Bricks And Bytes Podcast

#010 – Brandon Johnson – Transcript

Brandon Johnson


Today, we talk to Brandon Johnson, the CEO of Cerak Tech, who has been named the UK’s youngest millionaire entrepreneur by TechRound. At the young age of 22, Brandon is already a very successful entrepreneur. He began his business journey by selling gold coins and developing properties. His latest venture, Cerak Tech, aids in converting planning applications into sales opportunities. Please join us for this exciting conversation with Brandon Johnson. You are listening to the Bricks and Bytes Podcast, taking you on a journey through construction, technology, and business. Alright, let’s get this episode started. Tell us a little bit about your background. I saw that you were labeled as one of the UK’s youngest millionaire entrepreneurs, which is obviously quite a prestigious title. So how did you get into entrepreneurship? Well, it started really early. I’ve always done bits and bobs here and there; I’ve never really been able to sit still. So it all began, as mentioned on The One Show, when I was about 13. I went to a World War II memorabilia exhibition at the local town hall while going for a walk on a Sunday with my dad. We stumbled upon it, walked in, and saw one of the stands selling silver bullion coins. As a 13-year-old, seeing a real silver coin was quite cool. So my dad bought one; it cost 18 pounds. I didn’t think anything of it. Six months later, I Googled its value and it was 26 quid. That was the first thing I remember that made me go, “Hang on a sec, this is quite cool.” That kicked off my flair for selling silver and gold bullion. So at 13, 14, I started trading silver and gold. I was trading thousands of pounds and then eventually tens of thousands of pounds at quite a young age, making a couple of thousand pounds, which was great. 

How did you do it? Like, did you use technical analysis to do it, or? 

Not really. I had a good supplier that was giving me good prices because I was buying in bulk. 

Oh, okay. And it wasn’t just the scrap value I was buying; I was buying limited mint coins, limited minted coins. For example, the Canadian Maple Leafs – if you get them from selected years, they’re more desirable. 

The Chinese release the Lunar series. So each year is the year of the snake, the year of the dragon, and they release different sets. They have everything from a tenth of an ounce gold coin all the way up to a 10-kilogram silver and gold coin, which is worth hundreds of thousands. These are collectible, so you can buy a whole set and individual pieces. I was buying them in bulk and then selling them individually, putting them in their own little packets. I sold them online, on eBay and Amazon, and had regular clients who came to my house to pick them up. That was good for a few years while it lasted. 

Then I went on and did a few more things, like importing hydrophobic spray from America, which was quite successful. I was buying it and selling it for three times the amount I paid for it. I was the only person selling it in the UK at the time. 

How old are you, Brandon? 22. 

So that was good. That was the next step. Then the biggest step after that was all the property stuff. 

So, I saw one of our neighbors on our road sell their garden to a property developer. My dad’s a contractor, so I knew how much it cost to build. I also knew how much they sold it for, and it was publicly available to see how much it was on the market for. It didn’t take me long to realize the potential in this transaction. They had made hundreds of thousands, and it’s not rocket science to apply for planning permission, build a house, and sell it. So, I thought there must be another piece of land with a similar description that someone would sell. 

I spent months writing to everyone within a 150-mile radius. I got a few bites, and eventually, I got my first development project underway. I signed an option agreement, conditional to planning, to buy a piece of land. I got planning permission, then found an investor for a joint venture, built two houses, and sold them. Next, I did another scheme where I got planning permission for a block of flats, which I then just sold on with the option. 

In between, I did a few other smaller projects. As I was finishing the houses, I went to Kings College in London to study business. 

That was good, but it wasn’t too demanding on my time. So as a business development tool for my dad, who has a construction company, I suggested that he go on planning portals, look for people who have submitted planning applications for interesting work, and get in touch with the architects. He said he was busy and told me to try it myself. So I did. It took quite a long time, and now it’s turned into a very expensive project that’s supported by a tech team. 

So now, we’re selling this as a product, and it’s all automated. We have 15 staff members behind that initial concept, and we have hundreds of customers across a wide range of different trades within the industry. Our clients include general contractors, kitchen companies, estate agents, and even very niche businesses. One of our customers looks for McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-through intercoms, searching through one in 50,000 applications. 

