Executive Q&A with John McAuliffe, CEO of Sylvan Learning
1851 Franchise: How has Sylvan Learning gotten to its current level of success?
John McAuliffe: Well, first and foremost, it is because our products and our process work. Also, we've continued to invest and innovate using technology, adding different products at different times to help students with their education while also providing franchisees with additional streams of revenue, and that's been the key to our success. Our ability to deliver lessons in the center, at satellite locations, in-home and virtually, has been made possible because of our investments in technology.
Also, our brand awareness is sky-high, which always helps.
Finally, we've worked really hard to make sure that our business model is as flexible and variable as it can be to help drive franchisee profitability.
1851: What about Sylvan makes it unique within the supplemental education industry?
McAuliffe: I think it's our personalized approach to learning that begins when a child gets an assessment, which transpires into individualized learning plans that we adapt specifically for them based on how quickly or slowly they master skills. That's the most important differentiator in comparison to our competition. We have also never lost sight that the teacher is a huge component to our students’ success. Our unique blend of teaching and technology creates fun for our kids and makes us very different from anybody else in the space.
1851: What plans does Sylvan have in the coming years?
McAuliffe: I'll talk about 2021 first. Our first and foremost job is to continue to protect our franchisees throughout this period of time. We took a big jolt in the beginning of COVID-19, and I think we'd be up significantly if there weren't any capacity restraints. Once restrictions are lifted, we'll be in good shape.
Secondly, one thing we learned during the process is that corporate relationships can be very profitable for us. In particular, our relationship with Bright Horizons led us to partner with Microsoft, Bank of America, Salesforce and more, all of whom have partnered with us to subsidize tutoring for their employees' children. We are going to push on that initiative and focus on building that corporate arm in the future. In addition to Bright Horizons, we have 40 different companies that we have built relationships with throughout 2020, and many are partly subsidizing tutoring for their employees. I think a big shift over the next couple of years is that supplemental education is going evolve in the same direction as the child care industry. Child care used to be the sole responsibility of parents, and now a lot of corporations have subsidized care to make life easier for their employees while giving them a chance to be more productive. I think the same is true about education. I think a lot of parents have experienced a lot of difficulty since COVID-19 began, because they have had issues with virtual school and have also seen problems with the education system that have been brought to life, for example, large group classes and the difficulty to personalize or individualize lessons for each student’s pace and strengths. Corporations subsidizing education support makes it more accessible and affordable for parents, and I believe we are going to see a big push for this over the next year.
Last but not least, we will continue to innovate and focus on our technology solutions. Virtual instruction is relatively new for us, as it has been overall in the education marketplace, and I think virtual instruction in addition to our software programs can really benefit our franchisees down the road. We are able to reach customers in easy and efficient ways in the marketplace, which helps additional families to join Sylvan.
1851: What has been the brand’s biggest milestone over the last few years?
McAuliffe: There have been two major things. First off, our ability to deliver virtually and in-home was a major breakthrough for our brand.
Also, we made such an investment in the marketplace. Really, people haven't even seen it at this point, but we will be rolling out more solutions throughout 2021. Parents can easily access our system to schedule a teacher at a time that is the most convenient for them or schedule an online session rather than needing to go into the center. As we continue to find ways to meet families however they want our support, our reach is going to grow substantially.
1851: Why is Sylvan a good investment?
McAuliffe: There are a number of reasons. To start, the industry has proven that the demand will be huge over the next few years. Kids have virtually missed an entire year of school. When questioning 30 to 40% of the population pre-COVID, parents felt that their children needed additional help. Now, virtually everybody will need that help, and there is no better place than Sylvan to provide it.
Secondly, the corporate relationships are going to make tutoring affordable for the masses as companies begin to subsidize our programs. Our investment in technology will allow us to have greater reach so that our students don’t even need to come to a center. The macroeconomics are there for franchisees looking to maximize potential customers and their reach to help students in surrounding communities.
We're the best company in the space with the greatest breadth of services and the ability to deliver in all of those modalities. When push comes to shove, there is simply no one like us out there.
1851: What does Sylvan’s ideal franchisee look like?
McAuliffe: I think it's a person who is passionate about helping children succeed academically and is driven to make a difference in their community and in those children's lives. Many of our franchisees have an education background, have had children in our programs, or are deeply interested in education, and they also either have a business sense and entrepreneurial spirit or are able to partner with someone who does.