Sara Lou-Ann Jones is the founder of Centre of Excellence a global e-learning platform which offers a range of online transformative training courses that are accessible to all.
In 2013, Sara launched the Centre of Excellence which now offers over 1,000 online courses with students in over 30 different countries. Courses cover subjects from Animal Care to Psychology and have no time limit, so customers can take a completely flexible approach with their learning.
Entirely self-funded, Sara has built Centre of Excellence into a global, multi-million-pound brand with 16 full-time staff in the UK with a turnover reaching £3m.
What inspired you to go into business in the first place?
I’ve always loved business from a young age. I set up my first business at just 19-years-old selling advertising space. At college when everyone was applying to go to University I knew that I just wanted to do my own thing and to work for myself. I love the freedom that it brings me managing my own week and love the creative process of seeing my ideas come into fruition.
I started off selling just the one course with Centre of Excellence and we now have over 1,000 online courses which we sell in 30 different countries.
Had you always wanted to be a business leader?
Yes, from a very early age, My friends at school used to call me ‘Del boy’ at school as I was always bringing things in to sell. It started off with penny sweets and then I would buy tops from local cheap warehouses near me and then sell them on to the girls at school at a higher price.
How important is the role marketing and PR played to your business success over the years?
Very important, we used the daily deal websites such as Wowcher and Groupon to get our courses out to a worldwide audience which really helped to grow our brand awareness as well as our customer database. We’ve also used lots of other marketing methods such as advertising on social media, PPC and affiliates.
What was the thought process behind starting Centre of Excellence?
I was pregnant with my little boy at the time and wanted something that I could do working from home so that I could spend as much time with him as possible. The one thing that I truly believe is that I have an ability to take on challenges in life and defy the odds. I realised this when I launched the Centre of Excellence.
At the age of 30, I came out of a long-term relationship and found out I was pregnant but my partner at the time didn’t want to be involved. I was living in a 3 bedroom rented house in Prestwich, Manchester and knew I needed to secure a future life for me and my child.
I needed to take control of my own money, my own situation and also look after my child without the ties and restrictions of my job. Not only was I tired and sick from pregnancy but I also had to manage the business, and with very little income, it was an incredibly stressful time for me. But I wanted to create a fantastic life for my child.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced in business over the years, and how did you overcome it?
The hardest parts for me have been managing staff that work from home and recruiting the right employees for the job. For example, in the early days of business I found out that some employees that were freelancing and working from home were billing me for hours they weren’t even working.
I overcame it by putting in place performance measurement strategies making sure that everyone is accountable for the time that they spend on tasks and that they can produce all work when asked.
When you are investing in a new venture, what are the main factors that you look for?
As well as looking at whether or not I could make it profitable the main thing that I ask myself is will I enjoy it? We’re only here for a very limited time on this earth so I try not to spend my time on things that I don’t enjoy.
What has been behind the success of you in business?
A lot of hard work, dedication and absolutely loving what I do. I found the tactics that really grew my business were hiring freelancers and making use of the daily deal websites that were really popular at the time, when I started using Wowcher and Groupon, they had just started out and I was one of the first online course providers that advertised deals on their website. An essential part of growing your business really is identifying opportunities and seeking those out before your competitors do.
How do you see the business landscape changing and evolving over time?
More and more businesses are going online now with many of those that haven’t made the transition to e-commerce going out of business. The not so distant future I think there will be a lot more virtual reality and artificial intelligence being used across lots of different sectors. I think there will be a huge change in the next three to five years.
Any advice to entrepreneurs?
Before starting a venture make sure you love what you do, keep focused, positive, set yourself goals and targets but most of all try to have fun! If you can find yourself a good mentor that has already achieved what you want to achieve that can be really valuable for fast tracking the success of your business.