CEO Stories: Natalie Mangrum, Maryland Teacher Tutors

Natalie Mangrum
Author & CEO, Maryland Teacher Tutors

Natalie Mangrum, CEO of Maryland Teacher Tutors, always wanted to teach. But she didn’t see being an entrepreneur in her future, even though she grew up watching her dad run his own contracting and construction business.

With Maryland Teacher Tutors, she combined her love of teaching with her hidden entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurial spirit—seeing a problem and creating a solution—first revealed itself when she was working as a reading specialist in the Baltimore public schools. She devised an alternative to the traditional approach of taking kids out of class and instead had them work with her in small groups or one-on-one.

A few months later, referrals for tutoring outside of school started coming in based on word of mouth. Mangrum started recruiting fellow teachers to keep up with demand, and she eventually realized she needed to formalize her processes. In 2015, she created her business, Maryland Teacher Tutors, with the intent of keeping it small. But when the phone stopped ringing, Mangrum approached her endeavor with a different mindset, reading about entrepreneurship, networking with fellow entrepreneurs, and devising a strategy for growth.

After a tough year in 2016, Mangrum started to see things turn around, thanks to a strong presence on social media and once again, strong word of mouth. To this day, she says she has only invested $100 in her business—the minimum needed to open a bank account—and has grown the business so she now has some 45 certified teachers working for the business. Her goal is to expand the business into the mid-Atlantic states and to be the
No. 1 tutoring business in Washington DC.

This Is Capitalism: Natalie Mangrum

RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. To equate the world of entrepreneurism with football, most of the cheering comes when a quarterback throws a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. In business, those are the billion-dollar IPO’s that gain most of the media attention.

But entrepreneurism, capitalism, is mostly a ground game. Put your head down, start a business, commit yourself, and pick up maybe three yards or five yards at a time–much in the way that Natalie Mangrum, a teacher from Baltimore, has. After a rough start she’s been steadily adding parents as customers and fellow teachers as after-hours tutors for her increasingly successful business, Maryland Teacher Tutors. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a teacher. And she started preparing for the role with her little friends in Sunday School.

NM: You know, we were all the same age, of course, they were my peers. But wanting to have all the other kids kind of huddle up around me so I could be in the role of teacher… and so that’s my earliest memory of wanting to be a teacher. And I was quite young at that point. I was probably six or seven years old.

RH: So there must have been a teacher, either a school teacher or a Sunday School teacher, who taught you by example that you wanted to be a teacher, right?
NM: Well, you would think that that would be the case. But actually, I don’t think so. I think…I mean, yeah, I guess you could say so. I think I wouldn’t have even known what teaching was. But I think it was just a desire to lead and help and motivate and inspire all in one that really prompted me to want to teach.

RH: Can you take me through your childhood and show me some further examples of you as a kind of a teacher in waiting? There must be some.
NM: Well, I think being the oldest child probably has a lot to do with that. Like you mentioned, just a modeling of here’s how you do this, there’s how you do that.

I was the first one of my siblings to go to kindergarten for the first time. And so when my siblings, who were younger were going, you know, I was able to sit down with them, even at a young age, and say, “Okay, here’s what you can expect. And this is your teacher’s name.” And so, so much of it really is, I think, just God-given personality, it’s just the way I was created.

But going forward in life, I do remember having a favorite fourth-grade teacher. He was outstanding and I remember thinking, “Wow, he’s really fantastic. If I could be half the teacher he is at some point, that would be really cool”. And then going up through middle school and going up through high school, having great teachers.

In high school I had an English teacher who just really made literature come alive for me in ways that I had not experienced prior to that. And again, she just had everybody in the classroom engaged and we were all excited. And that was a really cool experience.

RH: Those people will leave a mark on you for your entire life. My favorite teachers were a fourth-grade teacher and an eleventh-grade English teacher.
NM: Those were yours, too?

RH: Yes.
NM: Oh, get out. ‘Cause mine was eleventh grade too, the literature, the English teacher was eleventh grade, too. That is so funny.

