Chuck Cohn turned a personal obstacle into a business, Varsity Tutors, a leading national tutoring and test prep company with operations in 25 cities, 2,000 tutors and 80 employees. He shares the three lessons that made it possible.

When I was in high school and needed a tutor to help me with school work, I had two choices: cookie-cutter franchises or individuals I found on fliers at a coffee shop. Neither option gave me what I needed: affordable, one-on-one tutoring in the comfort of my own home with highly effective teachers.

That's what I sought to offer when I started Varsity Tutors, which began in St. Louis after I was inspired by two of my best friends at Washington University. They were brilliant and friendly, and they could explain difficult concepts better than any tutor I'd ever had.

Since then, Varsity Tutors has grown to a team of 3,000, serving more than 25 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Though Varsity Tutors may be very different from your business, I've been able to find success through three key pieces of advice that apply to almost every business, in any industry, at any point in its business cycle:

1. Know your stuff, even if it's not your job.
Knowing your processes, even if you're not involved in them directly, gives you the ability to determine strengths and weaknesses and manage them on a large scale. With 3,000 team members, I can't be involved in the hiring of each and every individual. However, who we bring into the fold is critical because hiring an unqualified person could ruin our reputation. By knowing the process of finding the right team members, I was able to help create a standard for interviewing and screening great tutors.

2. Metrics are your friend.
Founders are afraid of analyzing metrics for a number of reasons. They might lack quantitative analysis skills, or they may not value metrics beyond the bottom line of income and costs. They could also lack adequate measuring systems or, worst of all, they may be afraid of what the numbers reveal.

As cliché as it may be, knowledge is power. Being able to analyze multiple metrics provides a much better picture of the entire system and lets you know what needs adjusting.

Pretend, for a moment, that you're an automaker looking to measure miles per gallon for one particular car model. It would be naïve to think that the only factor to consider is designing a more efficient engine. You have to consider tire pressure, road conditions, aerodynamics, driving styles, and numerous other factors. For your own business, analyzing all the metrics you can think of gives you more power over costs, processes and, ultimately, profits. 

3. Your customers' feedback is invaluable.
Extracting the value from customers' testimonials and feedback requires a company-wide, systemic effort. However, there's no doubt that a customer's positive review is infinitely more valuable than your own promotion. There are many platforms available to collect customer feedback, such as email, online surveys and social media. It also doesn't hurt to simply ask your customers for a testimonial. Go for quality over quantity, and choose testimonials that tell a whole story and convey real emotion.

When you're just starting out, you'll get a lot of advice. While much of it will vary by industry or company size, the best advice is universal and holds up over time. Knowing your stuff, being able to honestly evaluate your business, and listening to your customers are three things that drive success, no matter what business you're in.

Published on: Feb 25, 2014