So I think I learned a lot that it’s really about, it’s kind of subjective, and really I based my value on numbers, but at the end of the day, you can really set it whatever you want. It’s just what I say it’s worth, and you say it’s worth, and then we’re going to have a conversation and see if we can meet in the middle, you know?
Really, you could say it’s worth $10 million, and they’re like, I think it’s worth $10. All right, well let’s talk about it. And you know what I mean? And I think that’s really what it came down to. So after all the research I did and stuff, which I’m glad I did, it really just came down to a conversation, look, this is what I have to offer you. This is what I think it. , what do you think? It’s worse. And can we find something that we both can agree on?[00:09:27] Andrea: Mm-hmm. How about finding a buyer? How did you go about that? [00:09:30] Chris Swan: Yeah, so I had a few different buyers and just because confidentiality, I guess I probably shouldn’t say who they are, but a few were my teachers that I had. I was working with some friends and I can tell you who I ended up selling it to because they own it now. But another friend of mine ran another school. I don’t know if you’ve had her on the podcast or not, but Shock City School. Have you ever talked to Jen? [00:09:49] Andrea: Not yet, not yet. I’ve met her, but not, yeah. [00:09:51] Chris Swan: So Jen from Shock City is a friend of mine and showed interest. So yeah, it was a few other parties, but then I ended up selling it to Shock City and then they kind of acquired it into their already existing umbrella of music schools. [00:10:06] Andrea: Mm-hmm. So basically working your personal network, your teacher network for people who might be interested. [00:10:10] Chris Swan: Yeah, that part happened pretty quick. I didn’t really have to work too hard at that. I probably honestly, probably could have tried harder. Like I probably could have hired somebody to really help. You know, they have coaches that can help you really value your business and find buyers, whatever those people are called, scouts or, I forget what there’s a word for it, but [00:10:25] Andrea: Brokers. [00:10:26] Chris Swan: Yeah, brokers. That’s it. Brokers, thank you. I probably could have done that, but I, I was leaving St. Louis in like weeks. Like I, I had three months and I was moving. I already had a lease. Like, I’m like, I’m out, so I just need to find somebody. And I really wanted to get it done before I left. I could have done it from New York, but I really wanted to make it happen. I just went to some kind of people that were around me that showed interest and that ended up working out. So I’m thankful that I didn’t have to like look much further than that. But if I needed to, I would’ve, but yeah. [00:10:55] Andrea: Well that’s, that’s neat. Thanks for like pulling back the curtain a little bit on that because like I said, there isn’t a lot of precedent and it’s really helpful to just have some more data points on how people approach that challenge.
Okay, so now you’re in New York and you’re starting over again and. Maybe talk about, I mean, there’s where your studio left off in St. Louis as you were running it. Where did you start from in New York? What were your first steps? Were you recreating what you had in St. Louis and then how did you move from there? That’s like a million questions, but yeah. .[00:11:24] Chris Swan: No, it’s good. Those are good questions. Yeah, it was crazy, right? So that was quite an adventure. I moved to New York. I don’t know anybody here. This is like one of the biggest music towns in the world. Like how does anybody make a career in music here? Right?
There’s so many things I’ve learned through this, but one of them was, yes, it’s a saturated market, but that doesn’t matter. You just have to find your people. No matter where you are, there are people who want to do what you are doing. And I think that goes for anything, not just music. But one good thing about being in a saturated market is that means there’s lots of people that want what you have, right?
So there is a lot of market, but you just have to, with branding and positioning, you have to find your people. So when I got here, I was super intimidated. I’m in New York City. Everybody’s a monster musician, and there’s a million, you know, I started searching piano teacher. I mean, it’s just insane saturated.
Everybody’s a music teacher, everyone’s a piano teacher, you know? So honestly, when I got here, I took a little bit of a break. I look, I just sold my business. I’m getting settled in New York. I got my couple of students and I got a few more with Shock City. So like I’m just going to kind of do that for a while.
And I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to teach again or start another business again or not. I kind of needed a break from it cause I was kind of burn on it a little bit and just not sure what I want to do next. So when I got here, I got a job as a plumber, like plumbing assistant, which I don’t, you don’t know this about me, but I am not a handy person at all.
But it was just a friend of mine. I needed work he hired me. I learned a lot. It was really, it was like one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. Because I don’t know, I don’t even know if the tools are called. Like I just, I like felt so stupid every day. But I learned a lot about life and plumbing. Like it was really a good experience.
