The Bottom Liner Interviews: #3 James Eder (Causr)

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The Bottom Liner (TBL):    Please let me welcome James Eder.  Welcome, James.  

James:    Good afternoon.  Hey.

TBL:    How are you doing?

James:    Yes, really good, back in launch mode, which I’m looking forward to talking all about.

TBL:    Very exciting.  I’m particularly excited to dig into what you’re working on at the moment.  What I thought we’d do, just for our listeners, let’s bring things back to day one.  Talk to me ever so briefly about your uni days, where things started and how you managed to become who you are today.  

James:    You’re making me feel very old, going back to the beginning.  So I was at the University of Birmingham.  I was studying business, but if I actually take a step back just a little bit before that, it was back in 1999, so the Dot Com boom and bubble.  I created a website called Needanumber.co.uk, with a couple of other people that are now pretty well-known.  One guy called Anthony Eskinazi who founded JustPark.  He helped build our website for all of £50.  There was also Musa Tariq who works at Apple globally and Apple Retail alongside Tim Cook.

TBL:    I didn’t even know that.  That’s fantastic.  

James:    So that was my I guess first foray from a business idea and it was part of Young Enterprise, which was a lot of kids I guess making cards or doing this rudimental start-up, or trying to create a business world when you’re 17.  We just thought, ‘Let’s create a directory service for local shops and services,’ and that was back in 1999.  We ended up signing up about 200 companies, raising a bit of money for charity, paying ourselves a little bit of money.  It was the first real insight of being able to go out and believe in something and sell something to people, with a view of how we can help businesses generate more money and help a bit of promotion with them in the local community.

TBL:    Have you ever worked for anyone else, then?  After you finished uni, did you go and work for anyone else?  

James:    I’ve had limited experience but I’ve always taken learnings.  The two best work experience things that I’ve done will maybe make people laugh.  One of them was doing telesales for Gala Bingo, which was a six-week stint.  It was amazing.  I say amazing because every single day we had to do around 250 phone calls.  I call it ‘no training’ as opposed to sales training because the experience that I got from that was actually we had to get the people to say ‘no’ three times.  So every day I’d be hearing over 700 ‘no’s a day.  Anyone listening relates from a start-up world you are going to hear a lot of ‘no’s.  For me, it was just statistically I’d convert around 10% every day.  I delivered around 25 yes’s and subscriptions to this Gala Bingo.  It was a free subscription service.  I still remember the script, but I won’t bore you with that today.  There was a contest actually about targeting.  In the Dudley area near Birmingham, there’s a specifically older demographic there, where they just love bingo.  So my conversion rate almost doubled.  I got almost 50 people in one day.  So that’s also identifying the niche and focus.  It’s data and statistics and a numbers game.  So you look at that entry level role but I learnt a huge amount from it.

TBL:    I couldn’t agree more.  I think sales as a whole is something that everyone should go through.  My old man always used to say to me that, ‘Remember when one door closes the next one will slam in your face.’  That in some respects is very true.  So how did you end up moving into The Beans Group, obviously what you’re well-known for?  

James:    I studied at the University of Birmingham.  I got involved in a lot of different things; one of them was the summer ball where we had a party for 24 hours, which was awesome.  I ended up thinking, ‘Let’s get brands involved working on sponsorship.’  I got everything from Starbucks gave us free ground coffee, to free cinema tickets and a whole host of things.

TBL:    You say that as if that’s completely normal and very easy to do, but let’s break things down to the norm, not James Eder level of easy.  So how did you actually manage to do that for a student ball?

James:    I just thought, ‘You know what?  We’ve got 24 hours.  We’ve got a captive audience of 600 plus students.’  I thought, ‘There must be brands that are interested.’  I just joined the two dots.  You see fresher’s week.  Everyone’s trying to promote.  I guess it was just this gut instinct, thinking, ‘If they’re going to do it then they’ll want to do it at other times of the year.  What brands are relevant?’ I remember Telewest at the time that got acquired by Virgin Media.  I wanted to get them to give a raffle prize away or something.  I thought, ‘Why don’t you give free connection for the internet for a house for a year and free TV for the year?’ What does that actually cost them?  Nothing, but actually then it gets them positioned in front of everyone against Sky and all of that kind of thing.  So I contacted them and they kept saying no and the week before I said, ‘Come on, we’re doing raffle prizes for charity.  Just give us something.’

