Meet the MD: James Blake, Hello Soda

Meet the MD: James Blake, Hello Soda

James Blake of Hello Soda is the man in charge, and also the man prepared to do anything and everything in a team of just 24. Turning unstructured, random data into structured, useful insights is his game, but that hasn’t dampened his love of ‘the beautiful game’. He shares his experience as founder of a tech start-up with BQ.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words
As the founder of a start-up, I do everything. There’s 24 of us in the business and I work with our developers, data scientists and commercial team both here in the UK and internationally. I see an integral part of my role as setting the pace for the business; ensuring everyone is focused, part of our drive and vision and that we continue with a start-up mentality even as we get bigger.

What is it the company does?   
Hello Soda is a fast-growing international big data analytics company, headquartered in Manchester. When we began, our focus was to empower consumers with their data footprint to allow them to receive goods and services they wanted at the right cost.

It was turning unstructured, random data into structured, useful insights.  Soon it became obvious that this had never been done before.

Now, our flagship software product PROFILE is multi-sector and is used by organisations to understand customers in order to tailor approaches and products, as well as effortlessly detect fraud and verify ID. This includes helping financial organisations to lend more, reducing fraud for insurers and creating consumer insights for retailers – but we’re also helping to revolutionise other sectors too, including marketing, telecoms, banking, employee vetting and tenant vetting.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on? 
I have a background in sales and credit risk but it was actually a frustration which pushed me to start my own business.

It seemed obvious to me that, after the credit crunch, the world had changed. Credit data hadn’t evolved since the late 70s to early 80s, yet the way we interacted with businesses had changed totally. We no longer did business face-to-face, everything was through apps or the internet which meant that companies lost touch with their customers and they no longer understood them as individuals.

I wanted corporations to take into account what really matters. Time and time again I saw people being given loans that they should not have been granted while other people were being rejected for loans that they needed and should have had. This wasn’t because businesses were trying to be unreasonable but because necessary information (our likes, dislikes, spending habits, etc.) were not available through traditional data bureaus.

However, this data was available through other sources and, while businesses had advanced to use social media to communicate with customers, none had begun to use social data to understand their customers and utilise it to their advantage.

Then came the idea; I had this revelation and I wanted to act on it. It was something I felt truly passionate about and something that I knew was important; to utilise social data for business decisions.

Now, three years on, we have 24 staff, an international customer base and an office in Asia - with big aspirations for the future.

What do you believe makes a great leader?
Honesty, clarity and drive. A good leader has to be someone who never doubts – or at least never let know you that they do. Belief in a leader and where you’re taking the business is the most important thing.

When you make mistakes, which we all do as we’re all human, you’ve got to be willing to put your hand up to it. You’ve to act as both an example and a mentor; when there’s pressure and times are tough, you’ve got to be at your calmest because everyone else will panic.

You’ve also got to work longer, take less and your team has to know that whatever they’re doing, you’re doing more. You shouldn’t ask your team to do what you’re not doing – and beyond.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
The biggest challenge for me was probably learning how to manage diverse personalities. At Hello Soda we’ve got a mix of people from developers and data scientists to commercial and sales. I had to understand what motivates each one as they’re distinctly different. A developer for instance isn’t motivated by money, they thrive from feeling empowered and owning a decision.

It’s a very fast-paced, dynamic and intense business but some things do take time which can be frustrating but it’s been important to be patient and get the very best results.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I run, I play with my children and I’m a massive football fan. On Saturday afternoons I watch Everton play and let everything out.

However, I don’t think running your own business is as stressful as people make out. You have control and the ability to make things happen which I find far less frustrating than in the corporate world working for someone else.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A footballer – and I still do, I just haven’t been discovered yet. Hopefully one day I will, even though I’m 39 now.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
My biggest pet hate is the curse of the email - people sending email for email’s sake. I don’t like seeing emails that go round and round talking about what needs to be done but leaving it open so nobody takes responsibility.

I do talk about this a lot in the office and challenge people. You can’t be afraid of challenging people as it’s part and parcel of being in a small business. You’ve all got to have the same drive to work hard, grow and be successful to get the best results individually and for the wider business.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
I’d like Hello Soda to be a £500m organisation on multiple continents. We’ve already got customers around the world and an office in Asia but we will expand our presence to other continents.

We’re treading on ground which has never been walked on before and pioneering new ways of working for organisations across a range of sectors. It’s exciting to be on this voyage of discovery and constantly to be achieving new things.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
My biggest piece of advice would be not to do anything that you don’t love.

Starting your own business is hard, all consuming but also the most fun you can possibly have. At the start, you wake up thinking everything will go in a straight line but it doesn’t. You can’t do it because you want the freedom or the money – you’ve got to love it as it’s your passion that will sell it and make your business a success.

If you’re thinking of starting out for yourself, the best thing you can do is to build it and sell it – don’t just put it on a PowerPoint. Too many people are ‘want-repreneurs’ not entrepreneurs. You can’t just have an idea; you’ve got to put it into practical use. If you can’t get it to a customer, you need to go and work for someone else.