I like it though. What you’ve done is, like a typical value-adding business, you’ve entered an industry, noticed a potential problem, and now you’re delivering the solution to that problem at scale. And that’s where we have CEREC Tech, right? Exactly. For about 20-30% of our customers, it’s a problem, meaning they do it already and we just save them time. For probably 70% of our customers, it’s a new concept that they hadn’t considered before. 

Regarding CERAC Tech, I have a question because when you were talking about your past, it struck me that you have a serial entrepreneur mindset. How do you jump from one project to another? Do you just get interested in something or see an opportunity somewhere and pursue it? What’s your thought process? 

Well, I’m still very early on in my journey. With property development, I realized that there was more to explore. Being at university studying business and surrounded by people who all want to be top executives at JP Morgan and similar companies, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be a property developer. It wasn’t stimulating enough for me. 

Added to that, for me to make hundreds of millions, it’s not going to be as quick as a hyper-growth software company, which can scale at incredible speed. Similarly, with selling silver and importing products, I thought about how I could turn making £3-6 per coin, selling about 50 coins a week, into making thousands or tens of thousands. Then, the jump was to think about how I could make tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Now, the attempted jump is to scale up even more. 

We’re at a turning point with Sarak Tech, as we’re raising our first round of funding to grow our next product. This is still like day one for Sarak Tech. We’re moving on to our next product, which will absolutely dwarf what we’re doing at the moment. As for the next product, I can’t say too much. I can’t give you a clue, as I don’t want to reveal it just yet. 

Yeah, the next product is related to home improvement projects and the stakeholders involved in it. Currently, we have a product for land developers, contractors, subcontractors, and trade suppliers. To explain how we help them achieve their goals, let me first give a high-level description of what Sarac Tech does for those who might not be familiar with it. 

In essence, we pull in all planning applications from all local authorities every single week. This includes data on everyone who has submitted planning applications, the description of the planning applications, and the status of these applications up until they are decided upon. 

For land developers, main contractors, subcontractors, and trade suppliers, we assist them by providing access to this valuable information, allowing them to identify potential projects and clients. By offering a comprehensive overview of planning applications, we help them save time and resources while connecting them with relevant opportunities in their industry. 

We automate the whole marketing process for our clients by using the collected data and reaching out to potential leads through postal marketing. That’s one element of our system. Many of our customers also use it as a market information tool. For example, property developers can use our system to see all other developers who have submitted schemes for flats or houses within their area every week. This allows them to identify potential contacts and inquire about buying or selling sites directly, cutting out agency fees. 

For general contractors interested in doing extensions and loft conversions, they can reach everyone undertaking work within their area every single week. So, in essence, our platform automates the entire lead generation and new business acquisition process. It’s a B2B tool designed for people looking to reach out for work opportunities. 

To address Martin’s question about land developers, main contractors, subcontractors, and trade suppliers, our platform helps them by providing tailored insights into planning applications relevant to their interests. This enables them to discover potential projects and partners, and effectively grow their businesses within their specific niches. 

For land developers, our platform helps them find sites without having to pay agency fees. For main contractors, it helps them win work, enabling them to choose where they want to work, when they want to work, and the exact types of jobs they want to be doing. 

Trade suppliers can use our platform to target consumers. We have many builders merchants on board who advertise themselves, offering vouchers to potential customers for discounts on materials. 

Subcontractors can use the platform to approach homeowners directly. If the homeowner is managing their own project and looking for subcontractors to come in and handle different aspects of the job, our platform can help them connect. 

As for the scale of projects, the majority of our business focuses on residential projects. This includes both smaller-scale projects like loft extensions and larger-scale projects. Our platform is versatile and can accommodate various types of jobs within the construction and home improvement industries. 

So, around 80% of the applications submitted on our platform are for smaller projects, excluding release of conditions and tree removal tasks. The remaining projects include larger jobs such as blocks of flats, housing association schemes, and big commercial projects. 

Regarding the success and return on investment for people using our platform, it’s important to note that we have a wide range of customers, making it difficult to provide a single average number. We have users who log on every week religiously and swear by our platform, as well as those who log on only once a year because they take on one project at a time. 

On average, our response rates are roughly between 2% and 5%. This means that if a user sends out 100 letters, they can expect to receive between 2 and 5 responses. This statistic is based on our entire customer base, which includes various types of companies, from kitchen suppliers to underfloor heating providers and general contractors. 