So it was almost cascading.  I would ask for money up-front, sponsorship.  They’d then say no. Then I’d then go in with, ‘Oh, well if you’re not going to sponsor, why don’t you give us a raffle prize and you’ll get some free promotion and it’s good for charity?’ So you’d kind of play the two and default down.  Then they can’t say no because they feel, ‘I’ve already said no.’  So you kind of make it easy.  Anyway, this woman goes, ‘Let me go and have a look in my cupboard.’  I’m like, ‘What is this woman at Telewest going to look in her cupboard?  What do you think she can get?’ She comes back to the phone and she goes, ‘Yes, we’ve got an Xbox.  How does that work?’ and I’m like, ‘That’s fantastic and we’ll raffle that away, but you kind of missed the point about branding and positioning,’ and I just thought, ‘There you go.’

So how did it work?  A lot of persistence, a lot of no’s, but we had a fantastic ball and everyone got something from it.  It’s serendipity, actually, two random things which we’ll talk about a bit later, but I ended up being at an event to do with Young Enterprise years later and giving a speech.  I was sharing about Gala Bingo and the sales.  Anyway, I sit down afterwards and the compère was, like, ‘James, that’s a great talk.  Thanks so much.  Guess who’s in the room who’s speaking in a moment?’ The chairman of Gala Bingo.

TBL:    No way!

James:    It was completely bizarre, really random.  Then also a few years later I’d approached a load of newspapers for the 24-hour ball, so in the morning I thought, ‘Let’s give everyone a newspaper.’  Sunday morning, it would just be a bit random and there’s content there and it will just be a good thing while people are eating breakfast.  Why not?  So The Times said no and various people said no, but News of the World actually said yes.  So News of the World then delivered these.  It’s amazing in my mind I’ve got this picture that I took of people genuinely everyone just reading the News of the World, all a bit hung-over, and what’s going on?  Anyway, years later I was speaking at an event and this guy comes up to me and goes, ‘You spoke to me.  I was the guy at News of the World,’ and I had used the picture in my presentation, and the guy said to me, ‘All my team said I was a bit of a, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but I thought it was a really great idea and it proved so many years later and now I’m meeting you, it’s great to meet you.’  It’s just amazing, the world keeps getting smaller.

TBL:    How did that then move forward into what became The Beans Group?  

James:    The essence was when I was graduating whilst I was a student, that’s when I got involved in something called AIESEC, which is a student-run international leadership development organisation.  I’d gone on placements to the Philippines and Colombia and had got a huge amount out of that.  So I actually applied to work for that organisation for a year when I was graduating.  The plan was always to work for them for a year and then go and set-up Student Beans.  The idea of Student Beans was being a staple diet for diets, like baked beans on toast being the staple diet, and how we can help students save money and how we can help businesses.

In February 2005 I stood for elections for AIESEC, and there was an opening speech, a closing speech and all of this kind of Q&A and whatever.  At the end of it, there were ten people standing for five jobs, and the successful candidate had a jug of water poured over their head.  It’s very public.  You know when you apply for jobs you don’t get them or you tell friends, ‘Oh, I actually didn’t want it,’ or whatever, and you kind of move on.  This is public, you’re out there and it’s just like very real and raw.  Anyway, so suffice to say the guy next to me had a jug of water poured over his head and I didn’t get it.  I was really upset because I invested a huge amount of me.  For me, a lot of it’s about legacy and having a difference and making an impact.  I’d got so much from that organisation I thought, ‘I want to give back to it for a year and then I’ll have more experience,’ because then I can go and set-up Student Beans.  I know initially when I started Beans at 22, people were like, ‘You’ve got to go and get more experience.  You can’t do it now.  How can you possibly?’ and all of those things.

