A start-up with a zest for learning

Brad Johnson runs Zest Education, a startup providing qualified educational professionals to schools in the Midlands. He talks to BQ about his start up journey.

When you come to start up your own business, it’s easy to get caught up with the ‘unique selling point’. Business books will tell you it’s about differentiating yourself from your competitors, doing something different that sets you apart, makes you better, and it’s really easy to assume that means you should offer a different product or service.

But that’s not true, as Brad Johnson from Zest Education demonstrates. If the service is everything it needs to be, then it’s the people, and the way you deliver that service which makes you unique... and therefore, makes you successful.

“It’s not so much ‘making an idea different’,” he tells us. “For me, it was a case of offering a service that was accessible, appealing and ultimately, fun. Successful teaching is all about making learning fun and interesting, and I wanted this synergy to come across in our brand, to both candidates and schools alike.”

Born of Brad’s 10 years of experience in the sector, Zest specialises in the provision of teachers, instructors, cover supervisors and support staff to schools and academies across the Midlands.

Funded via his own personal finances and with a small bank loan, Brad also uses the services of an invoice factoring company. This is interesting as it’s often seen as something businesses do to alleviate cashflow problems, but for Zest they are preventing the problem before it occurs and factoring is part of their plan to expand the business relatively quickly.

“Positive Cashflow Finance was recommended to me by a professional who works in Birmingham, and after an initial meeting with them at the back end of 2014, I felt like they not only recognised my goals and ambition, but could also offer the financial support necessary for me to achieve the desired short/medium term growth,” Brad says.

These kind of close personal relationships are very important when starting your own business. Surround yourself with people and other companies that you like and respect... not forgetting those who also provide you with a healthy challenge, and they can be really close to home.

When discussing the tricky subject of branding his agency, Brad tell us that: “Although I aim to be as autonomous as possible with decision making, I am surrounded by some amazing friends and family. One of my life-long friends runs an established and highly successful branding agency in Birmingham, so helped out with the design of the website and general marketing.  

“I then have another good friend who is an SEO whiz, so I can turn to him for advice when I need it, which is lucky because I appreciate how important this is for the long term success of a modern day business.

“My other half is a senior account director for a large national PR agency, which obviously helps my cause. I’m responsible for sales, which has always been an area I thrive in, along with keeping on top of social media platforms on a daily basis, however it’s always an added bonus to have my good wife on tap for advice where copy and content are concerned.”

Hear, hear. Support at home is vital, if for no other reason than because it’s unlikely the millions will start rolling in on your first day in business. “One thing is for sure, be prepared to tighten those personal purse strings!” – Brad is quite right, the bite at home is always worse than the bite in the office.

“The worst thing is most definitely leaving a stable, well-paid job, to venture into the unknown.

“It is also being conscious of having enough money in reserves, to get to a point where the business will begin to pay for itself. “

But against all that, Brad – known for his brightly coloured shirts and bad jokes (careful not to get those two the wrong way around!) – seems confident that he made the right decision for himself.

“The best thing about being a start-up,” he tells us, “is the initial challenge of giving your brand recognition in the marketplace. It’s an incredible buzz once you know that it’s gaining credibility and kudos by virtue of good service, when just a matter of weeks earlier, it was unheard of. It’s also incredibly interesting to learn about each facet of running a business, from dealing with suppliers and bank managers, through to marketing and advertising.”