RH: Mr. Chamberlain.
NM: Yeah. Everyone I’ve talked to typically has a teacher that was their favorite and everyone remembers that teacher’s name, and I think that’s really powerful.

RH: Now, growing up, did you ever think about starting a business yourself? Did that ever cross your mind?
NM: Never, never. I never thought that. I was perfectly okay with being a teacher, maybe moving up at some point, you know, to a team lead and then maybe a learning specialist or something. You know, obviously the reading specialist role and then maybe administration at some point. Like I thought that I might progress but it’s not something I thought about a ton. I was just happy to be a teacher and it never crossed my mine that I would actually become an entrepreneur.

RH: And did you even think about people who started businesses in any special way?
NM: Well, my dad actually, funny enough, had a business. He was a contractor, construction. And so I knew of entrepreneurship. I knew that he had some freedom and some flexibility. He had an office in our house. He still went to work from eight to six every day, it just was there in the house.

And I really didn’t know a ton about it. My parents didn’t necessarily sit us down and say, “Hey here’s what entrepreneurship looks like; here’s what it’s like to run a business.” Everything I learned I just kind of saw from a distance. And so I still didn’t know a ton about it, to be honest, for quite a while.

RH: So now let’s go back to when you were a teacher, a reading specialist, and how this all started to happen.
NM: Yes, it’s a great story. I was a reading specialist in Baltimore City Schools. And what they typically do for students who are struggling in reading is they will have a reading specialist go to that student’s classroom and pull them out of their classroom every so often to work with them one-on-one.

And I said to my principal, when I got my first reading specialist job, “I’m not a really big fan of what they call the method of pulling students out.” I said, “What do you think about having the students come to me, small batches of students, like small groups, maybe of 10 to 12, come to me instead of their language arts teacher”? Like so I will be the language arts teacher, essentially, only I’m a reading specialist and we’ll be doing reading specialist things.

That way, it does a couple of things. Number one, they’re not ostracized from their peers because typically when a reading specialist is coming to pull a student, it’s really obvious to the other students around, “Oh, this student is behind,” you know, that kind of thing. And so I thought it would take away the student feeling ostracized because just like their friends are going to their language arts classroom, they would be going to me for their language arts classroom.

And also it would allow me really consistent time to work with students. I really felt like just a couple of hours a week of pulling students out of the classroom was not going to be enough to address some of those deficits, some of those academic deficits that they were dealing with. And so my principal, I had a really great principal, she said, “Whatever you say.” She said, “I’m a math teacher by trade. If you’re the reading specialist, and you tell me this is what you want to do, then I will do everything in my power to support you in doing that.”

And so this small group of students came to me. I had a group of sixth-grade students, a group of seventh-grade students, and a group of eighth-grade students. They were really behind. And so we worked and on average the students started making academic gains on average of two and a half to three years in just a few months. That’s how much they were growing.

So if they were in sixth and they came to me on a fourth-grade reading level, we were seeing that they were above the sixth-grade level or right at the sixth-grade level in just a few months, not even a full year.

And I would say that is when I realized the power of one-on-one, and not just one-on-one but having an expert teacher who really knows what they’re doing when it comes to helping students read and master those foundational basics. And I even had one student who left me. She was in seventh grade when she came to me, she was behind, I can’t remember if it was fourth- or fifth-grade reading level, and she was nailing eleventh- grade SAT questions when she left me after that school year.

And so these students who were much behind their peers were leaving me above grade level, and not just above by a little bit but above by a lot. And so that really is what planted the seed where I thought, “Wow, one-on-one is powerful.”

You know, I don’t think about becoming an entrepreneur at all, and then what ended up happening once we fast forward several months is that a parent of a friend, one of my friends, asked me, “Can you work with my child on the side? They’re struggling with their reading and I know you’re really good at it.” I said, “Of course.” I started working with that child. Long story short, I got referred out by that parent, that family friend, to other friends and my schedule quickly filled up.

