LEARNING CURVE | Virtual teacher gives pupils chance to achieve full academic potential

Nothing beats seeing the 'light come on' in a student's face, says Top Marks Tutors' Robin Stickells

Robin Stickells, owner of Top Marks Tutors, believes in recruiting teachers with the right balance of qualifications, experience, empathy and passion for teaching
WINNING FORMULA: Robin Stickells, owner of Top Marks Tutors, believes in recruiting teachers with the right balance of qualifications, experience, empathy and passion for teaching
Image: WERNER HILLS

Online tutoring centre Top Marks Tutors prides itself on having a team of highly qualified, experienced teachers who offer online tutoring in all the major school subjects from Grade 7 to matric.

Its owner, Robin Stickells, 49, believes it is necessary to be good at what you do and not necessarily unique; to deliver on your promises; and to ensure you control the quality your business delivers at all times.

Please share some background on yourself and how the business was started?

I qualified as a teacher in maths and accounting in the mid '90s and taught in Cape Town before moving overseas. During the 21 years that I spent abroad, I lived in the UK, Portugal, India and the United Arab Emirates, and travelled to a number of other countries too.

Over the years my career shifted away from education, though I always felt a very strong calling to guide and mentor the staff for whom I was responsible.

When I returned to SA, this time as a single father with four fantastic children (three teenagers and one preteen), the job market for someone with my age and experience was pretty limited, and I worked for my brother as a stopgap until I could find the right permanent job.

During this time, I began tutoring students from my sons' school as a part-time pursuit. At this stage, one important thing happened: I fell in love with teaching all over again.

I moved all my tutoring sessions from face-to-face to online via Zoom. Pretty quickly I filled the available hours that I could tutor. I observed that there was huge demand for tutoring, especially online, and so Top Marks Tutors was born.

What is your core service?

We offer top-quality online tutoring in all major subjects to pupils across SA, delivered by highly experienced, highly qualified teachers. Parents can choose individual lessons or small-group sessions.

Unlike online teaching, the pupils' cameras and microphones remain on so the lessons are very interactive, and student engagement is kept at a maximum for the duration of the lesson.

What makes your business unique?

While our business is not unique, there are some qualities that set it apart from many others in the field. We only work with qualified teachers who have more than five years of experience. In the vast majority of cases, our tutors have decades of experience. This is crucial when it comes to developing a child's understanding of a subject.

We do not work with university students. In my opinion, while they may have performed well a couple of years before when they were in matric, they are not qualified or experienced enough to get to the bottom of a child's difficulties with a subject. That comes with time, experience and training.

If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they start?

Starting one's own business can be daunting. It takes an immense amount of determination to drown out the voices of the naysayers and to go for it. My career has taken me full circle, with a good number of interesting detours in the process.

I am grateful for every single one of those challenges I overcame, because they have brought me to where I am today, and I believe that this is exactly where I am meant to be.

It is important that you find and pursue your passion. The hard part is that everything doesn't just fall in place after that. However, the huge bonus of pursuing your passion is that you feel so much more motivated to overcome the challenges that would be insurmountable if it wasn't something that excited you to get out of bed for in the morning.

If you aren't passionate about it, forget it and look for another opportunity that does truly inspire and excite you.

What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced before getting off the ground?

It takes an immense amount of determination to get any business off the ground. A business like Top Marks Tutors, that has grown from simple roots, makes it easier to transition into a business that can scale into a successful one.

Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs or new business owners?

Your business idea does not need to be a completely new one. In most cases there is an abundance of demand and enough business for you and your competitors to share, especially if you do your job properly.

When things go wrong, and they inevitably will sometimes, don't be afraid to apologise and say what you will do to make things right.

What are some of your biggest challenges in day-to-day business operations and your particular industry?

The quality and reputation of Top Marks Tutors' services are dependent on the quality of the individual members of the tutoring team. Recruitment of teachers with the right balance of qualifications, experience, empathy, computer-literacy, and, most importantly, passion for teaching is my biggest challenge.

What is the best advice anyone gave you on success?

Whatever you do, do it well.

How do you measure or define success in your business?

While I run the business, I also tutor some groups and individuals myself. There are few things more satisfying than seeing the light go on in a child's mind when they grasp a concept that they have been struggling to understand.

When we receive grateful comments from students and their parents about how we have really helped their children, that gives all of us at Top Marks Tutors a huge boost to continue doing our best for our clients.

What are some of the best practices that have made your business successful?

In our industry, it is vital to keep up with technology, using the power of the internet to help in managing the business.

What kind of advertising do you do?

The best advertising is word of mouth. We really appreciate it when our clients take the trouble to refer us to other parents.

What is your company’s vision?

Our vision is to enable pupils throughout the country to achieve their goals in life. We aim to achieve this by assisting pupils to achieve their full academic potential through online tutoring.

We also strive to make parents' lives easier by offering a service that takes the worry, stress and risk out of finding an excellent tutor for their child.

What is your target market?

Our target market is families with high school age children who would benefit from online tutoring,

What have some of your highlights been in running your business?

A number of our tutors are recently retired teachers. These people still have so much passion for their calling, and have so much to offer to their community and country, that it gives me great joy to be able to offer them a vehicle to continue what they love.

From a tutoring perspective, it is always a highlight to see the “light come on” in a pupil's face.

How important is social media and an online presence for your business?

So much of marketing and market presence, especially for a digital business like Top Marks Tutors, is dependent on social media. Word of mouth and social media go hand-in-hand nowadays.

How many people do you employ?

We have 14 people in our team and that number is growing constantly as demand for our services increases.

Do you have any plans for expanding the business and how would you go about this?

For a number of years, the world had been tentatively moving towards embracing remote working, and use of video conferencing as a tool for both business and learning. Covid actually did us an enormous favour in that regard by forcing the change upon us.

While it was a roller-coaster ride at the beginning, our resilience and adaptability have seen us through the pain and there is now no going back to the old, inefficient and expensive ways of learning and doing business. Top Marks Tutors are well placed and ready to benefit from that trend.

How did you acquire funding?

The business was largely self-funded.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your business journey so far?

Always try to look ahead and make sure you are focusing on the correct priorities every day.

What have been the greatest challenges and advantages of running your business in a city like Gqeberha?

The roots of this business grow deep in Gqeberha and that has actually been a really good thing. The fairly small community in this city has meant that word of mouth about the good services being offered by Top Marks Tutors has spread well.

Growth in the rest of the country, naturally, has come a bit slower, but I am confident that we will achieve our goals in the rest of the country too. That has already started to happen and it is very exciting to watch.

What do you say are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur?

Passion, determination and resilience.

What are the key traits of a successful employer?

Empathy for your staff, and the permanent recognition of the fact that a happy, appreciated, encouraged, empowered member of staff always results in happy customers and a successful business.

What do you wish people knew about your industry?

The concept of online learning is fairly new. It is, however, a huge part of the future of learning for school pupils, university students, professionals and even the aged.

It is not something to be feared, but rather to be embraced for all its benefits. 

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