Music school aims to hit the right notes in hiring and data mining

Giving customers control and offering quality service are the keys to success, say the founders of Aureus Academy.

MENTION music lessons and many Singaporeans will have flashbacks of being forced to learn the piano or violin as a child.

But if the Holmefjord-Sarabi brothers have their way, the next generation will grow up learning and enjoying music well into adulthood.

Nurturing a passion for music through a quality music education is the goal of the founders of Aureus Academy, Lawrence and Julius Holmefjord-Sarabi. A year apart in age, the American brothers grew up with vastly different interests - one in music and the other in IT - but remained close even when Lawrence came to Singapore to pursue piano studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

In September 2013, their interests converged to form Aureus Academy, a music school dedicated to providing the best music education possible with a stable of passionate teachers and the creative use of data and technology.

Over the last three years, the school has grown from a centre with five teachers and 100 students to a network of eight branches, 100 employees and 2,100 students aged three to 60.

Julius, the younger brother, said: "We're seeing a new generation of parents who hated music lessons coming to us and saying, 'We don't care about exams. We want our kids to enjoy music, and we want them to have fun'. What we've created is sort of a response to that."

The brothers uncovered two main areas for improvement when conducting their initial research into the local music school industry.

Firstly, the standards of customer service leave much to be desired. Replies to their queries would trickle in slowly; some did not come at all. When they did receive replies, the brothers were astounded by the surly tone in many of them.

Secondly, they noticed many diploma and Grade 8 certificate holders teaching part-time. Because these teachers have day jobs, rescheduling lessons is often a hassle or impossible. It is also difficult to expect high levels of passion and dedication from part-time teachers.

To avoid these problems in Aureus, they first established their own standards for customer service; Julius personally responds to all queries promptly and politely. And all Aureus teachers work full time, making it easier to reschedule lessons.

The brothers also implemented a policy of hiring only applicants with bachelor's or master's degrees in music - not for the sake of paper qualifications, but to ensure that they recruit teachers of a certain calibre.

Lawrence said: "Candidates who have pursued a tertiary education in music have a clear passion and dedication to music and teaching; it shows in their interviews, auditions and teaching demonstrations."

Today, Aureus Academy offers lessons for instruments such as piano, violin, guitar and drums, as well as voice lessons. Its students and parents retain control of their learning experience in several aspects.

For instance, prospective students are entitled to a free trial lesson with a teacher before enrolling. They commit to lessons a month at a time, rather than by the school term. Exams are optional.

Lessons can be easily rescheduled on the school website's live scheduling system.

The school also launched a piano rental service recently so their students can practise at home with a quality instrument without needing to invest in a piano. Rental of other instruments such as drums and guitars will be available from next month.

Fees are kept affordable, at between S$75 and S$200 a month.

Julius said: "The thing about kids is that they don't really know what they want to learn. If parents can rent a piano and try the lessons, there's no $4,000 wasted and a big piece of furniture sitting in the house."

Being more competitive

Lawrence added: "We try to eliminate the barriers to entry, and it makes us much more competitive. By doing it month to month, giving a free trial and not forcing them to buy this piece of furniture, customers are willing to try it, and they will stay if you're good.

"I think forcing someone to commit to something is a bad business model in the long run, because after the six months, they're still going to leave."

As they extended their network of branches, Julius's IT background came in useful - he began incorporating data tools into the business, emulating companies like Uber and Amazon. He knows the advantages of doing so firsthand, having previously seen businesses ignore his advice to upgrade their systems - only to lose essential data when their outdated servers crashed.

He said: "I've always loved doing tech, but when you do it for other people who don't understand it, it's very frustrating. When you come to your own business from that perspective, you understand what potential technology has. It's a driving factor to figure it out."

He tested multiple platforms to find the right fit for each of Aureus' needs, from the lesson scheduling system on the company's website to the most crucial part of their business - its billing system.

He founded the billing system best suited to the company's needs in CyberSource, a payment solution owned by Visa, which enables the streamlining of billings and charging of fees directly to customers' credit cards.

Julius had to convince the company that while Aureus did not yet have the minimum revenue required to use the service, it would get there before long; he had to prove Aureus's potential with recent results and projections to obtain access to the service.

Data analytics is also prominent throughout the business and indicates areas that can be improved. For example, teachers are monitored for the number of students who attend their trial lessons and sign up for paid lessons afterward.

Rather than fire teachers with low sign-up rates, they examine the teacher's trial lessons and identify problems that can be solved to increase sign-ups.

With similar statistics, administrative staff can be urged to increase their rates of reply to emails, for example. Customer queries are also monitored to ensure that issues are resolved and no customer is overlooked.

Aureus will focus on vertical expansion in 2017, said the brothers.

In addition to their piano rental service, they are preparing to launch their home lessons scheme, Aureus at Home, in March. Technological aspects of this service include data-gathering to measure demand in various regions of Singapore, as well as a new feature of car-hiring app Uber, through which teachers schedule rides for entire days at a go.

Eventually, the brothers hope to expand Aureus into neighbouring countries such as Hong Kong, drawing on its similarities to Singapore in terms of economy and education.

For now, the brothers still see potential to expand in Singapore.

Julius said: "We believe this model - the quality and hiring of teachers, the operations, all the infrastructure - can be applied to almost any industry, especially education."

Lawrence added: "We love Singapore. I think about whether I want to fly to another place every week or if I would rather explore other things in this market, and I think the second is something we are more likely to do."