At the time, I had two small children, my husband, bless his heart, can only make toast, and so it really was like, “You need”… it was kind of like, “You’re not getting home until eight o’clock, nine o’clock at night. I need some help”. And so I said, “Okay, I don’t want to have to turn these families away, so let me reach out to a colleague and see if a colleague of mine would be interested in helping me pick up the load.” And she said yes. And that continued where she got full, and her husband also started saying, “Hey, you’re not getting home until late, I’m doing this by myself, can we figure something out?” And so she said, “Hey, I can’t take on any more families.” And so I reached out to another teacher friend that I had.

And that is pretty much how the company came to be. It was never a decision of, “I want to be an entrepreneur, how can I really strategically find a way to own a business?” It was really just having a solution to a problem, to a need. And once I got to teacher number five, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to make a company out of this.”

At this point I’m no longer comfortable having parents send me money and then I pay the tutor, and they’re writing checks to me personally. It needed to feel more official and more legit to me. And so I said, “I’m going to create a company out of this.” And I never intended the company to be large, so I just named it exactly what it was, Maryland Teacher Tutors.

RH: And I’m thinking that in part, this company was created because there were a couple of men who could only make toast.
NM: (Laughs.) That’s exactly right.

RH: When you were in school doing the reading programs, how long did it take you to develop your approach with the students?
NM: So before I became a reading specialist, I was a regular classroom teacher. So I wasn’t going in totally cold. I was going in with the knowledge of just what it looks like to be an effective teacher in general. So I had that under my belt, which was good and really helpful.

And actually the summer before, just like we talked about, loving to read, I spent a lot of time reading research and looking into a lot of different resources and blogs and articles about the most effective way to help kids who struggle with reading. And I came across one that I just decided,” I think this one is the one. I think this is going to be it. I think this is going to be the approach that I take”. I couldn’t find anything negative about that approach. It looked like it would be a very consistent way to get students from point A to point B. And so that’s essentially the approach that I took. The approach was always the same from the beginning. But I did become more effective at it over time.

But I think to answer your question in terms of how did it just work so well? I really think it wasn’t as much about… I mean the approach was part of it but I don’t know if it was as much the approach as it was when you give a student–any student for that matter–one-on-one attention for their specific issues that you’ve already identified, five days a week, over the course of time, they’re just going to get better.

I mean you could even be really not that good of a teacher and the student would probably still make some progress if you’re working with that student so consistently. So I think that really is the reason behind why it ended up going so well.

RH: Well, how much of that is technique and how much of it as you look at it is a teacher inspiring the student to do better?
NM: That’s a great question. I think it’s both—and–instead of either-or. And I think we did do a lot of work. Like I said, I’ve always been interested in the psychology of things, you know, how the brain works. We also do work aside from just working on reading. In order to motivate and encourage my students, I often come to the table with articles about how the brain works and how intelligence is something that can be learned, essentially. Working hard at something, you can actually become smarter, you can make yourself smarter.

These kinds of concepts, you know, we came and talked about more often than not. And I think over time, that really again planted a seed in them where they were like, “I can do this, I can actually do this,” especially since they’re coming from a place where their confidence and their self worth is low because they…they’re aware.

I mean by that age, middle school, they are aware that they are behind. It’s obvious to them. The teachers have talked to their parents about it. Their parents know. So a big part of it is increasing their confidence and helping them believe that they are just as capable as their quote/unquote “normal peers.”

RH: And doesn’t every great teacher inspire to a certain extent?
NM: Absolutely.

RH: So when did the entrepreneurial drive, the entrepreneurial energy, start to take hold within you?
NM: Right around the time that I actually decided that I’m going to create this company and name it Maryland Teacher Tutors. I think not long after that, I wasn’t doing any… I just thought it would continue to have sort of a snowball effect where all the clients would come and business would come and I wouldn’t have to do anything–I’d just continue to just dispatch teachers and everything would be great because that’s how it started.