So I did think, ‘I’ll spend a year still related in the student space and then I’ll be ready.’  That was 2005 and the brink of graduation and I’d been speaking to my business partner and brother previously to the business partner and having a conversation about what I would do.  He normally tells me my ideas aren’t very good, but this one actually he quite liked.  So he actually came up with the name, which is fantastic, and I think lends itself really well.  It was very much I came up with this idea.  Then on graduation I ended up reading a book and I got given a book by a guy called David Taylor and the book’s called The Naked Leader.  He said something really powerful in his book, a really simple message, which is, ‘Imagine if you couldn’t fail.  Who would you be?  Where would you go and what would you do?’

TBL:    I absolutely love it.  

James:    If you couldn’t fail?  I just literally, on the brink of graduation, was like, ‘If it’s not going to fail, I’ve got to go and do this.’  People ask, ‘When did you think it was going to be successful or when did you start speaking about the success of it?’ Well, the University of Birmingham invited me that October back to speak about launching a company.  We weren’t successful yet but at the same time people go, ‘When did you think it was going to be?’ I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be a complete failure.’  I think it is about not fake it til you make it but you’re putting it out and you believe in it.  Why would you do it if you don’t believe in it?

TBL:    I couldn’t agree more.  What we’re doing at Fat Lama, it’s so similar.  I can’t remember who said it; I think it was actually the guy from Apple, the current COO, where he said ‘As soon as you’ve got a Plan B, you’re going to fail.  That’s the attitude that we take.’  It comes across actually when I first met you.  That is very much your personality.  So that moved forward quite quickly?

James:    It was then in between graduation ceremonies I kind of had this, ‘How can we help students and help businesses?’ and the premise was originally, and it sounds funny to say it, printable vouchers, can you go for Wagamama two for one meals or can you go to the cinema two for one cinema tickets?  It was above and beyond just the 10%.  It was about fighting the student cause and being like, ‘Students deserve more.’  I literally went door-to-door and I signed up tens of businesses every day and I’d be working 6:30 in the morning I’d go to business breakfast networking events, I’d then go to the shops, I’d then come back to campus, be flyering, doing promotions around that, then back to the businesses, and some nights still at 11:00 at night going into restaurants and services, because that’s when the business decision makers are there.  They’re doing the cashing up, they’re in the restaurant, doing the takings and making sure everything’s okay.

I literally would go into a shop, like, ‘when’s your manager about?’ They’re like, ’11:00 on Wednesday night,’ and I’d put that in my diary or whatever and at 11:00 on Wednesday night I’d go in armed with their name, armed with the name of the person that told me to come back and was like, ‘Charlie said I should come at this time,’ and you have the chat and they’re kind of like, ‘Okay.’  When you ask to speak to someone by their name, they’re like, ‘Okay, who is this person?  How does he know who I am?’ We did it in Birmingham.  We signed-up over half the student population in our first year in Birmingham.  That was just grind.  I still meet people, it’s now 11 years on, who say to me, ‘You came into my house and you spoke to me about Student Beans and you told me what it was and you saved me so much money.’  It’s fun.

TBL:    That’s absolutely amazing.  You really have left that legacy behind you.  Certainly from what I’ve seen and I’ve experienced and the people that I’ve spoken to.  So after a year you did very well in Birmingham, and then you expanded across other cities and so on?

James:    Yes.  Within less than 12 months we then recruited a team of brand managers and student ambassadors that helped us launch across the country, and we were then in 18 cities.  That was really hard work.  It’s interesting because I met a guy called Gary Skipworth.  He founded the Riverboat Cruises.  Really interesting guy, because he said one of the things was about choice.  I think when you’re in the business and running it, you feel forced or pressured to do something, and I think sometimes you need to take a step back and go, ‘You know what?  It’s up to me to choose.’  I feel like we felt pressure because a lot of businesses said to us, for example, ‘You’re only in Birmingham.  We’ll only work with you when you’re national.’

So then we felt like we had to go and be national.  Then you call up those companies again in 12 months’ time and you’re like, ‘Hi, we’re national,’ they’re like, ‘Yes, you don’t have enough people.  You need 100,000 people.’  Then we’re like, ‘Okay, great.’  Then six months later, ‘hey, we’ve got 100,000 people.’  ‘Oh no, sorry, we can’t work with you now for this reason.’  There’re just constant excuses and why.  I think the UK are worse for it in terms of just say no or be upfront and real about why, and if there is a real objection.

