Pam Taylor had a successful career in corporate project management, but she always dreamed of being self-employed. She was hesitant to make the leap, but when she was laid off, she decided it was now or never.
Helping Students Learn
Katie Lee is the founder and CEO of Superstar Learners, an online tutoring company that helps students reach their full potential. Katie has a passion for education and believes that every student can succeed with the right support.
Superstar Learners offers one-on-one and small group tutoring in a variety of subjects. They use a variety of teaching methods to ensure that each student learns in a way that is best for them. Katie has helped hundreds of students improve their grades and reach their academic goals.
She is committed to providing students with the support they need to succeed, and she is excited to see what the future holds for Superstar Learners.
Can you introduce yourself and your business?
I’m Katie, and we run an online tutoring company called Superstar Learners. We’ve just changed the name from Katie Lee Tutoring, which was just me. But now we have other tutors working with us. And I always called my students ‘superstar learners, so it was just kind of a natural title for the company
I started my work in London, but I’m currently based in Durham with hopes of moving back to London in the next couple of years. And I’m 28.
Working in education do you cater to specific ages, or types of students?
We teach to the UK national curriculum. Whether we branch out to international students could be something for the future, but at the moment they’re mainly based in the UK. And our students are mostly between 7 and 11, but we also offer Key Stage One, so that’s between ages 5 and 7.
If ever a parent needed some advice for anyone younger, I don’t think online tutoring would be the best for smaller children. But we offer advice and short sessions for early years too. I’ve had some experience working with English GCSE students, so we’re starting to branch out into Key Stage Three and Key Stage Four. And we focus on English and Maths at the moment.
Is it for pupils wanting to reach a higher level or those struggling?
We offer a range of services, but our main mission, and what my passion is, is to help those students who, I don’t want to say the word forgotten, but I’m trying to think of a better word.
It’s mainly for middle ability children who are struggling with confidence and self-esteem with a subject, whose parents feel like they could easily drop down a grade or two because they do have those gaps.
So, what we cater towards the most and what our routines try to promote is to help boost self-esteem and confidence when it comes to learning. We get a lot of students who struggle with motivation. So the language that we use, the behaviour system, and any sort of reward system we have is catered towards those students.
We do take students who are excelling and parents want them to go to the next level. And any students who are taking their 11 Plus. But I say to parents, we aren’t an 11 Plus service. We are for students who have struggled in the past at school.
How competitive is the education sector? And how have you found your niche?
When I first started it was very casual. I wasn’t worried about how many students I had. I had another full-time job working for a children’s charity after I had left the teaching profession. And then while I was working during the pandemic, I had students wanting multiple sessions a week. Now with students only wanting one hour per week, I’m always looking to fill gaps.
Luckily, I’m fully booked, but I’m increasing my hours to some later sessions and weekends, so I’m always looking for students.
When I started to take the business seriously and this to be my full-time job, I wanted to do my research. And I saw on social media some really impressive-looking tutoring services with thousands of followers and flashy websites saying how they’re fully booked. And luckily for me, I was also fully booked, so I didn’t feel that competitive.
But I think now I’ve got lots of ideas for the company. And with parents on my waiting list, when I go to them and they say they found another tutor, it stings a little bit more than it did before. That’s also why I want to start face-to-face and perhaps have a centre one day. But I need to get a base and settle in one area first, and I’m still quite unsure about where I want to settle. But at the moment online tutoring is working fine.
How do you find students for your business?
It’s all been word of mouth since I’ve started. And I kind of had this motor that even though I was new to tutoring online due to the pandemic, once I have one student, then hopefully from there the word would spread. During Covid, it was a really terrible time for students and their education, the pandemic and that fear for parents wanting to get the best education for their child, once they heard that one student was really enjoying working with me, then the word spread fast.
And now students are back in school, which is really fantastic, it’s kind of slowing down a little bit and that word of mouth is a little slower. I’m not too worried, because I’m fully booked. But if I want the business to grow and employ more tutors, I need more students. So I’m doing great, but in terms of growth at the moment, I’m printing a lot of leaflets to go round houses that look like they’ve got kids, put some up on community boards, and go back to basics.
Did you have a lot of experience in the education industry before becoming self-employed?
So, I was a primary school teacher for two years. I did my primary degree and graduated in 2016. And I’ve been working with children and in education ever since.
I think the conventional teaching I learned very early on, wasn’t for me. During my primary education degree, the course didn’t explore other areas of education you can go to. It was teaching, that was the job that we are set up for, which makes sense for the degree I was studying. But exploring tutoring conversations with other people who were teachers and now work in education policy, or they are consultants for schools really excited me to know that I can still do the job I love, but not in the way that is prescribed by the government.