But not long after creating the company, the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook. And no one knew about us. I wasn’t doing much marketing, I didn’t know how. And so right around that time I thought, “Well, this isn’t going well. It isn’t going the way I thought it would go or should go.” And so I decided to start learning about entrepreneurship and started getting around people who were successful, started joining entrepreneurial groups, getting on the phone with people who I knew owned businesses and really started to strategize how to do this thing because it was a foreign concept to me for sure.

RH: And so how long did that process take?
NM: Oh, I’m still in that process. I don’t know if that process is ever going to end. Man, that was at least a year. I would consider this first year of business a year that was not even a real year or you could argue that it was because I learned a lot. But it felt like I was constantly trying to push something up a hill and it just took forever.

And at one point after a couple of years doing it, it’s like we finally hit the top of the hill and now the ball’s starting to roll downward. That’s the best way I can think to describe it where we’ve got some systems and processes in place. We sort of have this well-oiled machine.

Of course, we always have things that we can work on and ways to make our company better, but man, that early year was really hard. Even thinking back to it now, I’m just reminded of how many times I cried, how many times I put the covers over, you know, put the blankets over my head and didn’t want to get up that day. Entrepreneurship can really be a rough thing.

RH: And how many years ago was that, the rough part?
NM: The rough part? So I founded the company in 2015. I would say most of 2016 was not easy for me, very difficult.

RH: Do you remember the moment though and what happened in that moment when you realized that you were at the top of the hill and now you could start rolling the ball down?
NM: I don’t know that there was a defining moment. I think I started to…well you know what? Maybe there was a defining moment. What ended up happening was I no longer felt like I had to get all of this brand exposure out and do all of this marketing, which really felt like a boots on the ground kind of thing. I just was really exhausted and trying to tell people what we were doing and what we were up to. And it seemed for a moment like no one cared. But at some point I can remember getting parents and calls and inquiries about our services and I would ask, “Well, how did you hear about us”?

“Oh, someone mentioned you, someone referred you on Facebook or I have a family friend who I go to church with who said that you did great with their child”. And that’s when I started to realize all of the work that we were putting into this, that I was putting into this, was starting to pay off.

Because it was no longer Natalie having to go out and find all of this business but it was a transitional kind of thing that was happening where now, previous clients or just people who knew about what we were doing because they followed us on Facebook or followed us on Instagram or LinkedIn, were telling others about us. And just felt like it took a big burden off my shoulders, that we were finally getting to a place where people were starting to recognize that we were really good at what we do, and that we were out there to help.

RH: So this was more social media rather than a lot of funding to get the company off the ground.
NM: Oh yes. The company was founded with $100. We’ve never used capital, we’ve never used any…

RH: $100?
NM: $100, yeah, I mean…

RH: I’ve never heard a story of a company being founded with $100.
NM: Yes. I mean when you think about it though, when you think about the structure of the business, in order for us to make money, the money comes from the parent and then I then pay the teacher. So it was really just a issue of, “We just are going to do this slowly but surely. We’re going to build this company from the ground up.” I’m not a big fan of debt, and so I really didn’t want to do that. And so yes, we built it that way with $100.

And the only reason I had $100 was because I needed $100 to open the bank account. They wouldn’t even let me open it if I didn’t have any money to put in there. So yes, it was hard.

RH: $100. Okay, I’ll take that. Now there’s statement on your website. It reads, “We are 100% confident in our business model.” And in terms of the competition that naturally goes with entrepreneurism and capitalism, you maintain that your model using only certified teachers working in the students’ homes delivers better results than other mentoring business models.
NM: Mhm. Yes.

RH: How so?
NM: Teachers are trained to effectively pass along and deliver information in a way that makes the most sense for the student. So early on in my company I had people I looked up to, people I trusted who said, “Tour model is never going to work, you can’t only hire certified teachers because you’re going to have to pay them more and you’re not going to profit.” And what they suggested I do instead of certified teachers is use high school students or college students who were just looking to make an extra buck.

