Libby: Welcome to take two of today’s Social Media and Me interview. Today I’m going to be interviewing James Blacklaw’s from JB Commercial Finance.
Libby: I was just doing a bit of an intro to say that I’m really looking forward to talking to you today, because I’ve said it to you many times over the last year that what you’ve done with your particularly, with your Facebook lives videos has been fantastic, considering you had a business and then almost overnight didn’t have a business when all the banks stopped lending, when coronaviruses first hit and it was just a terrible time. Rather than kind of crawling under a rock and hiding away, which a lot of businesses did, you go out there and you helped people. If nothing else, it kept your reputation, increased your reputation and awareness. I think it was a really fantastic thing that you did. So thank you for joining me today.
James: As Libby said, my name is James Blacklaw and I’ve worked in the business finance space for 19 years now. Basically, my whole working life spent over a decade as a corporate manager for a bank, moved out to do it for myself just under six years ago. Effectively what I do is I help find finance for businesses. Because I’m independent and I’m what I call whole market, I’m not limited just dealing with one provider or two providers. So if you go to your bank, you go to Barclays Bank, for instance, you’ll deal with Barclays products which is absolutely fine. If they have something to fit your needs, great. If they don’t, then what do you do next? That’s kind of where I come in. Someone like myself I have got around about at any one time, 250 or lenders dealing from anything from a customer needing a very small nominal overdraught facility to someone needing millions of pounds for business development or property development. It’s was the next natural progression from working at a bank was actually doing it for myself and being a broker, which has been coming up for six years now I’ve been doing it for myself.
Libby: Which is good. So how has this last year changed your business? That’s a very big question.
James: Am I allowed to swear at this time of today? Probably not.
Libby: Maybe, maybe not. Maybe not too much f-ing or c-ing, but you know other than that you’re OK.
James: I’ll have to modify my language accordingly. Yeah, I mean, as with so many people, it’s been very, very challenging. And the strange thing is, of course, a lot of people think this will have been a really productive time for me, businesses needing money. But the difficulty has been the government loan schemes when they were announced for anyone who doesn’t know the bounce back loan scheme, which is for small businesses, what they call the CBILS loan scheme, for the slightly larger businesses, they really did pull the rug from underneath a majority of my marketplace. Effectively, every bit of business I had on the go was withdrawn pretty much immediately, as well as any kind of medium-term business so it was devastating. There’s no getting around the fact that it was devastating.
Libby: Probably an understatement that.
James: It’s at a time where I felt a lot of people seem to think that my particular expertise would be really useful. Actually, it may well have been useful. As we’ll talk about trying to make it useful, but from an actual from a business point of view, for me, it was incredibly difficult because my income streams effectively disappeared overnight.
Libby: Yes. So, what did you do? I mean, you know, you cry, you drink too much and then you think, right come on now. What made you start doing the Facebook lives? I can’t remember when you first started doing them. It was fairly early on, wasn’t it?
James: It was. It was straightaway. I mean, I’ve done a little bit of video. I hadn’t done any Facebook lives, but a few videos I put them on YouTube messed around with some editing and stuff but very, very little. I like the medium of video. I like the way you get your message across quickly. I know a lot of people traditionally think that when you’re in finance, you need to put out blogs and articles. I tend to find that that’s fine if you’re in the sector, but actually the layperson doesn’t want to read that. Well, why would they? It’s boring, frankly. I immediately felt that putting out videos was important. The adverse loans, civil loans scheme came out as part of the initial wave of the initial wave of government measures alongside things like furlough and the grants for businesses. So, very early on, I was able to do my research to understand what it meant to businesses, understand the implications of it, and then start sharing that information. I put up videos effectively before it started, actually, strangely enough, about a week before it started. From there I got some positive feedback and decided to put out a daily video at that stage, generally on Facebook live sometimes sharing to other platforms but I felt Facebook was the best platform.
Libby: You did it through your personal profile more than your business page. If I remember rightly, didn’t you?
James: Yeah, I did. The business page is fine, but generally with social media, I had used LinkedIn as my main route to the market. But this felt different. This felt more personal. Yeah.
