You only have to look around James Blake’s office to see how much he loves football. In one corner the proud Welshman has created a shrine to the team’s best player Gareth Bale and the joke in the office is that anyone who does something wrong has to “apologise to Gareth”.
The 41-year-old is one of the founders and CEO of Manchester-headquartered Hello Soda, which allows clients to gain valuable insights into potential customers from unstructured data including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google.
The father-of-two is such an obsessive Everton fan that he actively avoids using the colour red at home because it reminds him of their rivals Liverpool.
When a retailer was able to analyse data to work out that Blake liked football and spent a lot of time in Liverpool they incorrectly assumed he was a Liverpool fan and sent him free tickets and a shirt to watch Jurgen Klopp’s team.
Blake still bristles at the memory. “It’s not good enough to identify that James likes football and he’s in Liverpool a lot,” he explains to BusinessCloud. “It’s about saying he’s an obsessive Everton fan. Knowing that I like football is not personalisation.”
And that essentially is the nub of Blake’s approach to business. Generating data is the easy part but the trick is understanding it and making it personal to the end user, which is where Hello Soda comes in.
Its multilingual analytics software PROFILE is increasingly being used to verify ID and detect fraud, assess risk and personalise the user experience by delivering insights that traditional data doesn’t cover, helping brands to engage with consumers on a one-to-one level.
“Data helps you understand people,” says Blake. “What frustrated me is I saw so many people being turned down for credit for things they needed or wanted or should have got. They were being turned down simply because you couldn’t verify their identity.
“The lack of insight was really hampering us. More data had been created on us in the last five years than in the whole of history in its entirety. We weren’t utilising that data.”
More about Hello Soda later but who exactly is James Blake?
Born and bred in Wales, he says one of his life-defining moments was being told at the age of 14 he couldn’t do history because he was dyslexic.
“I was determined to prove everyone wrong and I ended up getting a Masters in history,” he recalls. “The teachers were giving up. It was one of those moments in your life when you go one of two ways.”
The entrepreneur credits his family for taking the right course.
“My parents sat me down and said ‘nobody can define what you want to be’,” he says. “I had to work harder than most people. When I was about seven my father said to me he’d read the Everton match reports to me from the Telegraph, but I was determined to read the match report from the Mirror to him.”
Growing up, Blake didn’t know what he wanted to do for a job but ruled several careers out.
“I dreaded doing the same thing repetitively,” he says. “I don’t like being in a comfort zone. I get bored and I want to move on to something else.”
He points to the time he was sent home by his boss one Friday at midday to enjoy a long weekend but immediately got bored. “Within an hour I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he says. “My mind had to do something. I always wanted to do something but I just needed an idea.
“I love technology. I like gadgets. I’ve pretty much got everything that Apple can supply. Technology can free up people and make it easier.”
His career included five years at Experian, which taught him all about fraud prevention, identification and risk.
“All my clients in 2009/10 were telling me we’re collecting Big Data but we don’t use it because it’s too big,” he says. He may not have realised it at the time but it was a crucial step towards launching Hello Soda, which he did in 2013.
The initial idea behind Hello Soda was to collect data, like the day people get paid, and analysing it.
The first challenge was coming up with a suitable name. After forking out £6,000 to a marketing company and drawing a blank the solution came closer to home.
“We were sat around a table and someone said ‘we say hello to new data so let’s use the word hello’. Data is social data so we came up with the word ‘soda’, and hello social data became Hello Soda. I hated the name. Now I love it. It’s the best decision I didn’t want to do. It stands out.”
The sell to customers has been a lot more straightforward. “We say to clients that we can identify more customers for them to work with. We say we can get more customers through the doors. We can say the people you are trading with are real and not fraudsters.”
Put simply, a lot of revenue was being lost as potential customers were dropping off the sales process because their identity couldn’t be confirmed.
Hello Soda use a special algorithm that will look at the digital footprint of a potential customer to verify their identify within five seconds. The algorithm looks at things like social media activity to give a ‘confidence rating’ of how sure they are the applicant is who they say they are.
“They can find out what’s most important to someone, based on their digital footprint: for example, a love of football or cricket,” he says. “We only get information that you are willing to share and it’s all analysed data. We’re not selling data, we’re analysing it.”
Clients get an average 12 per cent sales lift because fewer customers are dropping off during the process. Touching wood, Blake says no fraudster had got through the system.
Today Hello Soda employs 34 people and has customers in Spain, US, Australia, Bangkok, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico. Around 40 per cent of its customers are in the USA, where it has an office. Turnover has grown to £3m but Blake says it’s a “million dollar opportunity”.
“We’ll probably add another 15 people this year,” he believes. “We’re recruiting seven right now. The UK is our home market. We’re very proud to be a Northern business. We’ll never move the head office from Manchester but central and southern America is probably our next geographical expansion.
“We’re going to be a £100m business. That’s the aim. Our strategy is international growth. The US will outstrip the UK in a year. Asia may outstrip the US. We see South America as a massive opportunity. For us we’re looking at export and international. We cannot be the business we want to be unless we grow internationally.”
Blake says he has no intention of selling the business but is open to the idea of taking on investment.
“We started off with a five-year plan,” he says. “We’re three years into it and we’ve got another five-year plan. We’ve got a lot to do. We’ve got 50-plus customers around the world. We are not investing in the commercial side to grow the business. We’re investing profits but we are looking at taking investment.
“The opportunity for us globally is so big we need to invest now. We’ve always got an eye on the bottom line. For me what success looks like is to have a multi-geographical business that enables consumers to get services they actually need. I fundamentally believe that data empowers.”
Hello Soda has expanded into India and opened offices in Austin, Texas and Bangkok but Blake believes the Northern Powerhouse is ‘missing a trick’ when it comes to technology.