Today we're talking to Kate Milkosky, a math tutor who runs her own successful business teaching kids how to master their math challenges for lifelong success. She's turned the concept of a traditional tutor on its head and into a thriving business where her students and their parents love working with her--and just as importantly--referring her to others. Learn how she approaches her business from scaling to customer service in this actionable and eye-opening interview.
So Kate, welcome! We’d love to hear a little more about what you do.
Well, I’m a Mathematician. And you’re probably wondering, “does that mean that you sit around and do math problems all day?” And that actually is true to some extent. I run a company that creates online and app-based mathematics resources for students, parents, and educators. When students in the traditional classroom are struggling with a topic, sometimes the teacher doesn’t have 2 weeks to spend on that one specific thing. That’s where I come in: I mind the gap by creating resources, like videos and exercises, that students can do to better understand the topic. That’s what my larger company is all about, and part of that includes me being a private tutor.
You’ve built an impressive following (over 200k YouTube views) as well as a successful tutoring business. How did you get traction in your services business?
The tutoring part of my business is actually 100% built on relationships. So I think it’s all about treating the kids that I work with like my very own, and wishing the same successes for them that I would wish for my own children. And because of this, I have fantastic relationships with my clients’ families. I get invited to graduation parties, they send me holiday cards--it’s like they’re part of my extended family. I’ll get a text message or an email that says, “Oh I got your name from so and so” or my favorite is, “oh I heard you’re an expert in this class”. Some 95% of my clients are referrals, so it’s been clear that not only is building positive relationships the right thing to do, but has also led me to grow my client base.
What do you want to be known for in your business?
I want to be known for making a difference and helping everyone realize that they can actually understand math. That’s important to me because I feel like there’s such a stigma with math where people think, “Oh either you can do it or you can’t do it”. I just don’t believe that’s the case, and after working with hundreds of kids, I also haven’t seen that to ever be the case. While some kids may not understand how a concept was presented in class, I work with them and come at it from different directions to see what resonates--and it works. I even have parents who will be like, “I never understood that when I was younger. I finally get it now!” All of the feedback has shown me I have a unique talent to help everyone realize that they can do math. I want to be known as the inspiration behind someone becoming a mathematician themselves.
What is your philosophy on customer service?
I have only one motive with the tutoring side of my business, and that is for the child I’m working with to succeed in math. Whether it be on their next test, their final, or just in general. As long as I keep that as my focus, I know I will go above and beyond to provide quality customer service. Some of my kids think of me as their 2nd parent because I’m always texting them with them “how’d the test go” or “what'd ya think” or “what problems were difficult?” or the favorite, “this is just a reminder--remember to do those 5 problems I sent you earlier today”. The parents really like that because they realize I truly care about their child and the success of their child.
What’s the one thing your business couldn’t live without?
I don’t know… the internet? Haha, there are a lot of things like my phone, which is my ability to contact people, and my projector that I use to put problems on the board for my kids and my videos. But what I really can’t live without is “my tribe” as I call it including my spouse and my two daughters. My husband supports me so much in building my business to be a big thing, which is just a phenomenal feeling.
How did you figure out who your target customer was? And wasn’t?
Over the years, I’ve narrowed in on high schoolers who need help with math as my target customer. I can (and have) tutored all ages starting all the way from Kindergarten. But over time, I realized that my hourly rate may not make sense for someone that’s coming to me from elementary school. When the younger grades would come to me, I found that it was better for me to recommend other tutors who were more specialized at this grade level and have a lower rate that may work better for the parents.
While some may see me as throwing business away, I really believe that these parents have a deeper level of trust with me, as they know I have their best interest in mind. It was trial and error to find where the market was and who not only needed my services, but also who was going to find the most value for my price point. While high schoolers are my target, I’ve also found a way to serve some middle schoolers, too. What I’ve done for some middle schoolers is offer 45 minute sessions, at the same hourly rate, but it’s more at a price point and the right amount of time appropriate for a younger student. It’s a win win that I found because while it’s less money for the customer, I’m still getting the same rate for the time.
How have you made your schedule work for you and your customers?
One of the greatest things that I put in place for my business was setting my availability. I tutor Sunday through Wednesday, and I’m very strict about that. The main reason this has been so beneficial for me is that I know I’m going to do a much better job tutoring if I have more balance in my life. Sometimes I may decide to bend my schedule, and actually made an exception just today, and I’ll do it if I think it will make a big difference for the student.