But I was just doing some different things I was doing Shipt when I got here, just delivering groceries, you know. I was just kind of trying to get settled and figure out what I wanted to do. So I had the dust sell that. Actually what happened with my plumbing job is I got an injury with my wrist and as a piano player that was very concerning. I mean, I actually had to wear a brace and shut it. I couldn’t do anything for like three months. So when that happened, I took that as a sign and a blessing in disguise that I’m going to go back to pursuing my own business again. And I had already started it at that point, but I just hadn’t really put a lot of work into it. When then I didn’t have a job and I needed to make money, I was all in, all right, we’re doing this, My NYC Music Lessons. I had goals on the wall, like, I need 25 students. I figured out what I need to survive. Like let’s go, let’s do this. And then I really went all in. But what I did to start was just, I did the same thing I did in STL.
I started with a domain. I wanted a very SEO friendly name and I wanted to make sure I could get the domain. So the first thing I did, and this is the same thing I did in St. Louis, is I just started doing keyword research to see what the most popular search terms are. And in STL, STL piano lessons was like one of the top and I was like, dude, I got it.
I was, you know, when I got that U R L in St. Louis, I couldn’t believe it. It was, and it really worked for us. Like we got a lot of traffic and a lot of students just cause of the domain. So I want to do the same thing here, but of all the things, you know, NYC piano lessons taken, NYC Music School taken. The big ones are already taken.
So I had to do some research around that. But then I finally landed on My NYC Music Lessons and I wanted to do music instead of piano because I wanted to branch out into other things. I wanted to do voice and beat production, and I also do artist coaching and stuff like that. So I wanted something that gave me a little bit wider scope.
I just, you know, whittled it down to my NYC music lessons, purchased the domain, and then went to work, made the logo, made the website, you know how it goes, do all the things and got that all set up. And then I started building from there.[00:15:09] Andrea: And do you do any like content marketing or are you doing anything to draw people to your website aside from just having really good high ranking keywords? [00:15:17] Chris Swan: So that’s a big challenge here. It’s a lot harder here than was in St. Louis. Not that there isn’t a lot of competition in St. Louis, because there is, but there’s like 20 times, I don’t know, a hundred times that in New York. Everybody’s a musician in New York. You know what I mean? So I am still working on SEO and stuff to rank.
I still don’t rank super well. I’ve done some keyword things to help that, but yes, I also did content marketing. So when I started it, I did a lot of blog posting and video and stuff like that to try to get some credibility around my site. I worked with some SEO specialists to do some coaching, so I knew kind of some other things I could do to help with that.
And so yeah, I did a lot of work around that, but I’ll be honest with you, I had to kind of go to what was working the best and focus on that. An SEO was such a big, overwhelming game here that I kind of got it set up, did some keywords, set my titles meta descriptions okay, that’s good enough. But this is where I’m actually getting the leads over here, so I need to focus on that for a while.
So just to be honest with you, with seo, there’s a lot more I could do with that. My website needs a little bit of cleaning up. I mean, it’s good, but it could be simplified. It could be, there’s some things I want to do, right? Like we all do. But it’s just, it could, it could, I could do some SEO work, I could do more content.
Right now I’m focusing more on kind of things that are bringing in the leads, you know, daily. So yeah, right now that’s a little bit on hold, like, okay, I got that set up. When I have time, I do a little bit as I can, you know, little bit here, a little bit there to kind of tweak it as I can, as I go along.[00:16:47] Andrea: And what are the things that are bringing in the leads right now? [00:16:50] Chris Swan: So yeah, the things that I noticed that were working, since Google was such kind of, I, I’ve used more of like a long game. Like just be there. Be consistent. Post consistent. It’s all, it’s starting to work already. Like I’ve been pretty active for about a year. It’s only been about a year and I’m already starting. I’m getting some traffic on my website now from it. I mean, I didn’t get anything at first, and now it’s a little bit. I’m getting views on my posts, on Google My Business Well, which isn’t really a thing anymore, but whatever they call it now, Google search, Google Maps.
But that’s starting to happen, so Cool. It’s kind of a long game letting that just kind of grow. But I needed to eat right and pay the bills, so I went right to what has been working quicker. Number one was Thumbtack. So Thumbtack worked for me in STL, and it works great here in New York. The thing about New York is when I got here, I started with piano lessons and Thumbtack was my number one lead. Now, if you’ve ever used Thumbtack before, you know it takes a little bit of work to get it working for you because there’s algorithms involved, like everything. So when I started Thumbtack, I wasn’t even showing up in search. Like I was just like, because there’s a million piano teachers in this town and they’re all amazing and you know, all these reviews and I didn’t have anything cause I sold my Thumbtack as part of my STL package. I sold that. So this is a totally new profile. So no reputation, no goodwill, none, none of that’s coming with me. I’m starting over from scratch in a new town. I don’t know anybody. New profiles, new website, everything’s new, right?
