How I Started an Online
Music Education Platform
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Rachel, mum to two children (ages 7 and 5), music educator and keen drinker of tea! I started my online business, I Can Compose, just over two years ago. It’s an online music education platform for secondary teachers and students, providing interactive online courses in different aspects of composition.
I had been working as a secondary school music teacher for 12 years and was seeking a better balance between family, work and health. I was also keen to progress in my career but felt that the options were pretty limited in school – I loved being in the classroom and sharing my passion for creating music, but didn’t particularly want to be a pastoral leader or head of department.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Music has always been a big part of my life – I started learning the piano at the age of 5, flute when I was 8 and organ when I was in the sixth form. I was fortunate to attend a secondary school where music was highly valued and there was a huge choice of groups and ensembles to join. GCSE Music was my first opportunity to compose music and I found that I loved it. My A level coursework was performed by the orchestra in a school concert and it was amazing to hear my own piece being brought to life.
When I studied for a music degree at the University of Birmingham my composing experience was completely different – it was all very experimental and modern and I didn’t enjoy it quite so much. However, I continued to compose in my own time and chose performing and academic course modules.
When I left university I trained as a secondary classroom teacher – doing a PGCE was far harder than my three years as an undergraduate! I landed my first post at a school in Coventry and was given GCSE and A level composition on my timetable. It was here that I began to realise how challenging teaching composition can be. Pupils tend to have little confidence in this area and there’s a wide range of ability levels within classes, making it hard to practically manage.
I sought out resources to help me, however found that there was a significant lack of decent materials. So I did what most teachers do – created my own. I tried out different teaching methods and reflected on what worked and what didn’t. Some of my colleagues took one of two approaches: giving the students complete freedom (resulting in confusion and lack of structure) or being so prescriptive that all the compositions sounded the same.
I tried an approach somewhere in the middle where I would model the composing process to students, providing a solid example for students to follow if they wished.
When I decided to take a break from the teaching, I looked at all the resources I’d created over the years and wondered if I could share them in some way. I had always thought that a website for students, dedicated to composition would be a valuable resource, but never thought that I’d be the one to create it! I found a brilliant local website designer who suggested that I turn my step-by-step teaching method into online courses. Admittedly, I was sceptical at first, but it really has worked!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The first challenge was translating my classroom teaching methods into an online format. When writing the courses I’m always thinking of the student in the classroom, imagining what questions they will ask and the types of examples they will find most engaging.
The second challenge was promoting the website within the music education community. Getting teachers to try the courses was a struggle at first, even with offering them for free – online composing courses have not been done before, and teachers tend to like using resources they know and trust. I realised that I was going to need another way of generating income whilst I built up the course offering on the site. So I launched a Teachers’ Area, providing downloadable homework packs, workbooks and cover lessons. The annual subscription plans, giving teachers access to everything on the site, has proved to be really popular.
The biggest offering on the site is the Classroom Access Plan where schools can purchase a number of licenses for students to have 12 months’ access to all the online courses. There has been an increase in demand for this since schools have been looking for online resources that students can easily use in school and at home.
Who is your target market?
My target market is secondary school music teachers. However, parents, students and amateur composers also use the site. During lockdown I had a number of customers who were wanting to compose music whilst self-isolating – one 80-year gentleman contacted me to ask about the courses, as he was aiming to write one piece a week during his 3-month isolation period. He ended up purchasing all of them!
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
I have tried various marketing approaches – mail-out to schools, social media, magazine adverts – however the best way I have found is to build personal relationships with teachers through delivering sessions at music education conferences, providing CPD (Continuing Professional Development) days and going into schools.
As an extension of this, I’ve built a substantial email list and keep in regular contact with my subscribers. It’s important not to always promote my own resources and products – I’ll often give a shout-out to other music education companies and professionals to support their initiatives too.