The return on investment for our customers can vary, but there are cases where it has been quite significant. For instance, a customer I spoke with this morning sent out seven letters and won a project worth £150,000 while only paying us £200. Another user, who has been using Sarac Tech since January, has also seen success, especially for structural engineers. 

Our most successful customers are those who are hungry for more work and understand that putting in more effort will yield better results. This principle applies to anything in business. 

When I first saw the opportunity in the market and decided to create the platform, it kind of happened by accident. My vision for Sarac Tech has evolved over time. As for the future, I see the company growing and expanding its offerings in the next one to three years. We’ll continue to adapt to the needs of our customers and the market, ensuring that our platform remains relevant and valuable for businesses in the construction and home improvement industries. 

Initially, I built the tool for my dad so he could choose where he wanted to work, what projects he wanted to do, and not be stressed about finding new work. The goal was to ensure that he never had to worry about not having money in the bank or stressing about where his next job would come from. Realizing it could help others, I took the leap of faith and expanded the platform to cater to a broader audience. 

The success of the platform comes from being able to provide it to other people who can benefit from it, just like my dad. In the next few years, I see the business continuing to serve our current customers while also expanding our customer base. We’ll maintain our focus on helping clients find the right projects and achieve the desired work-life balance, ensuring they can rely on our platform for their needs. 

The next stage of Sarac Group’s development, as I mentioned earlier, will involve our new product, which will consume most of my time and the company’s resources. For now, we continue to bring new customers on board, support our team, and refine our product. Our platform does a complex task simply and effectively, and we want to maintain that core functionality without adding unnecessary features that could detract from its usefulness. 

It’s essential to ensure that our tool provides a real commercial benefit instead of just looking great or using the latest technology without adding value for our users. 

As for validating the idea for Sarac Tech, it began with helping my dad, but it has since grown to serve hundreds of customers. The process of expanding and validating our platform involved identifying the specific pain points our target audience experienced and ensuring that our solution effectively addressed those needs. By refining our tool based on user feedback and continuously adapting to the market, we have successfully grown our customer base and helped numerous businesses in the process. 

Yes, there was definitely a learning phase during that time. I initially built the software for my dad, covering only five local councils. When he was busy and didn’t need to use it, that served as the validation stage. I then adapted the system to allow for multiple logins and started accepting payments. 

I took the platform to market for about a month, just by myself. In less than a month, around three and a half weeks, I managed to get 12 people on board. This was only within our five local councils. Among those early customers, there was a property developer I knew, a plumber’s merchant, a window company, and a couple of builders. This quick success demonstrated the potential of the platform, and from there, we continued to refine and expand our offerings to reach a wider audience. 

It quickly became apparent to me that people liked the platform and it had the potential to do quite well in the market. As for being born brilliant, I think you’d have to ask my parents about that. 

In terms of mentors or coaching, I haven’t really used any. I do have people I look up to, like my family, who are very encouraging with what I do, which is important. I also have a strong group of friends, and my team is absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I’m very fortunate to have such a great team. 

Our team structure is pretty sales-heavy, and we also have a tech team. We have an office in India with a few team members there who handle the technical side of things. It’s a good way to manage our operations and ensure the platform continues to grow and develop. 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the journey so far is the importance of people in business. You’re only as good as the people you have on board. I’ve always thought big and been realistic with what I’m doing. I also look for the negatives in both myself and my team, so when we sit down and discuss how to improve, I focus on what we’re doing poorly to get the feedback we need to get better. A strong company culture is also crucial, and I think my team would agree that we have a work hard, play hard mentality and maintain equal levels of respect for each other. 

The average age of our employees is 23, which is quite young. It’s interesting to see how the tech industry is able to attract and empower younger individuals in a traditionally older and less “sexy” industry like construction and property. Despite the young age, our team is doing very well, and it’s a testament to the potential of tech businesses to innovate and succeed in various sectors. 

We do have a good understanding of the construction industry, especially considering our young age. I’ve grown up in the industry, walking around building sites with my dad since I was seven years old. I’ve also built two houses, being there every single day and managing the site alongside my dad. We conduct workshops here with people in the industry, and a lot of the knowledge is influenced by my own experiences as well. So our team is quite clued up about the whole industry. 

They’re obviously speaking to a lot of our customers as well, so they’re familiar with the lingo and understand the types of jobs. It’s very important; if you’re trying to sell to people, being able to speak the language makes it a little bit easier. 

