Interview: James Blake of Hello Soda and Online Them
TD: Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do, please?
JB: I’m originally from Newport, Wales and studied medieval Welsh history at the University of Cardiff… Where else? I’m really interested in history and also studied modern history at the University of Surrey, so quite different from the modern, innovative tech companies I have founded today!
I’m now settled with my wife and children in Manchester, where I’ve helped create tech start-up Hello Soda which supports banks, lenders, insurers and other firms to detect fraud and more accurately assess loan applicants based on real-time social media data. After decades of sales experience in the tech, finance, insurance and anti-fraud sectors, we’re now working hard to grow the business further.
TD: What things have you been and are working on?
JB: Over the last year, we’ve expanded rapidly, growing from 4 people to 20 people in the last 5 months, expanding to the US with our New York office and launching the first anti-bullying software in the UK, OnlineThem as well as branching into other industries with our software. 2015 has been a real turning point for us.
TD: What’s been your biggest success and your biggest obstacle?
JB: Our biggest success is probably this whole year – from opening an office in America, launching a consumer facing brand to help combat bullying, to employing more people. It’s a great feeling to see how far we have come, exciting to see we have so much more potential and it is also a privilege and huge responsibility to employ more people.
We’re particularly proud as founders and also fathers ourselves that we can use our knowledge and help other parents with our new OnlineThem anti-bullying platform.My biggest obstacle is not having enough hours in the day.
TD: What do you think of the Welsh tech scene?
JB: Welsh tech needs support because we have the best people but they are forced to move. Silicon valleys, any one?! I miss Wales every day, and we have a Welsh dragon on our office wall so everyone knows we’re a Welsh company at heart!
The challenge for clusters outside of London is there’s this view that you need to be there to succeed. I’ve lost count of the number of times this has been said to me, but it only made me more determined to prove them wrong so this stigma exists but it’s important to fight against it.
There are lots of things going on under the radar in Wales. For example, life sciences tech is a big contributor to the economy, and there are lots of work being done there to make it a hub. But I would love to see more of a tech scene in Wales so the great talent could be kept at home.
TD: How is your business contributing to it?
JB: Although we’re not based in Wales, my desk is covered in Welsh memorabilia, and w’re huge advocates of devolution of powers throughout the UK and not just London. We’ve represented the Northern Powerhouse at Downing Street and think the devolution in other regions in the UK will support innovative tech companies like ours. We also work with a Welsh Tech content and PR company, BrandContent, who are based in Cardiff.
TD: Where do you see yourself in five and ten years?
JB: Within five years, we hope to become more established in the states and grow our consumer, FinTech and public sector offerings in the UK. Perhaps we could even open a Welsh office!? Over the next five years, we have further international plans to help us reach our target of becoming a £100m software business.
TD: What advice would you give to someone looking to set up a tech start-up?
JB: I’d say it doesn’t matter if you’re based in a shed in Wales or an office in London. If you have the dream, go for it.