So, yeah, I, I gave all that away when I sold the business. So I had to start all over from scratch. So number one was Thumbtack. I couldn’t rank at, so I had to get on the phone. Now, one really great thing about Thumbtack is they have customer service. They’ll jump on a call, they will help you. And so the Thumbtack is like, let’s do a call. Here’s some resources. So I had to do a little work. I was on a call. They told me, do this, do this, do this, do this. Make your profile picture better, get some reviews. You can do this to your profile, this to your profile, use pictures, videos, all this stuff. They told me all this stuff and I’m like, that’s awesome.
I wrote it all down. I made a list and I just started doing each one, one at a time. And I started updating my profile and doing everything they told me to do, and then I just played the game. The other thing you have to do is you have to be real quick on your responses. So I just made Thumbtack my number one priority.
When I got a lead, I made sure I was, I got right back to them to kind of build my ranking in the algorithm. So over time, it didn’t take super long, but it took probably maybe a month or so. I got to platinum status, which is their top level. Then I was just getting leads all the time, more than I can handle, you know what I mean?
But I don’t want it to sound like, oh, I’m just killing it, dawg. You know? Like, no, it was really hard at first. The first month or two was really frustrating. I mean, I couldn’t get anybody to contact me or get back to me. And it took some time, but with reviews and then once you get some hires on your account, you start to like, it starts to snowball.
But I also went to every webinar that day. I just did one today. I go to all their marketing webinars. I get on the phone when I have questions, I ask them what to do and then I do what they tell me to do. So you really have to work Thumbtack for it to work for you. It won’t just happen on its own.[00:19:49] Andrea: Do you feel like Thumbtack was different in St. Louis because the markets are different, or was it just because of the saturation in New York? [00:19:58] Chris Swan: Yes and yes. Yes. Which is a very good leading question because that’s exactly what I was going to say next. So next, yeah, good work. So yeah, so here’s what happened is I started with piano lessons. That’s a really tough nut to crack. And I couldn’t quite get enough leads that I wanted. Through all that, I started researching teachers and I realized there’s a, a bigger opportunity for voice teachers here. For singing lessons and voice coaches. I mean, it’s New York City, right? Everybody wants to be on Broadway or whatever.
And so I started realizing, oh, if I branch out into some other things, cause I’m also a singer, so if I could teach voice as well, I could double up. because yes. So one, it’s super saturated here. So it’s super competitive here. I mean, I talked to the guy on Thumbtack and I’m like, I’m not even ranking.
He’s like, oh yeah, you’re in New York City. Why would you like, he was like, you wouldn’t rank there. Why would you, you know, like you, I’m like, well, what do I do? Like he like, well, here’s what you do. But to him, he was just like, yeah, you’re a piano teacher in New York City. Yeah, dude, you’re not going to rank right away.
But to me, I was like, well, I’m on there. I should be showing up. Right? But, and in St. Louis, I think you probably could, but in New York, it’s just another game. A lot more competition. Just more like, I don’t know, I don’t want, I don’t know how to say it like a little more next level. Not that there’s great teachers, there’s great music scene in St. Louis. I’m not saying because I don’t want to be one of those New Yorkers. It’s like, oh yeah, nothing else matters in the world. Cause that’s very much a thing here.[00:21:20] Andrea: My sense is there’s just like a lot more at every level. [00:21:22] Chris Swan: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, you know St. Louis, St. Louis has a great music scene. There’s amazing musicians in St. Louis. Great music teachers, great music schools, it’s awesome. But you can probably name them on one or two hands, right? Like the big ones. Right? Yeah. So in New York, it’s like you would need a hundred hands. You know what I mean? So it’s just that. It’s more saturated. More competition and the very best at the very best. And it has that reputation here. So everybody’s coming to New York to study music with the very best. It just adds this whole other level of competition. So when I realized that, I realized, well, I need to diversify a little bit. And I started realizing that if I started teaching voice, I could get more students.
So I started branching off into voice and piano and really working the Thumbtack algorithms hard. and then I started to get trickling in a few students. Another thing that helped me early on, I found a little bit of a niche with the rap thing teaching because I’m also a hip hop artist and I make beats and stuff.
So I started teaching rap. I hate even saying it like that, like teaching rap to sound so square, but whatever. Teaching hip hop, you know how to make rhymes, however you want to say that, and how to make beats. And that was a little bit of a niche because there’s a huge hip hop scene here and everybody’s a rapper and everybody wants to be a rap star, you know. But there’s not a lot of people teaching it. Even the research I found you got these like, kind of like, I mean, no offense, but you know, middle-aged white ladies like teaching rap, you know, and hey, I’m a middle-aged white dude, so you know, maybe I don’t know much more, but you could just tell that they’re just voice teachers trying to get in on the market.
