For more than a decade, Manuel Lozano has worked meticulously to create a warm, welcoming environment for children to learn music and creative arts, with a particular focus on in-person, one-on-one instruction by dozens of hand-picked teachers. Set in a classic Craftsman home, South Pasadena Arts & Music Academy teaches hundreds of students from across Southern California everything from piano to ukulele, along with improv and musical theater, each year.
2020, of course, has been unlike any other year.
Many business owners who focus so much on in-person experience long eschewed the idea of “going online” prior to COVID-19. Lozano was no exception. But he recognized the seriousness of the situation early on—and within just days of the pandemic taking hold, South Pasadena Arts & Music Academy had cobbled together a solution and was already teaching online.
And by improving the virtual experience little by little, week after week, in close consult with staff, parents, and students, Lozano is confident that online teaching is here to stay, even when we get the all-clear to sing and dance together again—essentially doubling (or more) the potential reach of his business long term.
We recently caught up with Lozano to learn more about how his pivot has evolved, what other business owners can learn from his experience, and why music is more important than ever.
So how did the year start?
Everyone was super jazzed for 2020.
What impresses me most about your pivot is how quickly you made it. And it was a true 180—you went from zero online to entirely online, almost overnight. How did you know to act so quickly?
Before COVID, if you asked me if we’d ever do lessons online, I would’ve said no way. We have great instructors, a great space, seven instruction rooms. The place is academia. There’s such a benefit of in-person instruction. We’ve had situations where students left or moved and asked to go online and we just wouldn’t do it.
All of a sudden, COVID happened and we thought, “What can we do?” We thought we’d offer in-person instruction for people who wanted to keep going, but if they wanted to do online, we would go online. We realized quickly, this was serious. I was getting calls from parents daily. Then I realized, if I’m not comfortable with my child potentially going to school and her school is moving online, we’ve got to make a decision here. I’ve got friends who have music schools and they were like, “We’ll take a week or two off and see what we’re going to do.” But I thought continuity was really important. We didn’t skip one day. We went from teaching in person on a Saturday to teaching online Monday.
How did you make the pivot to online? Easier said than done.
We wanted to make everything as easy as possible. We put all the information in a calendar, we communicated to every single student and teacher. We had probably two or three Zoom calls with 25 teachers. There were a lot of teachers who had never done an online lesson. Maybe 80 or 90 percent. We had to make them feel comfortable and empower them to give students really great lessons. These are students that had never taken an online lesson either. We did a lot of research. What is the best way? On a personal level, I know these are scary times, but I said, “Let’s try to have some fun.”
Part of the lesson just became about connecting and having fun. Filling the void because kids couldn’t go to school. It was their only way to connect outside the home. We had weekly meetings with the teachers, sharing tips on what was working. We just hunkered down and said each week is all about keeping the connection going. The next week and the week after, we’ll work on improving the experience. This is going to be the way we do things for a while. And now, teachers who weren’t too tech savvy and couldn’t even set up a Zoom call are now Zoom professionals.
A lot of that was informed by staying in constant contact with your customers.
I contacted parents personally who needed that reach-out. We sent out emails. We put as much information on our website as we could. We did whatever we could to keep people comfortable. We’ve had about 20 percent of our students stop until we get back to in-person. But we’ve picked up students we wouldn’t have had access to before. We now have the ability to teach students who used to live in LA and moved to, say, North Carolina. That’s really helped.
You did something smart that I’ve seen more and more business owners doing—you surveyed your staff and customers. What was the reaction?
I really wanted to know what people were feeling, so I spent a lot of time formulating 10 or so questions. How they felt about online learning and how they felt about potentially coming back to lessons in the fall. I was surprised to see how many people said once we go back to in-person, they still want the option of online too. There were some people who just didn’t like it, but others have embraced it and love it. A number of our teachers love that they can get up in the morning, do their thing, then log on and start teaching. They’re 30 seconds away from class. We’ve got a teacher who moved to Texas still on board. We’ve got teachers who had moved to Portland and Chicago prior to COVID back on board.
And because you’re entirely online now, I assume you’re able to expand your reach?
Now, in this environment, I realize it doesn’t matter where the instructor is. I’ve realized there are also some instructors who are better teaching online. Overall, our instructor base has gotten more creative with their materials and how they structure the lesson. Even things like lighting and having the camera at eye level. Maybe you have a second device focused on the instrument that shows how the violin is being held.
Our teachers and our school have just gotten really good at it. Five months in, I’m now in a place where, yeah, I'm considering opening up and hiring people remotely. Why would I limit myself to just Los Angeles when I know we might be doing online lessons for the next year or longer?
You started your entrepreneurial journey in 2008, amid the Great Recession. Do you find yourself falling back on that experience?
Tough times are the best time to start a business... because things are tough. If you can run a business when every penny counts, when the economy picks back up, you’ll be so much more successful. You’ve built the foundation.
When we started in 2008, people were like, “You’re quitting your job now?” I was scared. I thought maybe they were right. But you make smart decisions where you spend your time and money.
Why is music important now?
We teach a lot of beginners and intermediates, and a majority of our students are never going to be pro musicians. It’s a hobby and it’s therapy. It’s therapy for the student and the teacher. Whether it’s a six-year-old or a teen, it’s 45 minutes a week they get to connect with somebody and be creative and share emotion in a different way. Making this change and going online so quickly and continuing that process has been instrumental. Personally, I miss the connection with our teachers and everyone else, but being able to continue the music education component online has allowed these students to continue that connection with their teachers. Many of them are switching gears and writing music, getting more creative, as opposed to just playing. Getting their emotions written down on paper and creating music. We did five or six recitals in June, we posted them all on YouTube. We had a lot of people play original stuff. We’ve seen more creativity than we’ve seen before. I’ve got a seven year old, Iris, and her weekly lesson is so important to her as a creative outlet. She gets to connect with a musician, an artist. Not only to play piano and sing, but be creative.
What’s the biggest lesson you’d share with other business owners from all this?
My business was all about having a great facility and having these really state-of-the-art rooms for teachers to teach and that was the draw for them as instructors. An incredible front desk staff that was there to help them. When the facility went away, I worried I was losing the draw as to why anyone would want to be a part of my program. So it’s about connecting with your employees, letting them know you're there to do everything you can to make sure their livelihood continues. Anything you can do to reach out.
Reconnect at a personal level with every one of your employees. Be there for them. Focus less on the P&L and profitability. Just as I'm struggling as a human being trying to communicate with my kid about what’s going on in the world, I have employees with the same struggles. One thing that this has taught me is that I've done a really good job at hiring people I can trust, people that are like family. And I've treated them like family.
Forget business for a minute. How are you doing as a human being?
Personally, COVID has given me a gift—more time with my daughter, more time with my wife. I was doing all the homeschooling in the last part of the semester and the beginning was really rough. We stumbled through it and figured it out and my favorite moment was when Iris said to me, “Papa you’re really a good teacher.” That was the greatest gift I could get. I'm grateful. I have my health, Iris has her health, my wife has her health. We’ve had to completely change our plans professionally and personally. Even simple things like vacation, families we can visit. But we have each other and COVID has given me the gift of more time with people I love. I also feel grateful to continue a business that I thought at the beginning we’d be shutting down. I’m grateful to give these 25 people a living. I’m confident we’re here for the long haul. I said that at the beginning, because they needed to hear that. Now I really am.
Photo: Getty Images