And I really felt strongly that that was not the way to go. Part of that is probably because I was a teacher and I saw the difference that I was making with my students in the classroom with the training and with the background that I had as opposed to… What if I had I had drawn a high school student in here who was good at reading or a college student in here who was good at reading but didn’t really have the training and the experience and the background to make the information make sense for these students? So the certified teachers was something I was never willing to change. That was something I really believed in.

And then the one-on-one is another huge aspect of that. There are tutoring companies who will work with students in groups and I think that progress can still happen–I’m not saying progress can’t happen–I don’t think progress can happen as quickly, not when you have an expert teacher who can identify exactly what it is that’s tripping the student up, causing the student to get stuck, and then addressing those areas.

Because that’s what we went to school for, I mean, that’s what we do. We identify the problem, and we create solutions and we teach the students, “Here’s where you’re getting stuck. Here’s where there are some gaps in your learning. And here’s what we’re going to do to address those problems.” So I feel very strongly about our model and I’m really glad that I didn’t listen to the nay-sayers who said that we couldn’t do it and that it wasn’t smart to do it this way.

RH: And how many certified teachers do you employ now?
NM: At this point we have about 45 teachers. We hire the teachers to be contractors with us. So all of our teachers are in the classrooms during the day. And so we hire them as 1099’s to work for us.

RH: And how many staff people do you have?
NM: Just me. We have companies that help us, like we have a marketing agency that helps us but they’re not on staff with us. They charge us and we pay them and they assist us with our Google searches and our ads and things like that. But no, it’s just me, I’m the only employee of the company right now.

RH: So that makes sense in terms of the title of your new book, which I understand is scoring very well on Amazon right now, called Owning It.
NM: Yes. (Laughs.)

RH: Because you really do own this company.
NM: I really do, you’re right. The book is really just a compilation of stories over the course of my life where I walk through some of the really difficult things that have happened to me, some of the really difficult things that I’ve brought on myself. I grew up in middle-class suburbia with two married parents who were amazing and fantastic and despite that, I was almost a teen pregnancy statistic. I got pregnant at 20 instead of 19. I dropped out of college, I ended up going back later to finish.

So the full title is Owning It: It’s My Story And I’ll Share If I Want To. When I was thinking of that title, I really wanted something empowering and hey, this is what happened to me, but that should not and will not stop me from being successful and creating the life for my family that I’ve always dreamed of.

RH: Is there one big mistake with the company?
NM: Just one? Well (laughs) I would say early on, isolation, I think, was a temptation for me, early on, especially during the years 2016. Like we talked about, that was such a difficult year and in that year when I just wanted to keep the blankets over my head and did a lot of crying, I thought to myself, “We’re done with this, I think. MTT is not going to be what I hoped it would be, and I’m willing to just put it behind me and move on.”

And I think the mistake in that thinking is that I was largely in isolation at that point. I had not reached out to anyone. I had not asked for help. I just pretty much accepted that we were going to end and I wish that I had reached out and connected with more people at that time. What ended up happening was over time we started getting more calls and things like that naturally started to happen. But in that moment it was really a tough time and I wish I had not dealt with that alone.

RH: So as a mentor, how would you mentor an entrepreneur in developing a better sense of self-reality?
NM: I think having conversations with other entrepreneurs is one of the biggest ways to do that. I didn’t even know as a new entrepreneur what questions I should be asking, what things I should be considering. When I put myself around people who had successful businesses, they were able to draw out of me what I did not even know I needed to have drawn out.

So I would say, get yourself around people who are like you because it really can feel lonely ’cause you can get in that spin cycle of feeling like there’s no way out and things are all just terrible. And maybe they are but it’s helpful to have somebody say, “But it doesn’t have to be that way forever, I mean, there’s a way out of this.” So I think that would be what I would say to an entrepreneur–to get yourself around folks who have done this.