Libby: It was affecting your own livelihood. But so many people would you know, everything was just different for all of us. I think it really made sense, human connection that you’ve already talked about in the form of video. But I think that in the last year is something that everybody now embraces, really, whether they do live videos or not, but, this kind of video communication, even just Zoom and stuff, it’s something that’s become commonplace and you were quite a kind of early adopter of that and doing these lives. Well, one-way conversations, really. What was your main kind of motivation for doing them? Was it to just almost clarify things in your own mind and feel useful, or was it to really help people? Or was it a combination of them both?
James: I think it was a combination. I mean, from a personal point of view, I know people in my industry who once locked down hit and the implications of it hit. They effectively packed up shop a form of over summer and even furloughed themselves as a company director or just not work. And that was an option you know, I you know, I have a family it was certainly an option. But I did feel I needed that purpose and I did need to keep doing something. I’m hopefully it’s obvious I’m not of the age where I’m that near retirement so I hope that I have a business to come back to.
Libby: Mentally, I think we’re already there, though sometimes.
James: You popped out a long time ago on that one, Libby. I mean, you checked out.
I wanted the business to come back and I’m a firm believer in that what you did during lock down will actually be something which people remember for a long period of time. It was appropriate for me to keep it up from a personal point of view, but for my sanity and for my business. I was getting calls from day one about these schemes and I thought, that’s fine, I can spend half an hour on the phone to 20 different people a day. That’s fine. Saying the same thing about the civil loans scheme to bounce-back scheme. Or alternatively, I can summarise it in a three-minute video every morning, and then if anyone’s got any questions, they can come back to me and it became an effective way of communicating the government updates to a lot of people. It certainly proved to be a good way of communicating among the professional community, I’ve got accountant who have established contact with me following that. I’ve got in touch and hope and some of them have started providing me with a client referrals already. There’s a selfish element to it in that I’ve got a business I need to survive.
Libby: That’s just marketing, isn’t it? But the initial motivation was sanity, I think, by the sounds of it.
James: I think, sanity, and routine, played a massive part in it.
Libby: Yeah, I think so. Business finance is not something I’ve ever been particularly interested in, I suppose, other than the immediate stuff, but I mean, certainly I’ve never had the kind of business where I want to buy premises or anything like that. I’m probably not really one of your ideal clients? But I watched a lot of them and I look forward to what you were saying, because it was I guess it’s the sort of Martin Lewis effect, isn’t it, really, in that you’re obviously incredibly knowledgeable, but you’re also passionate about it and you just say it how it is. I think that is so refreshing in the financial world where, like you say, there can be so many blogs and articles and just jargon bullshit, you know, that doesn’t mean anything to us laypeople.
James: I think a couple of things that I learnt when I spent all that time working in the bank. Since then, to be fair, is that you go into a client who on paper was quite a sophisticated business. Maybe they turned over two, three, four million pounds, had ten members of staff. But actually their knowledge of what I did and how I could help them was very, very small and no criticism – every ones got other things to deal with. I think it’s very easy when in any business but financial services is probably more guilty than most, of actually thinking people know they know more than they do and more importantly, not actually being able to communicate on a simple basis. I think financial service people have been very guilty of that over decades of saying things and expecting everyone to understand when actually, why should they? Because if anything we live and breathe this and we think that, well, why don’t they know what this calculation means? Well, why would they know? They’ve never had to.
Libby: Exactly. I think that’s something that an awful lot of business people will forget in whatever business they’re in. But you’re right, the kind of legal type businesses such as financial services, accountancy, solicitors, that sort of stuff, are often the main culprits for just chucking jargon out and hoping it will it will stick. So, kind of refreshing change. You made those changes in terms of your communication and the way that you were doing your marketing and the support you gave. How has the structure of your business itself changed? I mean, I think it’s kind of returning to some sort of normal now.
James: To coin a cliche, it’s the new normal, isn’t it? Previously, giving you a very, very brief overview of what I do – I do an awful lot of property finance but I also did an awful lot of working capital finance for businesses. That may be a business you just need 50 or 100 thousand pounds for a contract or to survive or to expand whatever it was. That was a lovely way of generating income quickly and helping businesses very, very swiftly rather than going through the hassle of taking legal charges and conveyancing and valuation and all that. That’s the market which effectively had the whole market rug pulled from under but that one effectively went over-night really. So, I made the concerted view quite early on that I felt that this is going to affect my industry for a sustained period of time, not just the time of lockdown, but certainly a couple of years after that. I think that’s probably being generous. An awful lot do to the property side of things. I’m still able to deal with the government loan schemes, especially civils loan scheme, but that there’s a finite date on that so when that finishes what do you do next? I’m now doing a majority of what I did which is property related, so I’ve probably gone from maybe a 50:50 split to an 80:20 split and that was a conscious decision to partly future proof my business. That’s been the biggest structural change for me.