As for my age, I don’t find that it really gets in the way. If anything, it’s more beneficial than harmful. There may be situations where it doesn’t do me any favors, but those are completely outweighed by situations where it does. The reason I asked is because construction is a very traditional and older-person-oriented industry. 

That’s very true, but it’s dominated by an older demographic, and you can often find your age being judged straight away. However, it sounds like you’re doing well. I’d say the majority of our clients are early adopters. Like I mentioned before, about 70% of our customers are new to this concept. So, it’s usually the hungrier, younger companies that are newly established and want to look for a modern way of bringing in new work. The majority of our customers are around 35, 40, and younger. We don’t have many older clients. 

The hardest person for us to sell to, and we were joking about this earlier, is someone who has been in the industry for 30, 40 years and does this process manually, spending too much time doing it. 

They completely know the value of it, and we’re telling them we can save them two days’ worth of work every single week. They’re the hardest person to sell to. Yeah, it’s too obvious. That’s why. Exactly. 

As for Sarac-Tech being open for investments or sale, a couple of months ago, I would have said yes. We’re at the point now where I’m hoping that we’re going to be closing our funding round very soon. We’ve got some great investors who have committed to our round. I’m looking to progress with them ASAP. With the right people that will open the right doors, absolutely. Especially in this VC, this fundraising sort of market. Having more money than you need is never a bad thing, especially if it’s going to be strategic investors who bring on board assets more than just capital. 

Regarding fundraising experience, there’s a lot of talk about how the VC market is slowing down a bit with what’s going on. 

I just was interested to hear if you had any experience or opinion on that. I mean, I could talk for an hour on the whole VC market. Can you do it in like a minute? 

It’s an interesting one. I was new to it, so I started fundraising a number of months ago. And yeah, it’s a funny one. It’s funny to see how a seasoned entrepreneur in the States can raise 20 million pounds against $5,000 in revenue on a $500 million valuation because they’ve done X, Y, and Z in the past. It’s more interesting to see how many of those $500 million valuation companies with 50 grand in revenue are just bursting now. And then you come over to, in my eyes, I’m very driven. I’ve only just got started. And I’m asking for nowhere near that with decent revenues in comparison to what we want to raise. And the amount of people that just won’t even answer my email. 

As for speaking to people overseas or only looking at the UK market, no, I was only kind of looking at the UK and European market. 

The people I’ve got on board now though, I’ve spoken to a lot of people and there’s been a number of people that I’ve shaken their hand and said, unfortunately, I can’t do it at those terms that you want. But the people that I’ve got on board, I mean, I’ve got, we’re over committed on the round as it is, which is great. And I’ve kind of had to narrow that down to select the best people for what we’re doing. It’s a nice position to be in, but now we’re at the point where we’re looking to wrap things up. My intentions for this round as well were to have a small number of very strategic investors rather than something where we have 30 investors on board with all the small stakes. 

Sounds exciting. Okay, should we go on to some off-topic questions? Sure. One which we discussed earlier was the extracurricular activities. Any like… It could be sport or reading. meditating, you found that has propelled your progress so far. So throughout school, I was more into my extracurricular activities rather than in the world of business that I’m in now. 

For instance, through A-levels and GCSEs. Do you know, have you guys ever played paddle tennis? Yeah, it’s with a bigger racket. Is it a softer ball as well? It’s a softer ball, but it’s a smaller racket. It doesn’t have strings. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve never tried. Great sport. It’s a mix between tennis and squash. Yeah. So I used to play that like three, four times a week. Okay. During like exams sort of times. But yeah, not really. I can’t. It’s the secret. Yes. No, that’s not the secret. That’s the secret. It’s a different one for sure. Generally, I can’t really keep still. So I’m not one. I can, like, I don’t really watch TV. Yeah. It just bores me. I think none of us on call me. Yes, it doesn’t get me going at all. I’m very active. I haven’t done it very recently, but like I’m quite a keen runner. 

