I have once written that growing up in Singapore – my home country is extremely competitive and stressful even for a child. Many parents are programmed to think that if a child is not top of his class, he is designed to fail for the rest of his life. Hence, tuition agencies are mushroomed in Singapore to assist children in exceeding in their studies.

Tuition centres and agencies are very competitive in Singapore’s market. One can only imagine how competitive this niche of business is. Well, we don’t have to imagine any further as we are pleased to have Rum Tan, the owner of a tuition agency shed some light and experience on his foray into the education world.
Thank you for accepting an interview with MiddleMe, Rum Tan. That is a unique name, Rum.  

Haha, yes thank you! People tell me that all the time. I’m a true blue Singaporean and like any other Singaporean Males, I’ve been through 16 years of schooling, then national service, then University.

What’s unique about myself is that I didn’t choose to take up a corporate job. Instead, I wanted to build a business. I’m very passionate about building businesses that can help people and make a difference in society. I take pride in creating awesome products and services and creating jobs for people. SmileTutor is like my first-born baby.

I also have a wonderful 5-year relationship with my Indonesian Chinese girlfriend, and we’re planning to get engaged soon. We’ll definitely be planning more businesses in both Singapore and Indonesia soon.

Congratulations on your upcoming engagement! That is refreshing to hear that you don’t typically fit into the mould of our Singaporeans. I understand that you are very passionate about education. Is that why you set up a leading home tuition agency? It is a tough business to get yourself into.

A lot of naysayers talk bad about tuition, saying things like “kids nowadays have such a sad life, whole day tuition”, but I beg to differ. As the saying goes, “the best education is a long and hard one”. I am a strong advocate for education and believe that students should work hard and take pride in excelling at what they do (which is to study).

Tuition is not just for a competitive edge or for mugging for exams. When utilised correctly, it is a platform for students to learn better, understand their subjects better, gain new perspectives, unlock their potential, and even explore different and new subjects which they may be interested in.

For instance, at SmileTutor, a lot of our Indian students are taking up Chinese tuition for self-interest learning and our Chinese tutors are more than happy to help spread the love of the language.

Seems to me that you are a strong advocate for tuition services. It is always great to immerse yourself in your passion and strive your hardest towards success in something you believe in.  

I was actually a tutor myself for 4 years, and really enjoyed the personal interactions that I had with my students. I definitely feel that being a tutor is not just about teaching out of the textbook, but also giving life lessons to young, impressionable students.

I graduated from Nanyang JC with pretty good results and was offered double degrees in both NUS and NTU. I’m really thankful to the Singapore government for allowing me to have such a good education growing up.

So out of curiosity, why SmileTutor the name? 

When I started this business, I felt that there was a lot of negativity surrounding the tuition industry and that when people thought of ‘tuition’ or ‘education’, they just felt stressed and down. I wanted to change this perspective.

I believe that tuition should be something that young kids can look forward to and enjoy. I also wanted to create a service that could bring smiles to parents, students and tutors through our efficient services, hence the name ‘SmileTutor’.

It must be a cut-throat business out there, with so many agencies and centres sprouting up around our small island. What is the market like for private tuition in Singapore? 

Honestly, I was never too concerned about the market. I feel that when you put in the hard work and focus on creating a great service for people, naturally there will be a market. I could be in the education field, food and beverage, or even construction. It doesn’t really matter. I love helping people and building businesses that bring convenience and joy to people.

Well said! I have always felt that in order for one to reach success, he has to pay it forward. So how do you find reliable tutors? And what kind of background do they have? 

Having reliable tutors is a big part of what we do. Most of our effort is in interviewing and building relationships with our tutors. We keep records of all our tutors whenever we assign them to a student; as a result, we know which tutors produce great results and which tutors don’t. This allows us to recommend the best home tutors to our clients in need.

We spend a lot of time and resources to build and maintain our database, which currently stands at over 10,000 active tutors. Having a wide variety of tutors allows to cater to everyone, so we don’t have to turn down or disappoint our clients. We have tutors from all backgrounds.

That is a lot of tutors! I can appreciate the effort of procuring 10,000 tutors all over the country. Not everyone can be a tutor so what kind of personality makes an ideal tutor from SmileTutor? 