Libby: No, I can see that. Also for businesses, buying properties is a business investment, isn’t it? I, I think that a lot of businesses out there will be thinking slightly differently about the way that they run businesses and particularly the fact that a lot more people are working at home now, paying rent for somewhere that’s not used as much, even big corporate, you know, there aren’t as many people in the office actually owning the building. It becomes an asset rather than just a drain really, yeah, I can see that’s the way things might be going.
James: Well, I’ve always been a big fan for obvious reasons of businesses buying their own premises to trade from, not only does it provide me with a business income, but actually I think from a practicality point of view, it’s useful. A majority buy our own residential property to live for better or worse. But businesses, there are still a very, very small amount who do that. If you’re going to pay a commercial landlord, for 20, 30 years, why not pay for a mortgage instead?
Libby: Absolutely. It’s residential, not business. But the guy we sold our old kitchen to, the guy came and picked it up he obviously owns loads of rental properties and bought our kitchen for another rental property. He said he’s got one in Clacton or someone who’s from down that way. He said that the person has been living in this property, renting off him for 31 years. You know, he’s been paying your mortgage. He said, well, he’s probably bought the house twice over. I guess he didn’t want the commitment or couldn’t get a mortgage or whatever. But you just think if you look at it like that, well, that’s madness surely, isn’t it, really?
James: I had one recently and the tenant had been there over 60 years and that had a massively detrimental impact on the value of the property because they had a significant amount of rights, because they had been in so long. But the valuer when he went out to look at the property, said if it was empty, it’d be worth around £400,000 because you had this lady in 60 odd years it was actually worth about £120,000 because you wouldn’t be able to kick her out.
Libby: Gosh. I don’t know. I think renting to me it just seems like it’s alright when you’re getting started and all that. But then you want to you want to invest in something and certainly having rented offices before, two or three years of renting an office and paying £1,200 a month for the office space and you think that’s a lot of money. If you could get a mortgage on a property, a business premises like that would certainly be considerably less. I think it’s really interesting. Your use of Facebook lives then we’ve already talked about. You mentioned about YouTube as well. How have you been using YouTube? In a similar kind of vein?
James: Well, I use YouTube as effectively a bit of a hosting platform more than anything else, more than anything proactive. I think it’s useful increasingly in this day and age and certainly in my particular industry. I know people like you are very keen on social proof, proving what you do via social media platforms or via websites or whatever the platform is you decide to use and to me add some weight to that by having a YouTube channel with one hundred and fifty videos on or whatever it is, I think it helps your credibility. I’ve certainly had people come to me in the last six months saying, I’ve seen your videos, I’ve been going on YouTube channel. I also believe that it helps my search engine optimisation. I’m sure that you have plenty to say about that because it’s linked to my website. To be perfectly honest, a majority of the videos I’ve always done have been off the cuff. I know what I’m going to say and I just do it.
Libby: I’m a big fan of that as well I have the title in my head, but then I know that I can talk to two, five, ten minutes or someone on any topic.
James: Quite often once I’ve done a video, Facebook Live. I’ll do pretty much exactly the same video again and put it on YouTube. It’s no hardship to do that because obviously you can do it all on the phone, it takes five minutes so for a reference point to have another. I always says, well, when you put a video, you got you got a demonstrated time line of what you’ve said when you’ve said it so people can see you on top of it. You knew what you were doing and you were you were right effectively, which is always nice to place to be.
Libby: If you do a video, then live on Facebook and then you record it again for YouTube. Is the second version better or not is good?
James: Probably not as good, to be perfectly honest. The lack of spontaneity.
Libby: That’s my train of thought really because when you do things the first time for me, I’m one take wonder with this stuff. I don’t believe in this proper thing going on your website you need editing and it all that. Actually things like this then talking to camera all the ums and ahs, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in the slightest – it’s more real. But when you when you stop being real and stop just having a chat and stop thinking about and recording a video now, it can become a bit stunted and stilted and those kind of things.