You know, where I like actually have experience in it, like I have, you know, done them whole life. They can beats and stuff like that. Teach their own. I mean, it all comes from a musical place and a good voice teacher can teach a rap student a lot of things. I’m not saying they can’t, but it’s just, it’s kind of funny. You could kind of tell like everyone’s just trying to get in on that market. But there weren’t a lot of people doing it. So I’m like, this is something I have legitimate experience in. So that helped me early on too, was starting to get some students in that, cause I was a little bit of a niche. So when I started doing that and then I started getting some singing students, then I started getting piano students as the algorithm starting to work for me and I was able to build.[00:23:29] Andrea: So on your profile, were you always like listing all these different options like piano, voice, hip hop, rap? Like were you listing all those things or did you like craft your profile and kind of highlight one aspect more than others at different times? Or how did you curate that? [00:23:47] Chris Swan: Yeah, it’s a great question because the last thing you want to do is just, I teach everything because then you teach nothing, right?
Nobody will find you. And that’s I think another thing that works so good for STL Piano Lessons was like we just do piano. And that’s kind of what I wanted to do here, except that it was just so saturated I couldn’t get any attention as a piano teacher. So I was kind of forced to kind of expand. But I did kind of have that in mind that I, that’s why it was music lessons, not piano lessons. Because I did want to branch into other instruments and hire other teachers. Maybe eventually. But even if it’s called music lessons, you need to like reach one audience, and I started with piano and it was just really tough.
I mean, the greatest piano players in the world are here and I just moved here, so who am I? You know, until I can kind of build up the reputation. So I had, it kind of went to piano and voice. Those are like my two. I split. I split the marketing and on my profile it had both on there, which I know is not really necessarily great marketing because it can get a little muddy, but I had to, because I couldn’t get enough piano students. I found that like it didn’t matter so much what my website said as how I talked to people. You know what I mean? So what I started to have to get good at was like understanding what people really wanted. You know, I offered piano lessons and singing lessons.
Those were the two big ones on Thumbtack. Um, I might have some other ones, but you know, rap and stuff like that. But those were the two that got the most leads. But then as I started talking to people, especially singing students, what they really want. If you’re in New York and you’re taking singing lessons, that’s because you want to be an artist.
You want to be a recording artist. You want to build a career as an artist. That was 99% of the people I was getting. So I realized, oh, I can teach you how to sing, but I can also coach you in how to build a career in music because I’ve been doing that my whole life and I’ve run my own label and you know, I have a lot of experience.
So I started realizing that’s kind of my niche and that’s what a lot of my students are now. Like not all of ’em, but a lot of ’em are like they want to learn how to sing, but they also want to learn how to write songs and how to get gigs and how to record maybe, or how to put music out into the world and that how to build a career around music.
By starting with singing, I started singing that singing’s just how they’re getting in the door really. They want this whole other thing, and I can help them with all of that. Right now, all that to say, right now my focus is piano and singing. And singing usually kind of turns into a full artist coaching kind of thing a lot of times.[00:26:05] Andrea: Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like your students in New York are mostly young professionals. Is that accurate? Is that different from St. Louis? [00:26:16] Chris Swan: It’s a mix, and we’ve talked about this before, right? The whole avatar question, and I feel like that’s, I feel, just to be super honest, I feel like I’m always missing the mark. Like I do the research. I have an avatar. I have the document where it’s all laid out, but it never, always lines up perfectly like that. You know what I mean? And so I end up having like two or three different ones. So what it is now, yeah, a lot of them are like, and this was same in STL. it was 30 something, have a corporate job, took lessons when they were a kid and quit and always regretted it and now want to play again as a hobby.
That was my number one demographic in St. Louis and it still is here. That’s probably the majority of my students. But then I would say there’s another segment where that might be true, but then they also really want to pursue music as a career. But then I also have kids, so I do have probably six or seven or eight kids.
So that’s a different avatar, right? That’s really the mom or the dad who are bringing them in. So I still have kid students because kid students are really good for retention and kids are, they’re fun and it’s fun to like teach them music, but it’s definitely different than adults. Those are very two different lessons.
And I know a lot of people specialize in one or the other, but I do, I do a little bit of both, so I could tell you what my avatar is, but really it, it’s just kind like what comes back. We have a conversation if it’s a good fit and they want to sign up, let’s do it, you know?