TBL:    It’s so English.  

James:    Genuinely it’s a different excuse for a different day of the week and whatever.  It can destroy businesses if you’re going on this belief that they’ll sign-up when you go national and then they don’t.  So in hindsight did we need to do it?  Yes and no, but we did it and we grew to 50,000 users in our second year, 150,000 in our third year.  There was real value and we did some amazing things with a whole load of different brands.  Highlights are Nando’s and Cineworld and some really fantastic brands.

TBL:    One of the things I also wanted to ask, and it is a bit of a tricky question I suppose for you to answer, when I first met you, you are somewhat a celebrity in the start-up world. Everyone looks up to you; you do have this amazing reputation.  How do you stay so humble?  

James:    If this was being recorded my face looked very confused when questioned about the celebrity status.  Maybe that answers the question.  I think different things drive different people.  What am I here to do it for, from an impact perspective?  For me, it is about adding value and making a difference.  It’s not the medals or the awards or whatever.  It is nice to be recognised sometimes and especially I think being at the top and running a company it’s quite lonely.  There’s this isolation and you’re constantly thrown lots of different challenges.  Is it micro-famous?  There’s that concept around that I quite like sometimes.  It’s great whether it being recognised and acknowledged and thanked or whatever else that comes up, but I guess I just feel like there’s a lot more that I’ve got to do and that I can give.  That for me is the driver.  Starting my new journey again, why am I choosing to almost jump off the cliff again and try and start again?

TBL:    You’re unstoppable.  

James:    Well, hopefully.  I feel like I’ve got more to give and I think that for me is about a legacy and making a difference.

TBL:    I know we’re both itching to talk about your current venture and what you’re up to at the moment.  Before we do that, one of the things we’d like to do and this is a new thing for us, this is very much the first week we’re going to do this, but it’s going to sit quite nicely in our weeks to come.  We’re going to do what we’re going to call Quick Tips.  So it’s going to be five really quick questions, try and make the answers as short as possible, and we’ll see how we go.  The first question I’ve got for you, in particular, is how do you manage your work/life balance?

James:    I want to destroy the idea of work/life balance, just because it’s such a common.  For me, it’s about whether you’re enjoying it or not.  Ultimately, if you’re enjoying your work then you don’t feel like you’re working.  It is important to have a balance.  I’m in a relationship at the moment.  I’m out in Devon over the weekends and there’s a real good quality break time.  So I think it’s just about being aware of yourself and your energy I think is the most important thing.  When you feel yourself lagging or feeling a bit down, then it’s important to take that break.

TBL:    It does take discipline.  Certainly for founders that’s the discipline.  It’s not getting yourself to work.  It’s actually getting yourself to stop sometimes.  

James:    Yes, definitely.  That’s also from a framing.  Some people go, ‘How come you’re working so many hours a week?’ but actually, you don’t feel like you’re working a lot of the time.  That’s where I think people don’t resonate or understand.  Whether it be in our first year signing up those 1,000 users and making a difference and just adding that value, and what we’re doing in launch phase now is just there’s so much I want to do and I wake up in the morning excited and buzzing for that.  If I weren’t then I would stop.

TBL:    Next question, another quick one, so this one is slightly more relevant to you.  Give me one piece of advice you’d give to other companies or start-ups that are looking to enter the student market?

James:    I think it’s about focusing on utility and adding value.  It’s just so important.  If you’re trying to sell something or market something, again it’s a very savvy audience.  On the one hand, it’s not different from others, add value.  Start with the customer in mind at the centre of what are you doing to make a difference, to make their life easier, to help them save money, to add value, whatever it is?

TBL:    Talk to me about creating a great culture.  How have you managed to do that within your organisations?