James: I think I tried to do it and I used to when I first started doing videos. I used to write not a script, certainly a few bullet points of where to edit it and then my voice became noticeably deeper and I turn to put my telephone voice or something like I was being posh. Now I just talk to the phone like I would do if I was talking to you or anyone else. People seem to prefer that. They seem to prefer just being told what’s right or wrong, what’s working, what’s not working and how this is going to affect them. I think getting across in bitesize chunks has been quite effective for me. I’ve seen people in similar industry to myself putting out videos and you click on it. As soon as you look at it’s 11 minutes long, nobody wants to watch the 11 minute video about the bounce-back loans.
Libby: But they would watch 11 two minute videos, obviously twice as much time. It’s all about digesting information. I mean, I say that to people a lot – you’re better to put out 10 really tiny pieces of content than one big piece, because you’ve got to remember, that people these days are just scrolling through with the attention span of a goldfish and people won’t read or won’t listen to much stuff. So short, sharp stuff with a title that they might be interested in is what’s going to bring things in. What would you say then has been the biggest change to your marketing in this last year? I would say that you’re just doing more, right?
James: Yeah, I would say so. I think social media as a platform is astonishingly useful because it’s quick and easy and cheap. Yeah, free. And what better way is there to promote yourself on something that doesn’t take a lot of time or doesn’t take a lot of time to do to a point and doesn’t cost any money. So that was right up my street I have to say.
Libby: The lazy route right?
James: Yeah. Well, I’ve always done Facebook, I’ve always done some stuff on LinkedIn. I’ve always done a little bit on YouTube. But yeah, it’s basically just turning something which I was doing and to something I was doing every single day. I don’t think I’ve fundamentally changed it, just refocused it and done a lot more of it. And I’ll try to continue that.
Libby: No, that focus is a really important point, though, because we can all do social media, we can all chuck content out there all the time and not really know what we’re saying or who cares, but actually focussing on it – right, this is my message. This is my core message. This is what I’m talking about. This is who my ideal customer is. This is the kind of stuff that they want to hear that will just make a ton of difference doing that. I think perhaps this last year has almost forced you to focus on that, really to shift your thinking a bit, because part of the engagement you’ve been getting back in the comments you’ve been getting back from people, but also because of the shape of the marketplace, I think I would say.
James: I mean, I always shied away from doing Facebook lives because, the classic reason, I was a bit too self-conscious, I guess. But as I said earlier, it’s just a time to be a bit more personal about these things rather than stand off-ish and other people were crying out for a little bit help, or a little bit of information just to be kept up to date. We can see it in the initial flurry of loans that were applied for. I haven’t got the stats, but when the civils loan came out, 9 tenths of the people who applied for them, weren’t actually eligible for them because they panicked. It was silly. So I felt just telling people trying to reassure is probably the wrong words. I’m not sure how reassuring it was, but if it saved you an hour on the phone waiting to be told I guess that’s a good thing.
Libby: I think it is reassuring because just knowing the answer, whether it’s the answer you want or not knowing the answer is kind of all that we seek, isn’t it?
James: I’m a big believer in the truth, and again, I think the financial services have been guilty over the years of hiding the truth with science, with bluster, and sometimes it is very difficult to give the truth. I did my best to give the facts about these loan schemes, the government loan schemes as they came out. There’s an awful lot of conjecture about it. If you go on various Facebook and Facebook, is always very guilty of these things. You go on things like covid support groups or F.S.B support groups, whatever it may be, people saying, well, I’ve been told this, I’m like no, actually, this is the situation. This is that this is documentation to prove it. You don’t always get a nice response there. I get a couple disagreements with the FSB. But I’m in a position where if I if I say something about the products, which I may or may not be offering, it’s got to be right, because if it’s not right, I can get in trouble through my authorisation.
Libby: Yeah, you’ve got to be really careful what you say actually in the financial services. Even with those potential barriers that you’ve got, the fact that you’re saying right here, all the facts, here’s what you can do, here is what you can’t do. It’s not personalised advice, it’s general information that keeps you clear on that score as well.
James: Yes. Signposting is what I would call it. If I post something, I’d say you do get the odd person kick back on it. But I’m pretty confident in what I produce is accurate. If it’s not accurate, I just won’t put it out there because I can’t be in a position where I’m wrong.
Libby: Now, you see, you need to work in a field where you just make any old rubbish up.