Well, my personal philosophy is that there is no ideal personality because tuition is a very personal thing. Tutors come in all shapes, sizes, race, personalities, and so do students. However, we do have specific ground rules and general guidelines for our tutors.

For instance, we have a web page listing some Basic Rules of Tutors, which states that tutors must be responsible and have integrity. We also publish blog posts to educate our tutors and give them tips on how to become a better tutor, such as this article for our mathematics tutors.

What kind of customers does engage SmileTutor? 

Our client base consists of thousands of parents and students of very diverse backgrounds – ranging from Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, British, etc. Many of them are our loyal customers and come back to us regularly for tuition. Some clients have even engaged more than 10 tutors from us.

We have an internal policy that strictly prohibits discrimination. Our tuition coordinators are well-trained to handle all kinds of customers. In my experience, I’ve very rarely had to refuse customers.

As mentioned at the start of this article, we live in a very competitive and stressful society to constant challenge ourselves to be better than others. Do you think there are stupid children who wouldn’t or couldn’t learn? Many despairing parents might think so. Share your thoughts. 

Oh dear, definitely not! I firmly believe that we are all born into this world to fulfil a purpose. Sure, some kids may have higher IQ than others, but it doesn’t mean that the kids with lower IQ are useless. Surely, if we look closely enough, they may have their own ‘intelligence’ in other areas. They might be very poor in math but might excel in music, dance or linguistics. I’ve personally written a blog article on the multiple intelligence theory, which explains the different types of intelligence that we all possess.

Back to SmileTutor, what is your business model? 

Our service is completely free of charge of anyone who is looking for tuition. Instead, we charge a fixed percentage commission on private tutors who take up our tuition jobs.

That is reasonable. However, with the looming economy downturn, many families might not be able to afford the additional expenses. Do you think tuition services are a luxury or a necessity? 

Definitely a necessity. MOE Schools are great, but school teachers there are forced to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach due to a large class of 40 or more students. Not all students learn at the same speed – some learn way faster and some are not able to keep up with the others. Private tuition is a unique avenue for students to learn in a one-to-one setting, and the experience definitely benefits most students greatly.

Actually, one of the first articles I wrote on SmileTutor Blog was an article about the necessity of tuition. I wrote about whether tuition was considered a luxury or a necessity in Singapore. Feel free to read that article and let me know your thoughts!

I’ll definitely pop over to your website to read that. Please do share with us the vision for SmileTutor in 2018 and beyond. 

The whole team at SmileTutor knows that our goal is to make a positive difference in society through delivering excellent tuition matching services. My vision is for us to become the best tuition agency for parents and students to find private tutors.

Starting a business is an uphill task, how do you manage it? 

I agree. The hardest part about being a founder is that I have had to wear so many hats. I had to be a good manager, taking care of my staff’s needs and goals and making sure they are satisfied with their work. I had to be a strategic CEO, planning for the short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals for the business. I had to be the marketing expert, thinking of how to market the business and gain customers. I had to be the operations specialist, thinking of how to streamline our operations for maximum efficiency.

I just try to make the most of my time and try to be as productive as possible. It seems that there’s always the next thing to do, the next problem to solve, the next issue to deal with. There’s always something to fix or improve, so I’m constantly on the move. I try to focus on one thing at a time, and not lose my focus.

Being an entrepreneur myself, I understand that starting up your own business is a thankless vocation until your business break even, so how do you keep yourself motivated? 

The most important for me to keep myself motivated is to remind myself of my purpose, which is to help others. No matter how hard the journey is, as long as I remember my purpose, I’ll do just fine.
 
Please share with our readers one hard lesson you have learned during your entrepreneurship that made you stronger? 

The hardest part of being an entrepreneur is having the faith in yourself and the courage to go against the tide. There were so many naysayers dissuading me from starting this business. Everyone, from my parents to my friends (who are now working in corporate jobs), tried to dissuade me. (except my soon-to-be fiancé!)

Anthon St. Maarten once said, “Never surrender your hopes and dreams to the fateful limitations others have placed on their own lives.” I strongly believe in this. As long one has a purpose, believes in himself, and is willing to put in the hard work, nothing is impossible!

That is a wonderful quote to draw an end to this interview. Thank you for your time, Rum and it has been a pleasure having you here with us!  

Thank you for your kind interview!

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5 replies on “Conversation With SmileTutor’s Founder

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