For example, I had a parent ask me if there was any way I could move their session to 7pm because she had a late meeting at work. I tried to move a couple of kids around, and when that didn’t work, I decided to add another session for this student. And then coincidentally someone else texted me like 2 minutes later saying that they really needed a session today. “Oh, a 6pm just opened”. In the end, I’ve noticed that the parent will even return the favor, so I feel like it can go both ways. When I’m flexible for my clients, my clients are flexible to me in return which contributes to us having a great relationship.
How should a new business owner think about where to focus their time?
I have so many different things that I do for my business, I mean, I’m constantly creating online content, working on a website, creating merchandise, and lots of other stuff. But one thing I’m always keeping in mind is that that the tutoring part of my business is my bread and butter. That’s where 80% of my income comes from, so I have to be thinking, where is my time going to get the biggest return on investment (ROI). For me, I know that’s tutoring, so I put all of my time into that.
And if I have extra time, that’s when I focus on the other parts of the business. I’m also always thinking about how the different parts of my business support one another. For example, sometimes I’ll realize that a student needs help with a specific type of problem, so I’ll create a video for them. Well guess what, that video also goes on my Youtube channel and in my arsenal of videos for my website--so it’s a positive sum game.
Just because I have my focus on tutoring, doesn’t mean that I can’t use the tools I create there for other aspects of my business. So I would say that as a new business owner, you need to figure out where the majority of the revenue is coming from and that’s where you need to focus everything.
What do you think is the biggest myth out there on what it’s like to build your own business?
That it’s easier to work on your own than it is to work for somebody else. That’s just my opinion, but I saw that this was so true, especially in the beginning. When I was working in the classroom, I had to report to work at a certain time. I also left work, not really at a certain time, (I had office hours, tests to grade, things like that), but after that... I was done. I didn’t have a ton of free time, but, I had a set start time and end time.
I found that when I started working for myself, I felt like, “I could film like 600 more videos right now”. I really could. It’s hard to set a schedule for myself, so I decided no more working after 8 o’clock. . We have this bed time routine that I do with my 2 daughters, and it’s unacceptable for me to miss that. And so, I do it every single night. It’s been helpful for me to set limits for myself because when you’re your own boss--if you don’t set limits you could really work 24 hours every single day.
It’s something that I’m still struggling with, even 5 years later, and I’m still working to get better.
What is the most important piece of advice you have for women entrepreneurs?
So that’s a big question, and I have a couple of answers. First of all, I think you really have to believe in yourself. I know everyone says that, but I think it’s really important to believe that anything is possible. For example, I want to be as big as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but Ms. Milkosky the Mathematician. I need to realize and believe that I really can do that. I might not always feel like I’m getting there at times, but I’m still going to tell myself that every day that I can.
I think if we trust that we can be as big as we want to be, it will make us more successful. It’s actually funny, my high school yearbook quote was from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right”. Who knew that 18-year old me would pick something so insightful. It’s something I think about all of the time.
The other piece of advice I have is simply, “Don’t Give Up”. When I’ve shown my YouTube channel to new contacts, I get so many comments from like “Wow, that’s so professional” or “I’m so impressed with all of your views”. And I’m like “Yeahhhhh!”, and I feel super cool. What I think is so important to keep in mind is that when you look at these other people that you admire and see where they are, know that for most (and definitely for me!) it took a TON of work and a TON of time. It was such a long road.
When I go and look at my analytics, I can see that I literally have an exponential growth function. And if I’m in the beginning of that function, I have no idea that it’s about to explode, like a year from now, right? Because I’m at the beginning, it doesn’t look like that I’m having a lot of success.
Don’t give up. Keep trying. If you told me 5 years ago that I’d be getting 8-10k people a month coming to my Youtube channel to watch my videos, I’d be like, “Yeah right.. I get like 10 people a month right now,” and I would have never believed you. Now I’m like, “What is this going to be like 5-10 years from NOW?” Don’t give up because you will get there. I’ve been so slow and steady, but I’m getting there. I see this long road ahead of me, and I’m excited for it, and excited to get even farther.
Kate Milkosky offers tutoring services, along with a plethora of educational videos on her YouTube channel (you can subscribe here!). Ms. Milkosky Preschool will also be launching in September 2019, which is her website providing parents with resources to help their children explore the beauty of mathematics in everyday life.