When Johnathan McKeen-Chaff, founder and president of Center Ed and Tampa Bay native, graduated from high school, he turned down a pre-med scholarship to pursue ministry in Gadsden, Alabama. However, after a short period of time serving as the minister of a transition home and an interim youth minister, McKeen-Chaff returned home and accepted a position as a piano teacher for a studio in Wesley Chapel. He reached a point where he was teaching 60 individual lessons per week before the opportunity to go off on his own presented itself.
"While at the studio, I completely fell in love with teaching," he said. "You're given an opportunity every single day to make people's lives better. After about a year at the studio, I was ready to do my own thing. In the summer of 2017, I formed McKeen-Chaff Music."
McKeen-Chaff first utilized the Dade City Church of God to conduct his piano lessons. Shortly after launching his business however, he realized that most of his students were coming from Wesley Chapel. That's when he made the decision to start going to them. As a talented piano, cello and guitar player, and someone who's been singing his entire life, McKeen-Chaff thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share his passion with others. He also recognized an opportunity to provide a different type of lesson.
"I saw a need for tutoring," he said. "Specifically to provide supplemental tutoring to K-12 students. I used to tutor in college, so I had the experience. I formed a separate entity, Edge Tutoring, to start providing this service."
In April 2019, he decided to merge these two ideas into one. The result was Center Ed - a supplemental education company with the same guiding principles and philosophies as McKeen-Chaff's original two companies.
"As an education company, our mission is to educate, grow, and equip students for their bright futures," he said. "We have the vision to create and apply technology innovations in order to be, think, and teach differently. We have a classical philosophy of education with a Montessori approach. This means that we believe in education for education's sake. We believe that the student is the one to drive forward the education process with only guidance from the educator."
Much like his first two companies, McKeen-Chaff initially structured Center Ed to deliver in-home instruction. He worked through a handful of challenges, including funding, marketing his new business and gaining people's trust. As he pointed out, "You're going into people's homes, so getting them to trust you with their child is a big deal." At some point, McKeen-Chaff shared that he began to pray about his business and asked God for guidance on how to reach more students. That's when and how the idea of virtual lessons came about.
"The timing was good," he said. "We started putting the pieces together last fall. I also started to add more tutors."
In terms of growth, McKeen-Chaff points to the emphasis he places on networking and working as hard as humanly possible. "I've gone to so many events where I've passed out business cards," he said. "I also went to as many Dade City Chamber breakfast meetings as possible. I've worked my tail off to get to the point where I'm at now. I work until I'm exhausted and then I wake up and do it all over again. Sometimes, I work seven days a week."
McKeen-Chaff, who thoroughly enjoys those "Aha moments" when a student struggles through a concept and comes to understanding, also grew his business by taking advantage of business assistance and support programs such as the Pasco Economic Development Council's SMARTstart Small Business Program. As a participant in the CO.STARTERS program, McKeen-Chaff was given an opportunity to think critically about his business and his future growth strategy.
"The program was a tremendous help," he said. "It helped me to think differently about my business. I'm usually good at thinking and planning ahead, but the CO.STARTERS program allowed me to think even farther into the future. It also helped me redefine my business plan and led me down the path of pursuing a physical location."
Looking ahead, McKeen-Chaff is focused on five immediate goals: Develop a better website for virtual lessons, develop a mobile app, develop live augmented reality lessons software, build a robust lessons studio in the Grove at Wesley Chapel and to add one to two new locations per year - this includes out of state and locations beyond the United States. Beyond five years, McKeen-Chaff is considering the possibility of a virtual learning academy using artificial intelligence and even the possibility of taking his concept to higher education.
What advice does McKeen-Chaff have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "Mean it!," he said. "It's not about money. Be ready to burn every possession of yours in this pursuit. You are about to become poor with the hopes of growing a dream. So, do something meaningful that you love. Also, don't quit your day job right away. Work that job as you build your new business on the side. You need a substantial nest egg to make it."