Feature: AJ Tutoring: A Success Story
AJ Tutoring, which once began as two college graduates driving around to tutor high school students, is now one of the largest academic and standardized testing tutoring services in the Bay Area, a development made especially impressive by the poor economic market in which it was started.
We sat down with Aaron Andrikopolous, the ‘A’ in AJ and one of the two founders of the company, to learn more about their story of growth and success.
Andrikopolous and Joe Neiderman grew up going to school together in Palo Alto, played on the same baseball team, and had been best friends since they were 5. Neiderman first started tutoring at UCLA as a college student. Following graduation, Neiderman approached Andrikopolous with a business proposition: to start a small tutoring company together. Andrikopolous, who was in the process of applying to graduate school, thought it would be a productive step to take before moving on in his career.
In 2003, the two moved in with their parents and began driving to students’ homes around Palo Alto. Both quickly fell in love with the rewarding nature of working with students. Their business grew rapidly, and in 2005, they started hiring additional tutors to supplement their own services. They trained their tutors in the same methods with which they found success, and AJ Tutoring LLC emerged.
Neiderman himself received SAT tutoring in high school from Peter Bam, another local test prep tutor, who then passed on his methods to Neiderman when he planned to go into the industry after college. Anrikopolous, who came from a family of educators, developed some of his own strategies. The two then synthesized their individual methods, developed a few more together, and came up with the strategy which now characterizes AJ Tutoring.
However, Andrikopolous explained, “If you look at all the major players in the test prep industry, you’ll find that all the methods are pretty similar. I don’t think [that’s] the differentiating factor. The important thing is finding great tutors who can effectively communicate the methods.”
With this philosophy, Andrikopolous and Neiderman are very intentional in hiring their employees: “Joe and I do all of the hiring ourselves. We have other people sometimes sitting in on interviews, but we place the ads, we read the resumes, we call them for phone interviews, and we sit with them one-on-one.”
Naturally, the application process is competitive. To hire five tutors, the two read approximately 200-300 resumes, call 50, and eventually put their chosen applicants into 50 hours of training. They find that their training process is so rigorous, that around 15 percent of the hired tutors do not end up making it through training.
The exceptional nature of their tutors is not the only thing that sets AJ Tutoring apart.
Andrikopolous also explained that while AJ Tutoring uses methods similar to their competitors, they allocate their time with students differently: “There are certain core concepts that come up more often than others on the exam. And a lot of tutoring groups will do more hours and cover everything equally, while we focus on a couple core concepts that make up the majority of the questions.”
Using these strategies, AJ Tutoring has experienced significant growth. They now work with a team of 100 tutors, whereas last year they had only 45, and in 2003, it was just the two of them.
In Andrikopolous’ first year of tutoring, he had about 10 students, and now the company serves approximately 2,000 in high schools from Woodside to San Jose.
Amidst the massive growth though, the company focuses on retaining their “cottage industry feel.”
Andrikopolous and Neiderman are proud of the intimacy with which their company operates.
“You have a teacher who really knows the test, who really cares about teaching it, and who really cares about working with students,” Andrikopolous explained.
“A student is going to be able to talk to that tutor directly, and the tutor is going to be able to give him or her honest information about the test.”
When asked to share their key to success, Andrikopolous recounted, “We didn’t have a grand master plan. We had no clue what this would look like. You don’t feel like you are making huge bounds forward on a daily basis, but if you look back over the course of the year, you are. I really think that if you are doing something you care about and you are working hard, things tend to work out pretty well.”
As AJ Tutoring has expanded to teach many M-A students, the company name is wildly present on campus: not only in the minds of students, but in their choice of writing implements. The blue and white AJ Tutoring pencils have become nearly famous, an infamy which Andrikopolous attributes to “their exceptional erasers.”
The company now orders approximately 20,000 a year.