Executive Q&A with John McAuliffe, CEO of Sylvan Learning
How has Sylvan Learning gotten to its current level of success?
When Sylvan first started out over 30 years ago, I’d put us what I call the remedial tutoring business. But over the past five or six years, we’ve worked incredibly hard to expand our product base and increase the use of technology in our learning programs. Take our variety of classes—we cover the basics like math, reading, study skills and test prep in addition to diving into the STEM arena. That’s something that none of our competitors offer, and it’s a huge differentiator. Sylvan is also the only brand that uses technology to deliver the vast majority of our core programs. We’re constantly continuing to expand more and more into online content, ultimately making our program more convenient for students, teachers and families.
From a business perspective, Sylvan has also recently introduced a new business model that allows our franchisees to become more profitable. Our new licensing agreement gives our local owners a smaller footprint. That means that our franchisees are no longer limited to delivering services within our centers. They can also extend our programs into schools, libraries and community centers, making the Sylvan brand easily accessible for families across the country. We’ve found that makes all the difference—it’s hard to see success when students and parents have a hard time physically making their way to a center.
What about Sylvan makes it unique within the supplemental education industry?
The one thing that technology allows us to do now—even more so than in the past—is to individualize our program for a child. Within our typical core program, students are first assessed to determine where they need the most help. Our teachers then deliver a unique plan that tailors lessons to a child’s specific problem areas. There isn’t anything about our model that’s generic—everything we do is designed to help each individual student reach their goals, whether that’s keeping up with a certain grade level or getting ahead.
The role that technology plays in the education landscape is changing rapidly, but we have the tools at Sylvan to stay on top of the trends and integrate new practices into our system. We go above and beyond to ensure that we’re offering students the best possible resources to help them succeed in the classroom.
What plans does Sylvan have in the coming years?
We’re taking the initiative to expand our services and really go above and beyond when it comes to the Sylvan programs that students have access to. Right now, our paper-based Math Edge program is available to students in first through sixth grade. But we’re currently working out how to move that program online, in addition to rolling out a new digital Algebra Edge program for older students. That’s a general theme for us moving forward into the new year—we’re continuing to capitalize on online content. That includes making the most of our app, SylvanPlay, which we think will be big for us going forward.
That doesn’t mean we’re moving our programs out of our centers—it’s essential for children to learn in a classroom setting together. That sense of community and face to face interaction with their teachers ultimately builds confidence, which is a key component in getting students to reach their academic goals. By placing more attention on our digital offerings, we’re simply making it easier for families to access everything that Sylvan has to offer.
The importance of STEM is also something that can’t be overstated—it’s coming at us like a freight train, and we’re perfectly positioned to be at the forefront of that increasingly popular segment of the education industry. We’re expanding our robotics, coding and engineering programs, and we’re looking forward to bringing those programs to new markets both domestically and internationally.
What has been the brand’s biggest milestone over the last few years?
I think our biggest accomplishment—at least in recent history—has been changing the way consumers view us. In the past, most people lumped us in the remedial tutoring provider category. But through our digital marketing efforts and the expansion of our products, Sylvan is now positioned as an education solution for all students. We’re able to create a custom program for every child that walks through our doors, and our methods are been proven to work time and time again.
Why is Sylvan a good investment?
First, Sylvan is a mission driven business. I don’t know a better business to work in—you feel good about owning a Sylvan franchise and helping students succeed. Second, our new licensing agreement and operating requirements are second to none. We’ve done an enormous amount of competitor research, and our model is more profitable than any other brand operating within our arena. Sylvan also offers a flexible business model with startup fees that are significantly reduced. We work with our franchisees in terms of their operating hours and royalty rates. Instead of throwing multiple fees at our owners, we have a flat rate. That attractive and affordable model—in addition to Sylvan’s wide breadth of programs and services—makes our business opportunity the best in the industry.
What does Sylvan’s ideal franchisee look like?
The ideal Sylvan franchisee is passionate and mission driven. Passion is the most important thing—all of our local owners need to be 100 percent committed to helping kids. It also helps if they have some experience in the education industry. They don’t necessarily have to have teaching experience, but it’s beneficial if they have a general awareness of what’s going on in the industry. We also look to partner with franchisees who have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. A big part of our business involves getting the word out about the Sylvan brand and making the most of local marketing opportunities, so we’re looking for franchisees who thrive in that type of environment.