Ever since I can remember, my parents have rewarded me for getting good grades at school. This, of course, motivated me to work hard at school and college; I have a degree in theology from the University of Oxford, a postgraduate certificate in education and an MBA. What's more, I'm also a qualified sports coach, specialising in football and netball, which is good for teaching physical education.
My years of studying have paid off as, nowadays, I run and manage Power Tutoring, an after-school private tuition centre at Dubai Knowledge Village. In the three years since I opened the business, I've seen student numbers grow from zero to around 100. In a country as cosmopolitan as the UAE, you're bound to have children from a variety of academic backgrounds, not all of whom speak English as a first language.
Regardless of their ability, all children can benefit from extra tuition, either to help them with their school work or to extend their learning and push up their grades. Ever since I can remember I've always wanted to work for myself. I earned my first crust at the age of 12 as a paper delivery boy in my hometown of Brighton [in the UK], earning £1 a week (about Dh19 today). My father, a retired manager for British Telecom, encouraged me to put aside some of my earnings and opened a bank account for me.
I did just that. A year later, my parents matched my tiny sum of money, bringing the total to £100. In 1987, at the age of 16, I landed my first job during the school holidays processing insurance claims following a freak hurricane in southern England that destroyed countless buildings and large swathes of forestland. I only earned £80 a week, but even that meagre sum was taxed by the government. I thought that was really mean. I clearly enjoyed the thrill of making money. At 18, I decided to enter the corporate world, taking a trainee position with Barclays Bank. But the job lasted only seven weeks - I felt there was more to life than processing other people's cheques.
This train of thought led me to working voluntarily for six months at a Christian book shop in central London. Christian Literacy Crusade, a registered charity, covered my food, accommodation and travel expenses, so it was during this period that I learnt how to live an almost cash-free existence. I neither spent money nor went out much because I didn't have the money, so it was a deep learning curve.
In 1989, I was accepted to the University of Oxford. I spent the next five years of my life here: three reading theology, one completing a postgraduate certificate in education and another as a student union president, a position that came with a £120-a-week allowance and free accommodation. It was during my academic years that my experience of living frugally paid off. I lived simply and almost entirely on my government-assisted student grant and help from my parents. During summers, I worked as a guide for foreign students. Not only was it a great CV builder, but I got to visit places like Madame Tussauds and the Tower of London for free.
I emerged from student life with no debts and no collateral, just plenty of fond memories and a clutch of internationally recognised qualifications. I spent the next three years working as a live-in tutor at a private school in Suffolk. Although I was only earning around £15,000 per annum, my living expenses were paid for me. This meant I was able to save up enough money to return to full-time education and complete an MBA at the University of Nottingham Business School. My parents matched my own savings once again, bringing my tuition fund to £20,000.
After graduating, I took a break from education by immersing myself in the high-pressured world of telemarketing, where I sold seats for business conferences. My basic salary was only £600 a month, but I also received a commission if I sold a certain number of seats. The job was extremely stressful and you either sunk or swam. I was living on my wits. My basic salary barely covered my rent, but I managed to bring home a reasonable wage.
It was only a matter of time before I longed to return to education, so I took a teaching position at a private school in Worcester, England. It was at this time that I heard about GEMS setting up another version of Sheffield Private School in Dubai. So I decided to take my chances on life overseas. I got the job and moved to Dubai in 2004 to begin my new role. While living and teaching in Dubai I quickly became aware of a growing demand for private tuition. In 2006, I quit my job to begin tutoring children in their own homes.
This inspired me to build a business model around private tutoring. By opening a centre in a free zone, I was able to bring the students to one place. As I have no dependants, I used my own savings and money from my parents to set up shop. The cost of getting started included buying a company trade license at the free zone, which cost Dh120,000. Furnishing and offices came to another Dh110,000. In the early days, I learnt how to market my business through trial and error - and now I firmly believe that the best way to promote your company is through word of mouth. This realisation came only after I spent a small fortune on advertising in magazines that didn't really bring any returns. I recall spending around Dh100,000, but this brought little back in the way of business.
Nowadays, the business is growing through repeat customers and recommendations. In 2008, I made enough profit to invest Dh300,000 on refitting the tutoring centre. So I bought three interactive white boards, imported furniture designed for children from Germany and installed new lighting, carpeting and computer stations. I also invested in a lime-green interior and a striking new logo. It's important that children feel they are away from school if they are extending their learning experience.
Running Power Tutoring (www.powertutoring.com) has afforded me with the chance to combine my business acumen with my teaching background. As we're on an even keel, I'm keen to keep the centre a boutique business that specialises in improving the numeracy and literacy skills of students. For one-to-one tuition, students pay Dh9,995 for the academic year, consisting of 35, 50-minute, lessons. A fee for learning in a small group is Dh7,875.
Owing to the economic climate, I've kept my prices the same for three years and have a number of full-time staff and part-time tutors. My plans for the future are to begin mentoring children, as well as to provide a bespoke solution for high-net-worth families wanting their children to be tutored at home. As for the lessons that I myself have learnt, they are: don't over extend yourself in the early years and keep the business model clear and simple. In that way you learn along the way - just like tutoring.
* As told to Lizzy Millar