I have a lot of different kind of students that way.[00:27:36] Andrea: Sounds like it. Alright. How about pricing? How did you address that question? Because again, I’m sure there’s the, a huge spread. How did you get started? [00:27:45] Chris Swan: Yeah, that was a monster. Man, that, that was hard. That was one of the hard things when I really decided to go into it. And probably one of the things that made me kind of avoid it for a while. Becauseit was such a hard thing to figure out. But once I finally did the research and like, all right, if you’re going to do this, I got to figure this out. I just went to places like Thumbtack, takelessons.com. So another place I could allow of students is takelessons.com, which there’s definitely pros and cons about that platform, but for the most part they’re, they’re a good platform. It’s just hard because you can’t take ’em off the platform. So you got to keep ’em on there, which just creates billing issues and stuff down the road. But I take it very seriously. Like if you found me on take lessons, you stay on take lessons. I don’t take people off the platform.
I want to respect that agreement. Cause I know they’re trying to build a business and you can’t just take their students. And I really appreciate the students they’ve sent me. So I, I stick to the policy and keep people on there. But it, it can be a little tricky sometimes. But anyway, it’s been good.
So Thumbtack. Take lessons. Those are probably my two biggest sources, then referrals as things got going. But I had to start researching on Thumbtack and take lessons and, and just Google what are people charging? And it’s insane. So in New York you can get piano lessons for $30, for 30 minutes, probably 50 is about the lowest it goes. 45, 50. Or there’s a guy, I think there’s people who charge like $500 an hour. There’s one guy on Take lessons. I know he is around 250 or Thumbtack, or he’s one of those, um, he’s around 250 an hour and he has a lot of students and there’s a lot of people around there that’s not like, whoa, this one guy.
So coming from St. Louis, you know, it was like, it’s definitely a different market. People in New York make a little bit more, are willing to spend a little bit more, the cost of living is just higher, so they understand that. Yeah. So I had to figure that out. Like I want to be fair and not just try to like rip people off or anything either.
But at the same time, I’m in New York, I’m not in St. Louis anymore, so I have to price according to New York prices. And I had to get around what I just said even the whole mindset of like ripping people off, right? Like that’s such a negative money mindset. And that’s not even, I don’t believe that I, you know, I believe you can charge whatever you want to charge and if you’re worth it, people will pay you for that.
And so I think a lot of times pricing is just in our head because we, we don’t want to be an evil money grabber or whatever. But that’s just a lie that we’ve, you know, told ourselves our whole lives. Like, there’s nothing wrong with making money as long as you’re giving value. The value you’re giving somebody is worth more than the money they’re paying you than, than it’s worth what they’re paying you, right? . So I had to get that in my head and understand that in New York there’s people who make a lot of money. There’s a lot of people in St. Louis who make a lot of money. So wherever you are, you just have to know who your audience is and serve them and find what that price point is. So I had to do a lot of work around money mindset stuff, just to get over some of those fears of like, oh, I got to be the cheapest guy in town. And that’s not true. And actually I learned that in St. Louis, if you try to be the cheapest in town that will create problems for you. One, you can never be cheap enough, but also the people who want to nickel and dime you are always the ones who are going to bail after a month.
They’re always the ones that are going to quit. It’s just to happen over and over and over. Cause I tried to do that for a long time. Be the cheapest, you know, most affordable, however you want to say that. It never worked. So when I got to New York, I had to really let go. I had already kind of worked on that in St. Louis, but here especially, I knew I wasn’t going to compete on price. I can’t be I’m the cheapest lesson because that’s not who I want to be. I want to focus on the value and building careers for people and helping them reach their goals. So all that to say, we ran the gamut of, you know, here’s the cheapest, here’s the top.
And I kind of came somewhere in the middle to start with the idea that as I build a reputation here, I will, you know, raise my rates accordingly.[00:31:22] Andrea: Do you think niching down, like especially doing the more artist coaching and kind of career coaching like that puts you in a position to charge a higher rate? [00:31:29] Chris Swan: Yes. absolutely. So people who are in in it for a hobby are probably not wanting to pay as much as someone who’s in it for a career. Cuz people who are in it for a career are in it because they, you know, there’s an investment in themselves. Right. It’s that kind of entrepreneurial mindset too of like, you know, you take the courses because it’s an investment so you can build your business.
Right. And so it’s kind of the same thing with music. I’ve found like people who really want to build a career are, you know, they understand that this is an investment in myself and if I want to work with somebody who really knows what they’re doing, I’m going to have to pay some money for that, it’s worth it. And so I do, you know, you do have some conversations where, oh, I just can’t afford it or whatever, and man, I totally understand it.
Here’s some resources. You know, surely you can, I always try to point somebody to a resource so they can find somebody in their price range because they’re, there’s people out there who will fit that. But I’m just not the right fit for you. You know? That’s all it is. But yeah. So yeah, I think that’s definitely helps. When you niche into more of an artist coaching thing, it does increase your value. I think whatever you do is just about increasing your value. That was something I really worked on when I launched here, was like, I just want to pack so much value that they don’t even question the price, right? I want them to just be like, oh, he offers this and this and this and this, and now I’ll do whatever.