James: Absolutely, yeah. When do I start?
Libby: Have you found the last year stressful, fun or both? I mean, it’s been a bit of a learning curve, hasn’t it?
James: You know, occasionally it’s been fun. Not as much fun as I’d like. I like enjoying myself in business. I do believe, if you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t do it. Fun would be a stretch. Stressful. Yeah, very much. Of course, it has been but it has for so many people. I’ve also learnt an awful lot about the business, about the way I run the business, about the way I market the business. As I say, I want to be doing this next twenty years, therefore, I’ll take those lessons. I learnt them and improve the business going forward. To answer the question, yeah, it’s been stressful and fun.
Libby: That’s a really interesting point that you’ve made there actually that you’ve learnt a lot about yourself and the way that you want your business to run for the future. Do you think that you wouldn’t have? We wouldn’t have. I mean, none of us would have done if Covid hadn’t hit. Right? We wouldn’t have had the time to reflect, to really think about, you know, being stuck in the office all the time, not being able to do anything else or go anywhere. We wouldn’t have been able to think about our business. We wouldn’t have thought about our businesses in the same way. Do you think that’s right?
James: I think that’s absolutely it and as with all these things, these opportunities are what you make of them. Yeah. I like to think that the guys I mentioned earlier, for instance, if you effectively took four months off after lockdown, I think I’m in a better position than them now because I know I’ve learnt about my business. I’ve cut back on costs I didn’t need. I’ve refocused on certain things and a lot of that’s been very difficult. Previously, I traded from an office and now I trade from a home office. That was a wrench, you know, it felt like a step backwards. But actually, it’s probably a very positive thing in the medium to long term. I’ve got a lovely home office. That’s fine. Otherwise, we see each other through networking. I love the way we network at the moment with regards to being online. I can turn up at one minute to in my shorts rather than have to put a suit on and come out.
Libby: I agree. I hated the virtual the online networking to start with. But now, I think for a lot of reasons, I actually I’m going to struggle to go back to doing it face to face. One of the reasons is having to be that at seven o’clock in the morning, dressed, ready in actual real shoes. I don’t know when I’m ever going to go back to shoes again, but the time will come.
James: I mean, a pair of shorts and a pair of crocs, I’m afraid you know what I mean. I’m not sure how great that will be when I turn up.
Libby: I’m not sure that Crocs really should just ever be worn. Should they?
James: Now, I don’t fall out with at this late-stage Libby.
Libby: You maybe should have kept that one secret. The knowledge about your short wearing, is enough for me.
James: That’s bad enough.
Libby: To close it off, what would you say is your number one thing that you’ve learnt this year about the way you use social media, or about the way you run your business that you think could really help another business owner out? What’s your golden nugget?
James: I’m not sure how much of a Golden Nugget it is because you probably say it all the time, but the two things about social media, which I would say I probably knew before but I’ve really found out over the last year, is one be active and consistent. Always be there so people don’t forget about you. And secondly, which goes back to a couple of things you touched on before, is know your audience. I’ve seen an awful lot of people putting out a half hour documentary about the bounce back loan or whatever it may be, and no one watches it. No one’s interested in these webinars. You’ve got to know your audience. People want to know the information quickly. I mentioned earlier, about accountants getting in touch, saying, I look at your daily updates about this and I pass them on to my clients. A couple of them, even one of them in particular contacted me saying, do you mind if I send on your Facebook lives to my clients to keep them updated with a bounce back loan? I said, I would be honoured if you did that as an accountant, because that’s the whole point of it. If you feel it’s valuable enough content to pass onto your client and then it’s perfect. That’s exactly so, your audience keep it active and keep it short and sweet.
Libby: Yeah, I agree with all of those things. That superb advice. I would agree completely. So, if people want to follow all your videos watch your YouTube channel.
James: JB commercial finance, which is the name of my business, feel free to follow that’s the YouTube channel or obviously anyone wants to follow me on this format. As you might imagine, for me, struggling to get on this morning, I’m not the most proficient, but certainly on Facebook, LinkedIn, I would be delighted to have anyone phone me up, follow me and see if they find the content valuable. Hopefully they will.
Libby: Brilliant – that’s been really great, James. Thank you so much. James Blacklaws from JB commercial finance. Google him. You’ll find him. I look forward to seeing some more video soon and seeing you at the next networking. Thanks so much.
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