Nathan John tells Maria McGeoghan how listening to rapper Tupac gave him the idea for Rewise Learning, which delivers education through music.
Just come and look at this view.” On a gloriously sunny day in Mumbles, it’s warm enough to sit outside, drink coffee, and admire the sweeping sands of Swansea Bay.
Lots of people are strolling along the beach with their dogs and it feels more like the peak of the summer holidays than a one-off special November day. I’m here to meet entrepreneur Nathan John. To say he is proud to call this beautiful corner of the world his home is an understatement.
‘I love living here,” says John. “Just look at that beach. If I wasn’t so busy it’s the perfect day to go surfing.”
John is the brains behind Rewise Learning, which makes education easy by creating fun, award-winning courses and resources. He’s a natural entrepreneur and his story of determination to succeed no matter what obstacles he found in his way is both inspiring and a little bit exhausting. He’s packed more in to 33 years than many people attempt in a lifetime.
“Coming to Swansea changed my life for ever,” says John, whose love and belief in the power of music underlines everything he does. “Every day I look out on this view and realise how lucky I am.
“‘Believe in yourself’ is a message I stress to everyone I meet on our courses and when I go and talk in schools. That’s the spirit I’m trying to embed in everyone I come across.”
Born prematurely, John was the original “bag of sugar baby”, spending weeks on life support attached to tubes and monitors. “I suppose you could say I’ve been a fighter from the start,” he offers. “I’ve still got one nostril smaller than the other because I was so premature but that’s the only clue.”
John was born and brought up in Nelson in Caerphilly. “I never knew my dad but I had a really good stepdad.
“I know I’m jumping around here but, sometimes when you dream about things, strange things can happen. I always dreamed of being on Match of the Day.
“I got involved in a project with young people to come up with an anthem for Swansea football club. It was called ‘The Swansea Way’. And we only ended up being on Match of the Day. They came to us to film it. I was delighted.
“I get ideas all the time. I think my brain works differently. I was just thinking this morning that you could develop an app to give you a recipe from everything you’ve got in the fridge or the cupboard. That would work, wouldn’t it?”
As with many entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years, school was a trial for John, who wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was 21. “I started to believe I was stupid at school, which was really run down and had started to come to the end of its life cycle,” he explains. “I was bored and started to get into trouble. I was predicted to get Ds and Cs but I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to pass to prove everyone wrong.
“I started listening to hip hop and reggae, particularly Tupac and Bob Marley. A lot of their lyrics are about achieving their dream and having a positive outlook.
“The music really got to me. All their lyrics really seemed in tune with my situation. Tupac was intense and timeless. It was him against the world. Even a genius asks questions. No-one really knows everything.”
It was this love of rap that proved to be the spark for his future business. “I remember revising Macbeth and really struggling to take it in, but I’d be listening to Tupac and realising that I could remember all the words,” he explains. “I thought if you could put GCSE revision to music then that would really work. I thought it was a good idea for a business, but I was too scared to tell anyone about my idea. I started thinking about running a business with a social purpose, but I know that you have to put the work in.
“Everyone thought that I would probably end up working at the steel works.“
John’s first taste of running a business came when his mum gave him some sandwiches left over from her job at a catering company. “Someone offered to buy one, so I charged them £2.50, sold them all and didn’t have any lunch,” he remembers. “I then starting making them myself and was making £40 a week. The teachers were buying them as well. It built up my confidence.”
After sixth form, John started working at a data-entry company, but soon started looking at university, where his career took a new and unexpected turn. “I didn’t know anything about university, but I had a girlfriend who was going so I thought I would give it a go,” he says. “I decided to go for economics and chose Swansea University, which just changed my life.”
John is now an ambassador for the university. “You’ll probably drive past some billboards with my face on when you go home,” he says with a laugh.
He found himself sharing a flat with his now best friend, Alexis, who also loved music and they both enjoyed coming up with business ideas, which were scribbled on the back of beer mats. One of those ideas was to start publishing a magazine for students.
“A local nightclub said we could have a free night to raise funds to launch the magazine,” John recalls. “It would have been really easy to say no, because it took a lot of work and we didn’t really know what we were doing. It took us three days to design a flyer.
“I did the DJ set and kept making mistakes. I was embarrassed at first, but mistakes don’t kill you. No-one was throwing stuff at me, so I thought what’s the worst that can happen?’
“A lot more people turned up than we thought. We wanted to earn £200 to launch the magazine but it was closer to thousands.
“When we saw how much we had made we said: ‘Screw the magazine, let’s do this instead.’ We started doing music nights and I learned how to be a professional DJ.
“It taught us a lot about marketing and promotion. We did one the following Sunday and four people turned up.”
While studying for their degrees, John and Alexis staged around 1,000 club nights during their time at Swansea University. “It was the perfect time,” John says. “We were booking the artists we were listening to. We also did gigs in Bristol and London, and I was working five or six nights a week. We only lost money in one of those nights.”
His classmates tried to help him out by giving him notes on lectures he had missed but his finals were looming. Then, four weeks before his final exams, John was diagnosed with dyslexia. “I was really frustrated and disappointed,” he says. “I wondered how different my education could have been if I had been given support.
“But I wouldn’t change being dyslexic. It has given me that underdog spirit.”
When John graduated, he decided to get his learning-through-music idea off the ground and came up with Rewise as an umbrella brand with ambitions for lots of offshoots. He found himself at a Prince’s Trust event in Cardiff, pitching for investment to a panel that included Gordon Brown. His story was soon picked up by the media.
“I turned up in my suit and realised I had to ask the PM a question. I asked him if he could help me roll out my idea to every school?”
A few minutes later he got a call from a friend who said I had been on Sky News. “I don’t think I noticed that cameras were there. I ended up being on BBC Wales, the Times Educational Supplement, Spanish and Danish media and even doing an interview with RTE in Ireland in a cupboard in the middle of a gig.”
It was the perfect launch for LearnThruMusic and, since 2008, John has engaged with 30,000 teenagers on this and other Rewise courses. “We teach them the soft skills by using music as a tool to learn and build confidence,” he explains. “We have a producer and a songwriter and together we write a song. It can push past fear and push past barriers.
“The support from The Prince’s Trust pushed me to try and live my dream. As well as financial backing and business guidance, getting involved with the trust enabled me to meet the right people, which was crucial in getting me to where I am today.”
Since establishing Rewise Learning, John has developed different strands of the business to support community initiatives, help people who struggle with reading, and increase engagement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Subjects range from coding to skills in employability, entrepreneurship, literacy, GCSE revision, phonics and numeracy.
The Rewise brand is growing and now includes LearnThruTech, LearnThruWork, LearnThruEnterprise, LearnThruPhonics as well as the original LearnThruMusic.
John is also proud to be a founding director of Surfablility UK Community Interest Company, a surf school for young people with disabilities. He continues to promote the work of The Prince’s Trust, including delivering programmes in England and Wales.
With revenues of £500,000 and a staff of 10, John has ambitions to double those figures in three years. And his advice to anyone with that burning idea for a business? “Just get on and do it. Don’t be afraid to fail. The hardest part of any business is making the decision to do it.”