I’ll pay whatever. That’s awesome, right? Like I just really wanted to make sure that was clear. A, it’s just my experience and made that clear, you know, that I have a lot of experience around it and stuff like that. But then how we focus on what you want to learn and make it fun for you. But then also like I video all the lessons and I do, like everybody has their own Google folder and has personal lesson outlines, so there’s a very clear cut plan focus just on you working towards your goals.
You can go back and watch the videos anytime you want. You know, we do recitals, we do stuff like that. That’s all included. So I just did value stacking, right? Like just. . So then when they see the price, they’re like, well, yeah, but I don’t, whatever. I’ll pay whatever. Cause this is awesome . You know what I mean? So that was a big part of it too.[00:33:25] Andrea: Awesome. Have you had to make any tough decisions? [00:33:28] Chris Swan: Yeah, there’s been a few. Some of it was I had to scale down kind of who I was serving. As I got going and I was able to get a roster of students, I had to look at retention, who’s sticking around, who, who do I really want to serve? That kind of stuff, instead of just trying to grab whatever I could. Just to survive. Cause it’s kind of what it was at first. Like, oh, you want to learn how to write polka songs? Sure. I can teach you how to do that. Let’s do that. You know what I mean? And, and I never lied. I never did anything that I can’t do. But just, you know, well, you know, it’s just, that might be challenge, but it’s, so all I to say, like I was just doing like songwriting coaching and I was kind of helping people write songs. I was helping, you know, rappers learn how to rap, how to make beats, doing all these, like just kind of all these things.
But I started realizing songwriting sessions usually they just want you to help you write them a song and then they’re done and they’re gone. You know what I mean? It wasn’t worth the onboarding to have them do two lessons and then bail. Like it was just a lot of resources for somebody who’s just going to quit.
And not that that’s wrong, bad, you know? It’s just not what I do. I get people on a weekly cycle, monthly subscription, and so I don’t do a lot of one-offs. So doing one-offs was just hard for me. So like the songwriting thing, you know, I had a few students kind of wanted me to like write songs for them and, and I would get myself into situations where I’d like, okay, sure.
You know, and then I’d realize like, wait, I can’t write your songs. Like you have to write your songs. I can show you how to write songs. I can do that. I’m happy to do that, but I can’t write them for you. You know, that has to come from you because what I think is cool you might think is stupid. So like that just, and I tried it a couple times and it was just a disconnect.
So I think I had to realize like, I can do like songwriting coaching, but maybe I don’t, I don’t actually do the songwriting. Maybe I need to just focus on piano and voice. So yeah, I had to kind of like funnel it down into like some things that I was, knew I was better at teaching and therefore would be better serving my students even at the point of maybe, you know, letting some money go, you know, letting some students go and having to find some other students.
But I realized there’s always more. Like I will find if you just are very intentional about what you’re looking for, you will find them. And I think I’m learning that. Like how to be more intentional and not just taking whatever comes, but I want students that I know I can help. So I need to, you know, be intentional about that.[00:35:48] Andrea: Well, and I think you talked about, like, I had Lance La Duke on the podcast way, way back, and he talked about the accumulation phase and the curation phase. And the accumulations when you just take anything. You got to pay the bills so you can take anything. But then you get to that place where you have options and you, that’s when you start cutting back. You quit the plumbing job, you stop teaching the students that only stick around a couple weeks and yeah, it’s part of part of starting something new, I think. [00:36:13] Chris Swan: Yeah. It’s all part of it, I guess, right? [00:36:14] Andrea: Have you added any new systems to your arsenal to keep things streamlined? I know you did a lot of that in St. Louis. [00:36:21] Chris Swan: Yeah, we did a lot of that back in St. Louis and I, I like to keep things super, super simple. And that was one thing I really wanted to do with this company or this school because I really overcomplicated things with STL because I just, you know, you just layer. You don’t start complicated, but you just keep layering in systems.
And then it just became like, oh my gosh, I have like this a hundred point checklist I have to do every time somebody signs up for a lesson. You know, like, ah. So when I was doing this, I’m trying to keep it super simple, although I will be honest, it started to get a little complicated again. And so I’m always looking at ways to simplify to buy some of my time back and that kind of thing. But overall, no. I keep it really simple. Like I use like Excel and Microsoft Word and I make a lot of my own spreadsheets. I do all my accounting and stuff with Excel. The QuickBooks is awesome, but I just didn’t want to pay for it right now because I’m just trying to bootstrap and keep it simple and cheap or just inexpensive I should say.