And I always wanted my own business. I remember talking quite early on, right after I finished teaching. I was talking about having my own business, but just not knowing what it looked like. And now I have it, I need to be grateful when I have those bad days or I feel like I’m completely on my own.
Was that the main reason for you becoming self-employed?
I think another reason is what I found when I was a teacher. There are so many responsibilities that I found I couldn’t be the best teacher. Because of time, I had to spread myself too thin. And I didn’t want to do a half-good job. I wanted to be the best teacher I could be for the kids.
And now I’m able. I think with every teacher, they have better days, and not so good days of their teaching. But I can really exercise my best teaching with it being one-to-one or small groups. So, I think that’s another reason why I wanted to do it in an actionable way.
What’s your main objective or big hope for your business?
So, for the future, I’ve loved teaching. But one thing that I’ve absolutely loved is managing my tutors. I’ve had four tutors work for me since I started, and I want to grow that side of things and help student teachers.
One aim I want for the business is to have a mentoring program for student teachers. They can get paid, but also practise their teaching in a less stressful environment from a computer or in a small classroom with just a small group or one-to-one.
They don’t need to worry about the other things that are going on in the classroom, so they can really just focus on the teaching practice. Because at the end of the day, when they do their teaching observations, they’re looking for subject knowledge, content and how they deliver the teaching. I’d love to do some sort of mentorship program in my job and step away from tutoring.
Are the other tutors you use also freelance, or employees?
They’re employed directly by me. So I manage them, I tell them how to deliver lessons and work closely with them to plan their sessions, because we are improving self-esteem and motivation, I want the parents to come back to me and say yes, the confidence has improved, so I want to ensure that the same methodology is used consistently from each tutor. Through a lot of trial and error, and from learning from other teachers and from my training, I’ve created this very specific routine and program. We use very specific language that we follow to create that positive learning environment. So I start off planning and giving homework for the new tutors, and then slowly drawing it back so they take over. Eventually they do all the setting and planning, and run with it themselves. But the tutors are very much part of the company and not employed as contractors.
What would you say are your biggest worries or fears? About becoming self-employed, and for the next stage of growth?
I think when I first started being self-employed there was so much going on I had no choice but to go for it. I moved cities just as the schools closed down, and for me to afford to live in London, I wanted to go back into teaching and then that option was taken away from me.
And I thought schools would open after a month. I think we were all very unsure of what was going to happen. But it was definitely not a month and I had no other option but to offer some sort of online service. Online tutoring was definitely not on the cards for me, so I guess I just had to lean into that fear, and the fear was not being able to make rent.
Now I have this business. At the moment I feel I have two things that I’m fearful of. One thing is the accountancy or the administrative side. I’m worried I’m going to get caught out one day and get a letter from HMRC with a big fine. But I’ve got a Sage accounting profile, I feel like that is giving me a bit of reassurance and my self assessment is looking good. And there have been some other things like employment allowance, that I’ve just got on board with. When I actually sit down to do it, I find it's actually not scary. I just have to get it done.
And HMRC have always been very helpful, although it might be a long waiting time on hold. They’re very understanding that I am still a relatively new business.
When I was still just starting out, I feel like the adrenaline and excitement of a new business meant I was a bit more fearless.When I came to recruit and advertise the business, I was just throwing it to the wind and I very enthusiastic about showcasing my project I was so proud of. Now, I’m going through a little bit of a process, where I’m kind of scared to pick up the phone. Because this is kind of my baby, and it’s been running really nicely so far , that any kind of disruption might cause it to rock the boat a little bit. But if I want to grow, I need to put myself out there a little more.
But as soon as I pick up the phone, it’s never a problem. I feel like it’s my business, and I know what I’m talking about. I just have to do it.
What does your work day look like at the moment
I work mostly afternoons and evenings with the students. My day, at the moment, I’m focusing a lot on advertising and social media. So doing a lot of scheduling posts, creating flyers and emails to schools, and to universities to start getting those links with the Student Services and trainee teachers.
A lot of drafting at the moment, setting homework, planning homework, planning lessons. But luckily for me, I do have flexibility in my schedule. So, I might go to the gym in the middle of the day, which I wouldn’t ever be able to do if I was a teacher.
Whenever I get down on myself or wonder where this business is going, or if this is the right career path, I feel so grateful when I’m able to change my schedule to suit my life.
Do you have any interests or hobbies in your spare time outside of work?
Well, I like going to the gym which I never thought I would say. I do some classes and my local gym has some really nice classes. And I’m new to the area, so sometimes I travel to Manchester and London to see my friends. I spend quite a bit of time with my parents and their dogs at the moment and restarting a dance class. I used to love dancing growing up so I’m going to try and squeeze one of those on a Sunday.
