How A Full-Time Tutor In Silicon Valley Does Money

“Len,” 70, dropped out of Stanford and has been supporting a family on his earnings ever since

Silicon Valley

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Can you say where you live and what you do for a living?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’m a private tutor. I teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, primarily to high school students but some college-level students and some younger students.

How long have you done that full-time?

Since approximately 1970. I usually tutor about 80 or so individual sessions per week. During finals seasons, I sometimes get to a three-digit tutoring load, more than 100 sessions.

I started as a graduate student, accepting tutoring jobs to supplement fellowship income. It turned out I was very good at it. I kept getting referrals and pretty soon that was all I was doing.

Did you drop out of graduate school?


What were you studying to become?

I was studying to become a professor in the area of Logic and the Philosophy of Science. I was at Stanford University.

How much do your students pay per session to study with you?

$110 per 45 minute session.

How do your rates compare to your competitors’?

They used to be two or three times higher than the going rate because I had a very good reputation. Now they’re still at the high end but I have a lot of competitors. When I began doing this as a full-time profession, it was a relatively rare thing for a person to do and people who encountered me were surprised I was actually able to make a living doing it — and it was a very good living. Now I have a lot of competitors: former engineers, former classroom teachers who entered the profession. They’re also many corporate franchise outfits that open up storefront offices and pay minimum wages to students of widely variable skill.

Right, I think that’s why most people think of tutors as being broke 20-something who are scrambling. How did you make that jump, from being a student doing this on the side to realizing you could actually support a family doing this?

Completely happenstance. It did not involve any great foresight or planning on my part. It turned out that I’m very, very good at what I do, and people recognized that. It was important, at the beginning, to establish a professional-level relationship, to make billing policies and cancellation policies absolutely clear. Otherwise people would tend to take advantage. But as my job developed, it became less necessary to create the impression that I was professional and paid as such, because all my clients come now from personal referrals. I haven’t advertised or marketed in any way for at least 30 years.

It turned out that I’m very, very good at what I do, and people recognized that.

What was the most you ever spent on marketing?

$30 for an ad in the local paper. Everybody comes to me from a referral from a teacher or a psychology; parents come to me with the expectation that my fees are high and with the assumption that I know what I’m doing.

How often do you think about raising your rates or do you raise rates?

I raised rates on a regular basis through my full career. Every 2–3 years I would quote a slightly higher rate to new clients. When I saw that there wasn’t any resistance to the higher rate, then the following school year my current clients would be informed that my rates had changed and that they had been receiving a discount and the discount period was no longer applicable. So there was an automatic process of testing the market to make sure that I wasn’t pricing myself out of demand for my services.

Have you ever priced yourself out of the market?

Not so far. My son at one point told me that I should reduce my workload by reducing the demand by raising prices sufficiently high, and I tended to resist his advice. But as my profession became less unusual, and also as competitors entered the market who market very aggressively, I’ve found that demand has tailed over a little bit. I still work what most people would consider to be more than full-time but it’s work that I enjoy so I’m continuing to do it.

Are you an LLC? How do you structure your business?

I’m a sole proprietor. I’ve not incorporated, against the advice of attorneys. I prefer to keep things as simple as possible with very low overhead. I’ve never hired anyone — again, against the advice of people who seem to think I could build an empire. I have no interest.

I never really wanted to run a business, and I’ve succeeded therefore in running a very good business.

I never really wanted to run a business, and I’ve succeeded therefore in running a very good business.

And you never wanted to join someone else’s business?

Absolutely not. I’m not well suited to take orders from a boss. I’ve never had to. I have a separate office in my house. My income is sufficiently high that, even though I maintain the office in my home as my only place of business, I’ve never been audited by the IRS. I file a fairly complicated return prepared by a CPA but because of the amount of the income and relatively low percent of the gross which is indicated as expenses, it’s obvious that they have nothing to gain by auditing me.

What is your take home, ballpark?

Comparable to a physician in a sub-specialty private practice. Not the most expensive specialty, but not the least expensive either.

And you raised your children in Silicon Valley? Were they going to school with rich kids?

The population of Silicon Valley is not just rich people. There’s a wide range of people, some struggling, some obscenely wealthy. My clientele is drawn from the full spectrum in terms of their economic levels.

Have you ever given anyone a break on prices because they come from a lower-income family?


How do you handle health insurance?

Until I became eligible for Medicare a few years ago, I simply purchased private health insurance from Blue Shield.

For your entire family? How much did that run you a month?

It started low and ended up comparable to the rent of a 2-BR apartment in San Francisco [about $3000].

Are you thinking about retirement? Have you saved for retirement?

I could easily retire if I wished to. I have no desire. There’s no attraction to retirement for me. My heavy tutoring periods synchronize with the academic year so I usually take vacations during December and during the summer, and the vacations usually involve overseas travel. But during the summer, even when I’m not on vacation, the tutoring load is lighter. If I’m only running 30 sessions a week, it feels like I’m on vacation. And semi-retirement on Fridays [to spend time with a new grand-baby].

I work a six-day week now. That’s one less than seven. I tutor math, so I know that.

Do you ever regret not becoming a professor?

Rarely. Early on I sometimes thought that I took the wrong path but I no longer feel that way. I do a lot of recreational study; it keeps me feeling like a quasi-academic anyway.

Do you sort of feel like you’re a permanent grad student?

No, I don’t think my level of maturity rises that high.

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