Single and pregnant with no funding: how one woman made her online business a success

Starting a business by yourself is tough enough, never mind when you're pregnant and strapped for cash. Sara Lou-Ann Jones tells us how she did it with her company, Centre of Excellence.

How did Centre of Excellence come about? What’s its USP?

I started off doing classroom-based neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and hypnotherapy training which I did for four years before starting my online business.

I came out of a long-term relationship of six years and as we went our separate ways, I found out that I was pregnant. When I told my ex-partner, he decided he didn’t want to be involved in our child’s life and so I started thinking about how I could support myself and a baby on my own as I wanted to create a wonderful life for my child.

At the time I had been teaching classroom-based courses and so was away from home a lot and I wanted something that I could do working from home so that I could spend as much time as possible with my baby; this is where the idea for running online courses and Centre of Excellence came from. I started off selling just the one course which was NLP and we now have over 1,000 online courses which we sell in 30 different countries.

Our USP is that we offer full tutor support, an interactive state of the art online platform to complete the courses that can be accessed on any device – via mobile phone, laptop or iPad, and there is no time limit to complete your course.

We also offer audio versions of the courses so that you can listen to the course materials on the go, and we provide printed copies of materials as well as a free online study community/group where you can meet online study buddies in your local area worldwide.

What challenges did you face setting up the company while pregnant?

When I split from my ex-partner I was living in a small three-bedroom rented house in Prestwich, Manchester.

I could just about cover my rent and bills each month and was desperately trying to get a mortgage to buy my own house for stability for me and my baby boy. My landlord at the time wanted to sell the property.

Nobody would give me a mortgage as I had terrible credit and as I had just started a new business, there was no real proof of earnings – everyone I tried refused me.

It was a very stressful time as not only was I feeling constantly sick and tired with being pregnant, my ex was being nasty as he didn’t want me to have my baby, and at the same time I was worried about what the future would hold and working hard online trying to grow the business in order to make money and pay the bills.

In the end I decided that if nobody would give me a mortgage I would set myself a goal of somehow making money and being able to buy my own house outright in cash for £250,000.

At the time I had just started my online business and didn’t quite know how I was going to achieve that goal, but I got focused, got stuck in and kept going till it started making money. Within 12 months of setting the goal I bought my first house outright in cash for £280,000 and moved me and my baby boy in just before Christmas.

I remember when I first started out answering the phone to a customer while breastfeeding the baby on one breast and expressing milk on another – a real working mum! When my son was very young I would set up a mini baby assault course round the room including things like a baby gym and a swing, and different toys that would keep him entertained. I would move him round every 20 minutes on to the different baby entertainment mats to keep him occupied while I worked on the settee next to him.

What sacrifices did you have to make to get the business growing?

As I was pregnant at the time that I set up the business, I would spend a lot of my time working from home online on my computer, instead of taking it easy and resting through my pregnancy. I was full speed ahead to get my business growing and for money to be coming in before my baby was born.

Once my son was born instead of getting some sleep when he was asleep, I was up working online working hard to get sales in and to grow the business, but it was all worth it in the end – even though I was a walking zombie for the first year as my son was awake every two hours without fail so I was surviving on very little sleep.

What are your goals as a business?

Our annual turnover currently stands at £3 million.

However, my main goal is to get to £1 million a month turnover. We are currently hitting £250,000 a month so it’s a huge goal but I do love a challenge.

Sara was pregnant when she set up her online business

When I first started my business, my aim was to make £3,000 per month which at the time was a lot of money to me, so it’s great to see just how far we have come.

We have lots of new projects in the pipeline that we are looking to launch later this year that will bring in additional revenue streams such as a membership site and lots of new products.

What advice would you give to people who want to start their own businesses?

My advice would be firstly to make sure that you really enjoy the type of work that you are looking to do in your business – you really need to love what you do.

Passion is contagious and shines through in your business, so if you don’t love what you do and are just doing it to make some quick money then when times get tough (as they often do in business) you may be more tempted to pack it all in and to give up if you are not doing something that you absolutely love which has a higher meaning and fulfils your purpose in life and your mission.

I love what I do. Not only does it provide a great income, it also gives me a better quality of life in the way that I can work from home and spend lots of time with my children which was always very important to me.

Our courses also help people worldwide to improve their skills and ultimately their lives in some way which is always great to know that your business is really making a difference to others.

Knowing your ‘why’ is really important. Why are you setting the business up, what are you looking to achieve? Is it to have a better financial income, is it to buy a new home, or to help others? For me it was to provide a financially secure life for me and my baby son as I was a single mum. I wanted to make sure that I could give my baby boy a fantastic life.

It’s also a good idea to get really organised – I’m a very visual person so I always have a large whiteboard (which you can buy for a few pounds from Tesco) handy where I’m working.

I write down all my goals for the month and ideas for how I’m going to achieve those goals. I used to also write a financial target which kept me focused on my goal for the month. It’s really important to have targets and to know what you are working towards, especially when you’re looking after a child.

Being organised and having a plan of action for the day is a great way to start – then for the week, and so on.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.