RH: Are you hearing from other teachers around the country who want to do the exact same thing that Natalie Mangrum is doing?
NM: I am and it’s pretty exciting! And not only just in the nation but in other places as well. So there is a gentleman in the Bahamas who really wants to have the same business model and call it…I think it’s Bahama Teacher Tutors. He created a logo and everything so that’s been pretty cool. And then there are teachers from Florida and Tennessee and New York who want to try it.

But you know, the interesting thing is I freely give information and help as many people as I can who want to do the same thing but for one reason or the other, they don’t actually follow through and do it. I have yet to understand why that is. But I guess when it comes to being an entrepreneur, you have it or you don’t.

RH: And this is a question I’ve asked many times of entrepreneurs: How big do you want this company to be and how big should it be?
NM: Well, how big do I want it to be is going to be a different answer from me of how big it should be. I believe it should be nation-wide. That’s how strongly I believe that having certified teachers tutor in families’ homes, one-on-one, that’s how important I think it is. In terms of how big I want it to be, at least while I am the CEO, I would really like to see it be a strong, mid-Atlantic brand. So I would really love us to expand into Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and that’s exactly what our plans are.

But at some point I look forward to someone else taking the reins. You know, at some point I’d love to sell the business and be able to really spend some time with my husband and kids. I cannot see right now myself being the CEO of the company if it’s nation-wide. At that point, I just even know that I would get a much joy out of it. We’ll see, we’ll see. But I really like the idea of a mid-Atlantic brand in the short/longish-term future.

RH: Yes, have you started talking to people in neighboring states?
NM: Yes. So we actually have clients in New York, we have clients in Pennsylvania, we have clients in Washington D.C., so we are expanding. Part of it is finding the right person to do it in another state. So the clients that we have right now who are not in Maryland, they’re working with us online. At some point, in addition to Maryland Teacher Tutors, we want to have Pennsylvania Teacher Tutors, and New York Teacher Tutors. And so we really need the right person to be the presence there and to be actually in that state and able to work on the brand at that point.

So we are talking but we’re not necessarily in a huge rush. We’re trying to really master where we are first. Then we want to move to being the main tutoring company in Washington D.C. And so slowly but surely we’re definitely making our way there.

RH: And how old are your children?
NM: My children are 17 and 15.

RH: Oh, it would be interesting to see how you tackle this problem in the years to come because obviously…
NM: Absolutely.

RH: …you have a successful company and you can take on this problem if you choose to take it.
NM: Yes, absolutely, definitely.

RH: And beyond vastly, better grades and test scores and nice notes and recommendations from parents, is there one biggest reward?
NM: Yes. I have recently identified what that is. I had asked myself that question for a long time actually. You know, what is it, what it is that I kind of live for when it comes to this company? And I have been able to boil it down to just having a company that is outstanding.

I mean, I would almost say…and that’s not to say that we’ve arrived and we’re, you know, the best there is. What I’m saying is to be set apart from other companies in the way we do business where both teachers and parents are saying, “You have really created quite the experience here with this”. So to have the teachers say, “We love working for you, we feel very valued, we enjoy what we do and wouldn’t want to do it for anyone else.” And then having the parents say, “I’m going to tell everyone about you guys because I can’t believe it’s been this amazing of an experience.”

I really like to think about it like when you look at the fast food chains in America, you’ve got McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King but you have Chick-Fil-A, which really stands apart in terms of how they do fast food. They’re just different. And not only that, but you notice with Chick-Fil-A, they have Santa in their restaurant during Christmas, and the Easter Bunny. They just go above and beyond what your typical fast-food chain is doing. And I just think that they excel at everything. And I think that’s ultimately what I love about what I do, and that’s ultimately what I want to continue to pursue in this entrepreneurship role that I have. That’s what I would like to see with MTT.

RH: Well, now that I know that they have an Easter Bunny… (Laughter.) Continued success, and I hope to follow this company for years to come, Natalie Mangrum.
NM: Well, thank you so much, Ray.

RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.