I like to go on runs. Good. What’s your sleep schedule? I like to get like seven hours. So if I generally wake up at seven, ten to seven, get in the office for just. That is decent. Yeah. How long do you sleep for? Depends. Six, tonight. Hopefully, seven tomorrow. Now, between six and eight, but it’s probably more than six, between six and seven. You? Normally, eight, to be honest. At least eight. Normally. Can you tell us what time you go to bed, usually? I’m being exposed now. I usually go to bed at eight o’clock, and I wake up at four a.m. What? is kind of wild and everyone’s like, oh my God, what the hell? But I’ve just got such a routine of it that it’s become part of my life now and I’m scared to break it. So I’m stuck here forever. What happens at four? I usually get up, do a couple of bits around the house and then go to the gym at about 4.30. Depends what day of the week it is because I have different routines on different days but usually it usually consists of some form of exercise. 

And then do some work or studying or reading and then usually start working like nine to five and then, yeah, come home, no, not come home, depends on where I am, yeah, go again, have dinner at about five thirty, six o’clock, chill out with Fran for a little bit, he’s my partner, and then we, um, then we go to bed, yeah, seven thirty, read for half an hour and sleep, and that’s the exciting life for me, the sun’s still up then, no, yeah, still light outside. It’s good if you want to get shit done. We do get a lot of stuff done between us. I’m happy with it. It’s good. Yeah, mornings are great. It’s like deep work. No distractions. Thinking without phone calls. Yeah. Brendan, if you had, if you didn’t end up where you are now and tomorrow you woke up with a load of money and was like, I need something to do, I need something to invest in, what would it be? Myself. So is that the right answer? Maybe. I’ve got a list of things that I would want to do. Like ideas that I’ve come up with or things I think need disrupting or changing. Yeah, I think if I had a bunch of money sitting about, that’s kind of what I want to do. 

That’s my goal. I would never even have had a billion pounds land in my bank account tomorrow. I would still be in the office at half seven. Like nothing would change. Yeah. Yeah. I want to work to the point where I come up with an idea or I want to do something and I have the flexibility in terms of capital to do that. I think for like an entrepreneur, having that is just creative freedom. The only limitation to creative freedom is just capital, which sounds sad, but in reality that’s what it is. That’s 100% right. When you have the money, everything else becomes a lot easier to do, at least. Exactly. But for me, yeah, it’s more just like a challenge. It’s the challenge that gets me going. How important do you think is like writing down your goals? Because you said that you have a list and with things that you want to accomplish. Do you think it’s important to write it and how often do you look them up? It’s very, very important. I think it will have to search this after. I’m pretty sure you’re 41% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. And I don’t know. Maybe we can cut that bit out and edit it back. That’s okay. It’s fine if it’s 38. That’s okay. I’m pretty sure it’s something like that. 

But I’m very big on that. I get the guys, when we have new starters here, in their first couple of weeks, I sit them down and I set them one-year targets. And I write them down and every couple of months, I go over it with them. We also do yearly targets, like 2022 targets, and I make sure to write them down and then we check up against them. It’s very important. I do it not constantly, but I do it every year. I set goals. On the subject of goals, have you read, I think it’s a book by Scott Adams, where he says you should focus on systems more than goals? I can’t say I have. I’m not a very big reader. It’s an interesting concept. Goals are only achievable if you have good systems to make them achievable. You should focus on the systems rather than the goals, essentially. 

At least, that’s my understanding of it and how I apply it. Yeah. I mean, it’s the same as smart goals, right? It’s one thing going, “Oh, I want to make a million quid this year.” Your goals should be, what do I need to do in order to do that? Or how can I get that? How about the “enjoy the process” phrase that people say, is it important? Yeah, 100%. That was quick. Don’t drag yourself out of bed in the morning. Make a load of money, but be bored. I was sitting with an investor today. And we both said like it’s very important. Have fun. Don’t take it too seriously. 

Like it’s great to be really successful and when you’re working to work really smart and really hard, but at the same time, like, yeah, just have fun, surround yourself with good people, be happy with them. Mm-hmm, enjoy it. Yeah, exactly. Cool. Brendan, where can people find out more about you and CerecTech? We have our website, You can also add me on LinkedIn. Brandon Johnson. Sarak Tech has a LinkedIn profile. We also got a YouTube profile. I wish we’ve uploaded a few videos. People can just Google you also. Or just Google, yeah. All right. Thanks, Brandon. No problem. Thanks a lot, Brandon. No worries. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of the Bricks and Bytes podcast. If you are enjoying the show, please feel free to rate, a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. We really appreciate it and we’ll catch you in the next episode. 

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