Simon Barnes is a teacher turned entrepreneur who’s revolutionising the tutoring sector by allowing students across the UK to access support from some of Britain’s best teachers.
He now runs a thriving digital hub called TLC Live, an online tutoring service that’s turning over a £1million. Yet, Barnes still describes the moment it struck profitability (just £100), as “winning the lottery”.
So what can he teach you about business success? Well, “having a belief in your business,” is a must, he says. But he’s adamant that learning from your mistakes is just as important.
Let’s hear his story…
Real Business (RB): How did you take your business from an idea to what it is now?
Simon Barnes (SB): I trained as a teacher many years ago, at a time when the industry was an underpaid and undervalued job. The lack of morale made me turn to the EFL business, and then to face to face tutoring in schools. I worked with an American company who were based in the UK. After a few years, they pulled out and returned to the US. I was left without a job but it gave me the idea to open my own in-person tutoring company.
RB: What made you move online?
SB: Back in 2001, all we had was a couple of centres in Bishop Stortford and Sussex – but then we decided to test going digital in 2011 as it seemed like the most effective way to ensure our students accessed the best tutors from across the UK. We could link an amazing maths teacher who was based in Manchester to a student who was miles away. In 2012 we officially launched the site but kept the centres running as a dual business, but after just a year we decided to move completely a digital space for learning.
RB: How did you gain funding for this venture?
SB: Thankfully we had some interest from shareholders investment including 1886 Investments Ltd a private equity company which is owned by the Commonwealth Education Trust. This was a crucial moment for our business as it allowed us to work on creating content for our students. Which is vital for moving online as having original work is a must.
RB: How did your first year in business go?
SB: Looking back we had to burn through a large amount of money to survive. In 2011/12, what we were offering was very niche and there was not a lot of knowledge about the benefits of digital teaching. That was a challenging marketing moment because we had to convince parents/teachers to move over to our programme. It worked though because teachers did not have the time to help certain students grow – so having our site on hand was an effective way of upskilling the pupils – and eventually, the teachers saw that.”
RB: What is your advice for people on a similar path?
SB: You need to have a support system. I have always been lucky that my shareholders have been very interested and supportive, we also have an amazing team of workers who are managed with a very flat managerial style. If I could give one piece of advice however it would be don’t spend beyond your means. At the start, we set up an office that we did not need in Cambridge. It was unnecessary and it stunted our growth.
RB: Any regrets?
SB: I made a very fundamental error when I was just starting out. We hired more people than we could afford and unfortunately had to let them go. In retrospect, I thought the sector would grow quicker than it did. And so I would recommend to not take people on if you are not 100% certain it is growing. And do not take a second person on until you have reached maximum capacity.
RB: What lessons can a traditional business owner learn from a teacher?
SB: In the classroom, you try to get pupils to work together and listen to their views. Going into the business world it was important for me to that take that desire to enthuse people to work and apply it to my company going forward.