After seven years I was running out of energy
Dan Cook’s foray into owning a small business wasn’t something he expected to happen as soon as it did. “My plan was always to be a graphic designer, then a teacher, then buy a cafe […] It was supposed to happen in 30 years, but it happened in about 12.”
After teaching IT, business, film and media at a secondary school for seven years, Cook bought Joe’s Cafe in Brighton in 2013. At the time, it was a builder’s cafe that dated back to 1987, which Cook says didn’t suit the area anymore. Cook and his wife Jane completely revamped the building and their breakfast eatery was born. It went on to win the best cafe gong at the Brighton and Hove Food Awards in 2015.
Cook enjoyed teaching but things changed after the 2008 recession. “It meant my class sizes got larger, the support became less, the funding [dried up and] you could see it was becoming harder for schools to function. At the school I was at there were a lot of redundancies and debt. It became quite a negative place to work.
“[Teaching] used to be a job for life, but I don’t think it’s something you could do for 30 years now. After seven years I was running out of energy […] I miss the students and the staff, but I don’t miss the changing curriculums and paperwork. It’s quite nice to be able to please myself a bit more now.”
He says running a business has been a steep learning curve – particularly controlling stock and dealing with suppliers. But he has put his teaching skills to good use, managing the cafe’s young staff (some of whom are Cook’s ex-students), and two apprentices.
“In many ways, [running a business] is more relentless than teaching, but not quite as stressful,” he adds. “When you’re teaching, you’re trying to get kids into college or university, whereas here we’re just doing breakfast. It’s not life or death.”
I couldn’t have set up this business without having been a teacher
Liz Wilson, founder of micro-bakery Ma Baker, says the biggest challenge of becoming an entrepreneur has been believing she can do it. “I think I went into it very blindly,” she says. “I still feel like a bit of a fraud – [as if] someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say I’m not really a businessperson.”
Wilson spent nine years as a primary school teacher, working with children struggling to read, write and speak at key stage one. She says she loved teaching and that it fit neatly around her children’s lives when they were small. But over time she realised she wanted more flexibility and her long-term ambitions lay elsewhere.
“I wanted to do something in food, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be. Then I did a bread course, and it was a light-bulb moment.”
The London-based entrepreneur focused on bread full-time in September 2014. She now makes 50 loaves on each “bake day”, delivers them herself and runs up to four bread-making classes a week at home. She won two Great Taste Awards in 2016 and recently received funding from the Plunkett Foundation for a new oven and mixer.
As for her previous career, there are things she misses, but she has kept connected to her school. “I miss the kids but the teachers I used to work with still buy my bread so I’m in school every week delivering. I get all those lovely bits of school but without the hard work and paperwork. I’ve got the best of both worlds now, I think.”
Wilson’s teaching skills have been vital. “Teaching has taught me patience, how to deal with people and how to get the best out of people. I don’t think I could have set up this business without having done time as a teacher.”
It’s refreshing to be able to manage our time as we want to
Many small business owners will question whether their idea has longevity, but Samantha Metcalf’s was given a boost when ex-Dragons’ Den investor Theo Paphitis chose it as one of his small business Sunday winners, just as the business was launching.
Metcalf and her partner Peter Walliker (who was an accountant) launched Mysteries in Time, a monthly history subscription box service for children aged seven to 11, in July this year. The boxes include a short fiction book (that follows two characters as they go back in time to solve a mystery), a map, colouring sheets and puzzles – all themed around that month’s chosen era. July’s topic was Ancient Egypt, August’s was Elizabethan and September’s will be wartime Britain.
Metcalf had been teaching at a primary school for six years but was ready for a change. She left in 2014 to go travelling with Walliker: “[The profession] had changed a lot […] my career break made me realise how stressful the teaching profession has become. It’s refreshing to be able to manage our time the way we want to.”
As a teacher, Metcalf says she loved teaching history and has found her ability to multi-task, organise and be flexible – all skills that she developed at school – have been invaluable as an entrepreneur.
“I do miss the day-to-day of teaching the kids and getting to know them. You build up such a great relationship with the children, especially at primary school.”
As a teacher, you’re pretty adaptable to most situations
Cycling was just a hobby for Nick Hobbs while he was working as a PE teacher but, after eight years, he says that the workload became overwhelming. “The idea of spending another 30–35 years until retirement [doing the same thing made it] worthwhile to take a punt doing something else.”
Two years ago, he left to launch Blackmore Apparel, an online cycling wear company. He’s since had to learn about online advertising, running a website and day-to-day accounting. Teachers generally struggle to recognise that their skills are incredibly transferable, Hobbs says. However, he felt well prepared for entrepreneurship because of his teaching background.
“As a teacher, you’re pretty adaptable to most situations.Teaching throws up so many challenges on an hourly basis that you’re always learning on the job, even though I never took it as that at the time.”
Education has also been something of a safety net for Hobbs. For eight months he focused on Blackmore Apparel full-time, but he now spends two or three days a week supply teaching.
“[Blackmore] is obviously quite seasonal. I think setting up my own business would have been a braver decision if [teaching] wasn’t there.” With supply teachers in high demand, he is able to dip in and out.
“In the next year, I’m hoping to focus on Blackmore full time […] you’ve got to be patient with it.”
The organisation that goes into being a teacher is like nothing else
“People always ask me, ‘How can you have three kids and run three companies?’, and I say ‘Because I used to be a primary school teacher’,” says Sandra Nardi. The entrepreneur now runs PR firm Bombshell Consultancy, Parent Education Consultancy (providing support and advice to parents), and Lady Wimbledon, an online lifestyle magazine for south-west London.
Before she retrained as a teacher, Nardi had worked as Sony’s UK PR manager, overseeing a £1m budget and 10 external PR firms. After three years, she says she “crashed and burned” and sought out a simpler life in education. She left teaching after nine years, frustrated with the bureaucracy and the limited time it left for her own children.
“It’s appalling the number of teachers that I saw in tears, broken relationships, the workload, the lack of respect from headteachers […] Myself, I was in tears, [even though] I loved my profession.
“I wanted to carve out a career where I could pick my kids up from school, attend their sports day, be with them if they’re sick. It’s one of those jobs where you literally can’t say ‘I’m not coming in’, because you’ve got 30 kids waiting for you. And that emotional pressure is insane.”
Her return to PR came after she helped with a shop launch and realised she should be charging for her skills. While her PR know-how has been invaluable for her business, her teaching skills have also proved useful.
“You have to think on your feet all the time, you have to always have the answer. You have to be ready for anything […] The amount of organisation that goes into being a classroom teacher is like nothing else.”
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