During lockdown, I gave away over 7,000 free premium courses to students around the world to use whilst distance learning. It was an easy decision because I really felt for all the teachers suddenly having to move their lessons online and provide relevant and engaging work.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Staying in touch with teachers and chatting about what resources they’re using and what they would like to see on the site is really important. Having been a classroom music teacher myself I can relate to the challenges they face and the types of products that will make life easier.
During lockdown I delivered a session for an online training series for music teachers and met several teachers who have since contacted me about resources for the new academic year.
I write regular blog posts about issues that are helpful to teachers for example: 5 Engaging Classroom Listening Activities and getting guest writers to offer guidance in a specialist area such as film music or composing for choir.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
I’m a solo founder and hope to build a small staff team over the next couple of years. I prioritise high-quality work – if something takes a bit longer but is well-presented and of value to the customer, then this is what matters most.
For myself it has been important to establish clear boundaries between work and home life – this is something I am still working on! Because I love my work, and can get lost in writing a piece of music for a course, it’s sometimes quite hard to be strict with myself!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
I Can Compose uses a WordPress platform and Lifter LMS for the e-learning management system – this makes writing the courses and inputting media features easy and time-efficient. The e-commerce aspect of the site uses WooCommerce and Stripe for the payment gateway. These tools are really important for making the customer experience as simple as possible.
I use Canva to create images for the courses, for example I’ll upload a melody and colour-code it or add notes to make it stand out. It’s also great for creating eye-catching social media images. I sometimes use HootSuite to schedule social media posts and use MailChimp for my newsletter subscribers list.
When I’m composing I use Dorico notation software and am really enjoying the intuitive features of the programme. I love NotePerformer which is a playback engine providing high-quality instrumental audio, making it sound like you’re composing for a real orchestra
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I have so many ideas for the website all the time, that I’ve had to learn to be patient and slow down. At any one time, I’ll always have a list of my top three priorities and won’t work on anything else. This way it means that I’m focussing on what matters most, producing high-quality work and not getting distracted with side-projects.
I’m also a bit of a perfectionist and I had to adopt the mantra Done is better than perfect otherwise nothing would have ended up on the site!
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I love the flexibility and can take my children to school and attend parents’ evenings etc whilst also doing work which I really enjoy. I don’t miss commuting to work, as I’m sure many people have found during lockdown. Being in charge of my own time means that I’m able to prioritise my health and wellbeing.
I’ve also met some amazing people through setting up my I Can Compose, both in music education and in the business community. Being a winner of the Stelios Awards for Disabled Entrepreneurs in 2019 gave me the opportunity to meet some really inspiring entrepreneurs. I was also fortunate enough to take part in the pilot scheme for Creoventures an accelerator for Christian entrepreneurs, where I had access to some fantastic video content, materials and experts, one of whom is now my business coach!
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
That’s not hard – the admin and data aspects! As a creative, I don’t have a natural affinity with data and numbers. However my business coach has been really helpful in showing me how to track my data effectively and analyse the results.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Since starting my business I have read many books – there’s always a big pile on my bedside table! Make Your Creativity Pay by Pete Mosley was what gave me the inspiration to focus on composing as a niche area and ideas for sharing my resources.
Once I’d set up I Can Compose I soon found that there were a million and one things that I could be doing. Everything seemed important and it was initially hard to prioritise tasks and discern which opportunities were worth saying yes to. After reading Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, I had more clarity and confidence in saying no to things.
I’m in the final stages of writing a book for HarperCollins and need to utilise my time efficiently in order to get it completed. Cal Newport’s Deep Work has some great insights and actionable steps which have helped to improve my level of focus and productivity.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
There has been a steady growth in revenue over the last few months and I would like to see this continue and become more consistent through more schools signing up to the Classroom Access Plan.
Over the next couple of years, I’d like to add more courses on the site and significantly increase the number of downloadable resources for teachers. I envisage bringing on a couple of staff members to take responsibility for marketing and administration, and a content creator. Ultimately I want to continue to inspire students to compose music.