James:    I think it’s a really tricky one, and ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’ is a very famous term.  I think it’s about actually finding the right people in the first place.  So my best example is Pret A Manger.  I spent half a day in a Pret near Liverpool Street dressed with my Pret belt and badge.  I was very proud of it.  We were seeing the insight of how Pret runs and what they do and what they do really well.  One of the questions came up.  How is it that everyone smiles?  Literally, in Pret, there’s just this buzz and feeling.  The others just don’t quite have the same.  All they said was, ‘We hire people that smile.’  It’s just such a simple thing.  I think for you as an organisation, understand what your core values are, what your true north is and what’s important to you and then surround yourself and employ and hire and fire by those value and be very clear about them on intent.

I’m going through the process at the moment again of putting that pen to paper.  What does that actually mean?  Then also with a review, in 12 months’ time the business will be very different, but enrolling the people that are currently there, going, ‘Hey, you were recruited on these values.  Do they still hold true to us?’ and having enough flex, and the annual review, I think, is a good timeframe.  Not to change them every year but just to bring them to the fore and to question them.  The famous thing about Enron where they went down and when you walked into their offices you had the five core values.  I think two of them were trust and integrity, and that was out the window.  The context for those businesses, not to have them hidden away or they’re just there.  So other things like do you change the Wi-Fi password every quarter to be one of your values?  So when guests come in and say, ‘what’s the Wi-Fi password?’ ‘Well, it’s that quarterly one that you’re focusing on.

TBL:    That’s a great idea.  

James:    Just simple things.  Put it on your desktop.  Do you put it on mouse mats you can get printed, if anyone still uses mouse mats?  There’s a context.  It’s not putting it in a box but making it real and tangible for people.

TBL:    Absolutely love that.  Thanks for that.  The final thing is what would be your advice for staying motivated and staying focused?

James:    I think it’s about setting clear expectations for yourself and for the team around targets and what it is that you want to achieve.  I think there’s this never-ending – I think we’ve almost created this world where there’s always more to do.  I think historically in business you had your in-tray and once that’s empty it’s empty and you go home and you’re like, ‘Done,’ whereas now with us being so connected and 24/7, it’s much harder to do that and to get into that mindset and do it.  So like a lot of people listening, you might put on too much on your list than you’re ever going to achieve, but be satisfied with what are those key things?  7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a really great book and structure around doing.  It’s the important but not urgent things that can help move a business forward that often we get distracted by.

TBL:    The last section of the podcast is what we’re both most excited about.  It’s your new venture.  It’s something that I’ve tried and tested and I think it’s fantastic.  I’m certainly very excited about it and I’ve spoken to a number of people about it as well and they think it’s amazing.  Let’s start from the top.  First of all, what is it called and what are you doing at the moment?

James:    The new company is called Causr.  It’s basically a location-based app that helps people connect on-the-go.  It kind of segues quite nicely actually from a Student Beans and The Beans Group perspective two, I guess, inter-related stories.  One was sitting on the Underground a few years ago; a guy came to sit next to me with a CV in his hand.  I turned to him and said, ‘Are you looking for a job?’ The short version of a longer story is he ended up coming to work at Student Beans.

TBL:    I love those stories.  

James:    What stops us from having those conversations?  The essence of it is two core pillars that Causr is built on, and one is permission and two is confidence.  I’m not going to just start randomly asking everyone, ‘Hey, are you looking for a job?’ but at the end of the day if I’m recruiting – for me that was a signal.  I saw that, but for most other people that still isn’t a signal.  Especially being British and on the Underground and all of those things.

TBL:    Being British it’s extremely difficult, yes.  

James:    Having travelled a lot and in the US and various places and in the last 12 months, especially the last quarter last year, I was on 13 flights within the first three months, so a flight a week, in the US three times.  Often found myself eating dinner by myself or in scenarios where I’ve got dead time.  You’re travelling, your meeting cancels so you’ve got that more flexibility. Yes, we can all catch-up perhaps on more emails, but actually, we know still that face-to-face interaction and being able to connect with someone in real time can make a real difference and create and forward partnerships, opportunities, etc.  It’s grown massively in the dating world in terms of that normalisation around meeting up with randoms or strangers nearby, but actually, there’s nothing really that exists to own this in the connection and professional space.  We are transcending social business.  So we do see it.  The app in essence, and the reason why it’s called Causr, is it’s about cause and effect.  So to create coincidences you’d otherwise miss.