So yeah, I do all my own books. I do it on Excel, it works fine. I use Microsoft Word for all my checklists and systems and stuff. And then just the regular systems y’all use, you know. Squarespace, for my website. I use Google Analytics, but even Squarespace has really good analytics now, so 90% of my analytics, I just get off a Squarespace. So, cause it integrates with Google too if you need to, but yeah, like really?
That’s pretty much it. I use Google Docs, Google folders for my students and Google Docs for lesson assignments. I’ve really made an effort to keep it almost over the top simple because I have a habit of over complicating things and then it’s just a headache every day. So I’m just trying to keep it super simple.[00:37:58] Andrea: And what goals are you working toward over the next year? [00:38:01] Chris Swan: So I’m excited. Right now I’m actually in the middle of, I have this business plan that always changes and I think we always have to learn to be flexible. But one thing I’ve always wanted to do is build kind of an e-commerce brand around the my NYC music lesson thing around music life in New York City and that kind of thing.
Right now what I’m kind of working on is building this e-commerce brand. Which I am just in the ideation phase. So honestly, I don’t even know what all it’s going to include, but like definitely, you know, t-shirts, hoodies, stuff like that. But I probably want to go beyond that into some other products. But it might be courses or, I don’t know exactly.
I’m still working through that. But I definitely want to do some things to like, one, really celebrate music life in New York City and, and that’s for people who don’t live here too. Like for people like me who are in St. Louis, but love New York. Like I want to bring New York to you. Like, and the excitement of the music scene here, you know?
So that’s one thing, but also really helping musicians who just feel the pressure. Especially here in New York, there’s a big pressure to be the best because everybody here is so good. And so just pressure around auditions and gigs and it’s in the air, like it’s palpable here. So I really would love to do something around kind of helping musicians find peace and kind of a really chaotic, super pressure filled industry.
You know what I mean? Uh, I’m not really sure exactly what all that means. I really like the coaching thing. I’ve been doing a lot of artist coaching. I think it might include a little bit more of that, like moving more towards coaching and maybe less one-on-one private lessons. But for now, I mean, I’m happy I have students, I’m building that roster.
I’m also going to college right now, so I’m going back to school and studying music and stuff, and I want to get my, you know, I, I’m fishing my undergrad, but also my master’s and I want to do the doctorate. I want to like do the school thing and really learn and, and I’m loving that, but it also means that caps my time.
So I’m really looking, I have a pretty full roster right now, but I’m looking at ways I can get more out of my time instead of just selling my time per hour or whatever. So. So yeah, the e-commerce business, that’s a big, big goal right now as far as launching that and seeing if we can start pulling in some revenue around that so I can ease my schedule back a little bit.[00:40:08] Andrea: Well, maybe in two years we’ll be talking again about that . [00:40:12] Chris Swan: Yeah, I’d like that. [00:40:13] Andrea: And are there any books or resources that you’ve read since we last talked that have had a strong influence on you as an entrepreneur? [00:40:21] Chris Swan: Yeah, good question. And I, and I knew you were going to ask this, and I was trying to think about what I talked about last time.
I don’t want to say the same book, but there’s a lot of ’em. But, uh, I do a lot around the money mindset thing because that’s definitely a big, that’s a block for me. Like, I will, I will just get to a point where I make enough money until I pay the bills. And I, I always have trouble pushing through. And I know that’s because a lot of the money beliefs I have.
And so I do a lot of work on that, like pushing through that so I can kind of look at some bigger growth. So I don’t know if we talked about this last time, but one of my favorite books is, uh, you’re a Badass at Making Money. And if you ever read that.[00:40:55] Andrea: I don’t think I’ve heard that one. [00:40:58] Chris Swan: Yeah. Jen Centero, she’s wrote, you Are A Badass, was her first book and then she did all these, you know, roll offs from that.
You’re a badass at making money. It’s basically the science of getting rich, just update with, you know, she’s kind of quirky and funny and so she kind of brings it to a more contemporary audience. But I really love stuff like that that challenges you to like, think bigger around money, around business.
Um, so that’s a really good one. If you haven’t read, You’re a Badass at Making Money, that’s a really good one. It’s, but if you want to read the original book, the Science of Getting Rich is always a another one.[00:41:29] Andrea: Okay. That’s really great. Thanks for those recommendations. And where can listeners get in touch with you and follow along with what you’re up to? [00:41:36] Chris Swan: Yeah, the best place is the website because it’s all there. So it’s mynycmusiclessons.com and then all the social links are on there. I’m on Facebook and Instagram under myNYCmusiclessons, so, um, you can find me there. Definitely stop by and say hi. [00:41:51] Andrea: All right, Chris, always a pleasure. Thank you so much. [00:41:54] Chris Swan: Yeah, same here. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. [00:42:02] Andrea: Chris delivers once again. So much information packed into such a short amount of time. If you listen to last week’s episode, you heard me talking to Cheyenne Olson about how she relocated and rebuilt her studio. Now, there are a lot of differences between Chris’s studio and Cheyenne’s Studio, but I did hear one commonality from both of them when it came to marketing their new studios.
