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Published 02 May 2023
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Entrepreneur Spotlight: Julian Parmiter of Create Academy

For NerdWallet’s Entrepreneur Spotlight series, Julian Parmiter, co-founder and CEO of online lifestyle learning platform Create Academy, spoke to us about the inspiration behind the business, the importance of creativity, and the company’s unexpected US audience.

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Julian Parmiter believes in the importance of creativity. That’s why he set up Create Academy, an online lifestyle learning platform aimed at empowering people to bring that creativity into their homes. 

Create Academy launched its first online course in 2019, with interior designer Rita Konig. Since then it has gone on to expand its line-up to include such names as chef and restaurateur Thomasina Miers, horticulturist and landscape gardener Dan Pearson OBE, and renowned designer Nina Campbell.

Julian spoke to us about the family holiday that inspired Create Academy, and why running a business is all about people.

Why did you start your own business?

Julian has a long history of TV and video production, starting on documentaries at both ITV and the BBC. But the inspiration for Create Academy came not from his professional background, but his personal life. “We took time out as a family to go travelling around the world,” says Julian. “And during that time we were really inspired as a family to bring more creativity into our daily lives.”

That led directly to Create Academy, which Julian grew out of his existing production company. “The mission for starting Create Academy was to help people create more. The more creative we are, the more fulfilled we feel in every area of life.” 

Julian recognised how easy it is to passively consume the content we watch. “The kernel of Create Academy came from this idea of ‘how do we help people have less of a consumer mentality with video content?’”

And for Julian, the answer is about bringing what you watch into the real world. “We want to help people not only learn from the best designers, gardeners, makers and chefs working today, but build their confidence so they can put into practice what they see on the screen.”

How did you fund your business?

Julian highly recommends taking a bootstrap approach to funding, at least in the early days. This means funding your business using your own money.

“This helped us be really lean, really agile, really responsive to what our growing community of learners wanted, rather than adapting or shaping the vision early on to what investors required,” he explains.

Since then, Create Academy has raised funding from a select group of angel investors alongside one venture capitalist. This was to build out the business’s tech platform and accelerate the launch of its online courses. 

Initially, Create Academy was using ‘out of the box’ software for everything, from a basic WordPress website to a generic video player.  “Very quickly as we scaled, there were pain points, particularly within the customer journey,” says Julian. Funding, then, was used to build a bespoke website, one where Create Academy could own every step of the customer journey.

» MORE: How to grow your business

What are your running costs?

“We want to make learning a joyful experience,” says Julian. “So having a high production value, high quality content, and a beautiful aesthetic, particularly because we are talking about design and craft, has always been really important to us.”

This, of course, isn’t cheap, especially since Create Academy does it all in -house. “Making the courses, and promoting the courses, are our main costs.” 

It also requires negotiating with the talent. “We have a revenue share with our instructors, so as the courses gain traction and attract more learners, they receive the benefits too.”

This model has other advantages, as Julian explains: “[The course guides] are our great ambassadors when it comes to acquiring other instructors.”

What was your biggest challenge when you first started?

It was early in Create Academy’s journey that Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown. But as Julian reflects, “our biggest challenge was our biggest opportunity”. 

Filming safely became an obstacle for the company to overcome. Videos took longer to make, while there was the added uncertainty of last-minute Covid tests causing talent and crew to pull out of shoots.

However, at the same time, people were at home a lot more, reassessing their surroundings. “The home suddenly became really important,” says Julian. “Particularly that link between how you live, your home environment, and your sense of wellbeing. And so it was probably no surprise that online learning took a great leap at that point.”

What has most surprised you about running your business?

While you can set up a business with one audience in mind, the customer base you find can surprise you. This was the case with Create Academy, which suddenly found itself with an unexpected audience in the US.

“We didn’t realise we had a brand that would appeal to US audiences quite so much,” says Julian. “Whether that is the British accent, or whether it’s the designers that we partner with – who are very willing to share their expertise, let people inside their processes, share their secrets, even their little black book of suppliers – it has meant that more than half of our learning community is based in the US.”

Although it has worked out well for Create Academy, it initially brought up problems – but good problems to solve. “How do we connect with our international audience? How do we understand the thought and trend leadership in the US, which is very different from Britain and Europe?”

Yet this only helped to sharpen what Create Academy is. “It probably honed our mission to be the leading destination for lifestyle learning,” says Julian. “We want all our initiatives to trade seamlessly between borders.”

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from running your business?

Julian is very passionate about what he has learned most from running Create Academy: “Business is really about people.”

“Understanding people, and utilising things like empathy, creativity, even compassion, are just as valid, and sometimes even more valid, than obsessing over lifetime value, cost of acquisition, and return on ad-spend.”

Of course, Julian knows those metrics are hugely important. “But it’s crucial to hold the people behind the metrics in your mind, especially when you are bringing new products into the world.”

What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs?

“Be honest with yourself,” says Julian. “Because being an entrepreneur can be really hard, and a lonely road, and not everyone’s efforts will be rewarded.”

If you are serious about being an entrepreneur, however, choose to do something you love. “Someone once advised me to find the place where your passions intersect with the needs of the world – that way, you can work on something you are really interested in, while providing value to address people’s actual needs.”

» MORE: How to start a business

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