I’m also looking into maybe applying for a Masters. I’m really keen, I’ve written my personal statement. It’s just which universities I definitely want to apply for. I’m going to apply for Durham, so I’ll stay here for another year.
Will that be full-time study or part-time with the business?
It’ll be full-time. But this year I’m going to really try and get the business in a place where all the social media and posts are ticking over. I’ll have the leaflets all ready to go. And the systems will run even more smoothly because I’m trying to improve them week on week.
If you have to pick a theme song for your self-employed business and career what would it be?
Well, this was a really hard question. This is one I actually really had to think about, because my first instinct was I just thought “Oh, it’s so uncool” but I love musical theatre. I’m not a Disney adult, but it is my guilty pleasure. And I was listening to this song which came up on shuffle with my nephew.
It’s called Almost There from the Princess and the Frog. The Disney version is that she has her own restaurant, and she is an entrepreneur too. And she thinks about being almost there. And I always feel like every day, I’m kind of almost there. And then once I hit my goal, it’s not a big celebration, because it’s just me.
So then I change the goalposts again, and it’s kind of a good place to be almost there, because I think the day I go “right, I’m done”, it means that I’m no longer wanting to improve the business. I don’t want to get to that place. I want to continue this for the rest of my career. I imagine if I was to retire and pass the business on or close it down, there would still be things I would want it to have changed, or things I would want to keep going.
Do you have any heroes in life or business that you use as inspiration?
I’m going to go for the cliché response and I would say my heroes are my parents. Definitely. They instilled the work ethic in me when I was a child, and I really hated it I think as most kids would, doing that extra bit of homework. But education for them was an absolute non-negotiable.
And now I’m on the other side, and in education I can see when I’m working with parents who are prioritising education and how their child is excelling in school. And they might have their struggles too, but feeling that support.
My dad was always such a hard worker, and seeing how he provided for our family is a massive inspiration. And he’s always wanted his own business. And I can tell he’s really proud of me, but I have to thank him for instilling that work ethic.
And my mom changed professions when she was 40 and went back to university. I want to keep going with my academics, and I always find it really impressive when people have that extra special bit of knowledge that I’m always kind of striving for.
I’m hoping to become an expert in my field, and knowing that she was a mature students working with mostly those who have just finished their A Levelsdoing an undergraduate degree and had the best time reassures me.
In terms of business, I don’t really follow many entrepreneurs. I guess I am one, but because I’m a teacher first I still feel like I very much identify with being a teacher, and having a business second. But I love listening to podcasts and one I love is Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett, who’s a dragon on Dragon’s Den. He’s so passionate about running a business, and on a podcast I was listening to the other day he said something that really resonated with me. He was talking about filling your own bucket at first, in order to then fill in other peoples.
I found that really inspiring because I think I really wanted to help loads of students and all the families and all the parents as a new teacher, but also felt super overwhelmed and inexperienced, and really stretched. And although being a private tutor isn’t the career that I wanted to go down, I feel like if I’m able to be kind of selfish for the moment to look after myself and the business and my small cohort of students, then I can possible take the business model to charities and see how we can inspire and help more students in the UK.
,while I’m not completely overwhelmed in my own teaching profession, and actually giving that time to the students and student teachers. He inspired me to be proud although I am focusing on the money, and it is a private business, and we do charge. It’s not helping those students who may not be able to afford tutoring, but I will get there eventually.
Are there are websites or apps that you have bookmarked for work or leisure?
Sage, for doing my self assessment. And I guess Facebook, because I’ve been posting a lot to try and get more people interested in the business. And mainly because I’m planning homework and lessons, websites like Twinkle and TES which are educational resource websites.
And has IPSE membership helped you in your self-employed journey so far?
It’s helped me with my insurance, I think I called up and bought my insurance through the website. That was reassuring and they were super helpful.
And sometimes I have a little look at the blog posts and read anything in the news and community, whenever I get the emails through. And it’s just nice to know that although I’m working from a desk in my bedroom at my parent’s house, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. And this is just a small chapter in a longer journey. So it’s definitely reassuring to see other self-employed stories.
It’s been a few months since we last spoke. Have you made any major changes to your business or in your career? Or have you been making more gradual improvements?
I’m just trying to think where I was at. I’d just started the marketing, the logo and everything. And the sessions and the maintenance of the business is quite a lot for me to do, as well as grow it.
However, I’ve been doing this for three years now, and always trying to look for ways to improve our service. Learning about the most competitive schools in London was a challenge and took a lot of my time. But I feel like the last year has been about refining how we deliver lessons.
And it’s becoming second nature to me. I’m a lot faster with planning and marketing. One thing I’ve definitely improved on is better habits, especially with my finances. There’s still a way to go in terms of sorting out my Self Assessment. I really want to be on top of my game with that when it comes to April, not just waiting until January 31st. But I guess everyone has areas they want to improve.