The idea is very simple; you log in to the app using LinkedIn.  So it frames it in a professional way.  You can see then your name, job title, picture, and then you can update your status to literally share, if it was that person, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a job,’ or, ‘I’m looking for a new marketing consultant,’ or someone to help.  It’s everyone from freelancer to someone working full-time.  It doesn’t matter.  The framing is connecting people with similar passions and interests as well.  So you can join open groups like Meet to Eat.  Say you’re travelling to work, you join the Meet to Eat group, you can then go out for dinner with someone nearby.  It removes any facade.  ‘Are we on a date?’ The context is we are connecting and we’ve got this common ground interest.  Everything from alumni networks to companies, so we’re looking at closed and open networks and groups that we can work with.

TBL:    I know you touched on it briefly but we covered this when we spoke a while back.  Talk me through that light bulb moment, that moment you thought, ‘Yes, this is it.  This is what I’m going to do.’  

James:    It’s a combination of needing and wanting.  I think lots of entrepreneurs or people with business ideas think about, ‘What is it?’ I kept having these moments, almost Truman Show moments of, ‘Who’s filming this?  What’s going on?’  My most recent one was travelling to Stockholm to speak at a business travel event and I’m in the line waiting for passport control and I thought, ‘A perfect opportunity to speak to other business people to get a sense of what they think about the app.’  So I showed them, opened up the demo, ‘What do you think of this? Do you mind if I ask these questions?’ He’s like, ‘No, sure.’  I felt extreme pressure of the silence around you and everyone’s listening.  All that fear of why I wouldn’t do it is all the reason why I want the app to exist.  Anyway, so all this going on inside, and I asked him and he was like, ‘Ah yeah, that sounds really interesting.’  I was like, ‘What sector are you in?  What do you do?’

He was like, ‘I work in mobile payments, and one of our clients is Spotify and we work through the business models about subscription services and they do a lot of the £1 for 3-month trials,’ and as we grow that’s one of the opportunities we’re looking at.  Just that connection, we connected afterwards and he posted on LinkedIn, ‘Great to meet James while travelling, great idea,’ and he just gave me an insight that he often is just going to a meeting, back to the airport, and even if it’s three hours before his flight, there’s not enough time.  When you’re just in London or doing your day to day you don’t appreciate that there is a world of people that is constantly more often in those situations.  So our starting point is really those people that are often – whether it be freelancers or business travellers, or people more heightened.  You can use it every day but those are more often our users.

TBL:    I know that when we’ve briefly spoken I had one of those moments.  I’ve had so many of them in the past six months, but it’s because there’s a queue.  I was looking for a payment provider as well and there was someone sat next to me on the train with Braintree on their bag so we started a conversation.  If that wasn’t there, there was no way we were going to start a conversation.  It just so happened a week later we were actually speaking to Braintree and so on.  I’m the biggest fan.  I think it’s absolutely fantastic.  Talk to me now about where are you at in the journey then?  

James:    Super exciting, we’re literally round the corner from launching on the App Store.  If you’re listening you can go to Causr.co and that will link you whether it be to the App Store there or to the landing page.  You can pre-register, hopefully, by the time you listen to this we’ll be live, but soon, and you’ll get an email that will then help you sign-up and I can invite you if we’re not live yet.  It’s IOS only at the moment with initial focus.  So we’re going to be launching in the next few weeks.  We’ve got a fantastic web team down in Bristol that are working with me on it called Simple Web, who are a really great find and are helping to push us over the line to get us launched.

TBL:    Absolutely amazing.  Anyone that does have any questions for you or about what you’re doing, is there a better way to contact you?  

James:    Yes.  We’re on all the social media platforms.  We’re just ‘Causr App’ on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.  Or you can email me: James@causr.co.  Feel free.  Best probably sign-up onto the app when it’s there and then you can see if I’m near and then connect with me.

TBL:    Brilliant.  I think we’ll round it up there.  As ever, James, it’s been absolutely fantastic speaking to you.  You’re very much a motivation for me and I’m sure an inspiration for a lot of other people, so thank you very much, James.  

James:    Great.  Thanks for having me.

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