As with many other aspects of modern life, music lessons have moved into the demand economy. As recently as 10 years ago, it was typical that students would travel to the teacher. That model is beginning to flip — it’s increasingly common for teachers to travel to students.
Winston McFarlane began his teaching career with this business model in mind. He launched Vision Music Live in 2005 while living in Atlanta after leaving a job in corporate marketing.
“I ended up going to the Atlanta Institute of Music to and when I came out of there I was in flux with the corporate world and doing what my passion was,” McFarlane said. He took a job at a café to make ends meet and started teaching guitar lessons. He enjoyed teaching so much that he decided to pursue it full time.
When his client list grew large enough to require weekend and holiday lessons, he started asking his musician friends if they would like to teach. Parents of students would request a certain instrument, and McFarlane would ask his friends if they wanted to take on teaching. It’s through this process that he slowly and organically grew from a one-man operation to a music school with 14 teachers located in Atlanta, Seattle, and Bend, Oregon.
“It’s kinda funny because I didn’t set out to have a business, but then people were telling me that I have a business, and then they’re telling me I have a music school and I’m like, ‘Oh I guess I do,’” McFarlane said.
McFarlane moved the business to Mercer Island a few years ago and realized there were a few differences between growing his business in the Puget Sound compared with Atlanta. First, he didn’t have a network of musicians on hand in Seattle to bring into his business. The second difference is that as he was growing his network in Seattle, teachers in Atlanta were still working and the business was making money without him. “It was a weird epiphany,” he said.
Technology is one of the main factors for growing his business. He communicates regularly with his teachers, who are contract workers and build their own schedules via FaceTime and Voxer, a walkie-talkie-type messaging app.
“When I interview new instructors, I emphasise that I need them to be good communicators,” McFarlane said. “I’m not their boss, the student is the boss, and when they go to a lesson they expect a certain level of service. And if the teachers communicate with me, and shine in their lessons, then I can provide that high level of customer service.”
McFarlane plans to grow the business by adding more students and teachers, but he’s focused on organic growth and maintaining lesson quality.
“I feel like I’m never satisfied because I’m always working to make the experience better and figure out new ways of doing things,” McFarlane said. “But sometimes I’ll sit in on a lesson and realize that everything is as it should be with the way that the student is learning. You have to be careful not to overstep and reinvent the process if it’s not needed.”