I think the fact that I’m with Sage accounting takes the pressure off a little bit. But my weekly books, I’m doing a little bit every day, which is something I’ve avoided in the past. It would amount to an hour-long job, but I dedicated 10 minutes every day just to check and chase payments. Something I’d like to do in the future is to have an automated system but everything seems to be going fine with the money so I’m trying not to put too much pressure on.
What else has changed? One of my tutors has gone on maternity leave so she’s taking a break. So congratulations to her as she’s just given birth! Susannah, who had just started working with me, has got a place at university to become a trainee teacher next year. And I’m currently interviewing for a new tutor to take on three families.
I’ve got my leaflets, so I’ll be leafleting. And another big change is that I’m doing a Masters, as well. I’ve also got a couple of links with the local high schools, so I’m going to be helping parents to spread the word because that is the best way to get clients.
I wouldn’t say an awful lot has changed, but I definitely feel a lot more on top of my work. And now I’m trying to turn what was a full-time job into a part-time job so I can focus on my Masters. Then looking into next year and building the business a little bit.
Is your Masters related to your business?
It is somewhat. It can open me to different avenues in education. Still, the main reason I left the classroom was because I believed the state of education in the UK and teaching conditions were not fit for purpose. I have seen many talented educators leave the profession and it is such a shame because ultimately, the kids are missing out on a great education, but because teachers had sacrificed their wellbeing, they felt like it was. no choice but to leave the profession.
My ambition is to help with education research to improve education for students and teachers. The Masters course will help my career in research, and I can branch out into consultancy perhaps in the future, or become a lecturer. However, I aim to continue my tutoring business, learning about practices around the world that are successful and see if I can apply them to my business.
I would love to earn enough to open my own learning centre, to put these practices in place in the future, that I learn from my educational research. We will see how this Masters programme goes this year and I will get back to you on my plans!
And you’ve now moved to Manchester. Was that primarily to study?
I wanted to move to Manchester, for personal reasons really. I grew up here and I’ve moved a lot since 2018. So, it’s nice to be somewhere I can really feel like I’m at home, and I can go to the University of Manchester.
When I moved, I had a new staff member so I was busy training them. And I’d started at some new schools, working for them in the day. So, the Masters was put on the backburner. And then the deadline for the application was approaching. I just thought, right, I’m going to apply.
Are you happy with the progress you’ve made over the last few months?
I’m happy with the progress of the business. I just think one thing I want to do is to get some more clients and tutors, because that will increase my revenue. However, I’m in a comfortable space right now, and everything’s ticking over really nicely. I’ve got my clients, anytime there’s a gap it gets filled, and my tutors are happy.
I’m very scared of it growing so big that I lose control, with parents not happy and tutors not performing well. I feel like I’ve got a really nice handle on it. I would love to open some sort of centre, but at the moment the outgoings are so low with it being online, it just makes financial sense to keep it going this way.
I don’t need more clients, because that would mean we’re in a bad position. I want more clients because I can feel proud of us growing. But one step at a time. I just don’t want the machine to grow so big that I lose control.
With everything going on for you, has it changed your typical workday?
It’s a lot busier now. Last time, I could get up when I wanted and go to the gym and do a few hours, or I might have a lot of work on or a marketing thing to do. But now I wake up at six. I might go to the gym, and I’ll do an hour of business work. If I’ve got lectures or seminars I’ll go to the university, or I’m just at my desk.
I might leave my desk for lunch, or to stretch my legs with a walk around the living room. Saying this out loud doesn't sound like the most healthy way to work, and not very sustainable. But I did take this morning off as I’ve been working until 10pm most nights this week.
Are you still able to find time for family and friends, or for any hobbies?
I’ve only just started doing my course, so I did overbook social plans. October was a very busy month for family birthdays, including mine. Flatmates as well, and a wedding. I’m trying to go to the gym. I did want to start up dance, but it’s not going to happen. I think one thing at a time.
I want to have a full and varied life. But you can burn out. I don’t feel very creative at the moment, but I’m getting that back from the Masters with creative thinking, critical thinking, and so that is helping.
Being so busy, is your IPSE membership helping you to keep everything under control?
Actually, my insurance is up for renewal, so yes. And now I’m more on top of my admin and moved address, I also want to change the business name, and become a limited company. So, I saw there’s an IPSE webinar on going from a sole trader to a limited company, or comparing the two.
I’m so education focused, sometimes I need to use the guides and articles. And I’ll definitely make use of the helpline. Sometimes it’s just having a friendly voice on the phone explaining the steps you need to take.
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Hilary Brown is a self-employed strategic project and programme manager with over 20 years of experience. She started out on her own in 2022 after many years operating in Governmental and public sector organisations.