That commonality was focus. They didn’t dabble in 20 different marketing strategies. Instead, they chose the one thing that worked best for them in their previous setting and focused on doing that thing really well. For Cheyenne, that was building her audience for early childhood music clubs, and for Chris, it was building his reputation on Thumbtack.
Chris talked about making a list of to-dos for his Thumbtack profile and then just working the list. It may seem obvious to just do what the expert tells you to. But this takes a tremendous amount of discipline and most people just get bored and stop or move on to something else before they can actually see the results of a plan.
So kudos to Chris for following through. And a word of encouragement for anyone trying thumb tech. Every person I’ve talked to who has been successful in Thumbtack has described this phase that Chris described. A phase where they’re being active and doing a lot of work to get leads and reviews and is really slow going for many months, and then at some point it just flips and the leads start coming in more consistently on their own without as much effort. Switching directions. I wanted to talk about business, buying, selling, and valuation. In the last year, I’ve been getting more and more questions from music teachers about buying and selling studios and other businesses.
This makes me really excited. To me the fact that these questions are coming up represents a really important cultural shift in our. There’s value in these entities we build, and it’s awesome to see teachers recognizing that. We got to talk about this at a very high level with Neylan McBaine a few weeks ago and nerd out about some financial metrics.
But today I wanted to highlight what Chris said about valuing the goodwill in his business because that really is what makes a music studio sellable. Goodwill is an accounting term used to describe the value of intangible assets in a business. So things like it’s brand reputation, customer based culture, et cetera, not the tangible assets like pianos and instruments.
The other key question Chris brought up was whether or not that value would actually transfer to a new owner. Will the students stay around? Were they loyal to him, or did that loyalty extend also to the studio? I want to talk about this for a minute from the perspective of a studio buyer. Let’s say you move to a new area and you want to skip the whole startup phase and buy an existing studio. You’re considering two options.
Studio A is a private studio of 35 students that generates about $50,000 a year in revenue. The owner built the studio through word of mouth referrals over the last 10 years and has great retention. Studio B is also private studio of 35 students that generates about the same income. The studio has an established online presence that has been generating three leads per month for the last three years.
The teacher also has an email list of 100 perspective students who have attended studio open houses and events. Additionally, the teacher regularly does lesson swaps and master classes with other teachers in the area. So there’s a culture of flexibility and learning from a variety of teachers. As a potential buyer, which of these sounds like a less risky investment?
For me, I am way more interested in Studio B. There’s a proven culture of flexibility. Students are already used to experiencing different teaching styles, so they’ll probably be more receptive to a new teacher like me. Additionally, there’s an email list and mechanism in place already for generating new leads that will transfer to me when the previous teacher leaves so I can more quickly replace the students who do leave.
With Studio A, I really don’t know how many of those students are going to stick. It’s clear they’re dedicated because of the high retention, but there’s nothing demonstrating that their loyalty would transfer to a new owner. I’d also likely be starting from scratch to generate word of mouth referrals, since the reputation of the previous teacher will leave with her.
I want to be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Studio A. It’s a solid studio that could sustain someone for their entire career, and it doesn’t need to be anything more than exactly what it is. If selling a studio is in near future, though, it’s worth considering what will make it more attractive and less risky to a potential buyer.
In a way, it’s about making the intangible tangible. Chris did this when he included this studio website, domain, and Thumbtack profile in the sale. Although technically intangible assets, handing these over was a very tangible way of transferring the reputation and value he had already built in the brand. So the new owner was able to buy his entire pipeline of students past, present, and future, and build from there rather than starting from scratch.
There’s so much more I’d like to say on this topic, especially about the nuances between multi teacher and solo teacher studios. But we’ll be talking for another hour if I do, so I’m going to wrap it up here. I’m so grateful to Chris for giving us a launching point for this topic. If you’ve been on either side of a studio sale, I’d love to hear from you.
One last thing before I go. I’m excited to finally announce that my business Finance for Music Teachers course is now open for general enrollment. The course will start in late January, and I’ll share more information about it in the coming weeks. But for those of you who have been waiting for this course for um, two years, it’s finally here.
Check it out at musicstudiostartup.com/businessfinance. You can also find the links for all the resources mentioned in this episode musicstudiostartup.com/episode108. That’s all for today. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week.