James Smethurst - From the NHS to Running a Successful Digital Agency

In this edition of the Small Business Heroes podcast James Smethurst talks about the transition from working in the NHS to running a marketing agency, the need for personal growth, the energy needed for sales, how we should go for speed over perfection, and some ideas on how to find the hungriest market for our products.


Guest profile - James Smethurst


James Smethurst - In today’s digital business world, you need a partner who can help you take advantage of the various opportunities across a variety of channels in real-time. 

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Wirral, United Kingdom

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Tel: 0330 120 0844

James Smethurst Podcast Transcription

Tony Radford 0:02

Hello, everybody, and welcome to another edition of the Small Business Heroes podcast. Our guest today is James smethurst from thesocialdesk.co.uk. James, how's your day going today?

James Smethurst 0:18

Today's been lovely today. Yeah, really nice, nice and sunny outside and lots of work been productive. Let's put it that way. So I really enjoyed myself.

Tony Radford 0:27

Great. I wonder if you could just tell us about your business.

James Smethurst 0:31

Yeah, no problem. So, my business the social desk is currently it's nearly two years old in September. We work across multiple industries, helping companies with their social media management, websites, email marketing, and we do a lot of lead generation for many companies who require more sales, or generally, one more bums on seats. Let's put it that way. And so yeah, it's has been a sort of a sort of a product of mine that I've sort of created back two years ago, I've always wanted to have my own business it's something that's always been something that's been on my radar I've used to work within the digital transformation side of the NHS. So I kind of was already aware of a lot of the new technology and the various aspects of what could be done within business and so when the time arose for me to make the decision whether to go down full employment or to really give it a go I took the plunge it's a it's a very deep plunge as most business owners out there will will certainly no but it was one of those that I you know, I thought it was the right time for me to to jump in and have a good go.

Tony Radford 1:48

Right okay. Now that's excellent. So many people are coming out of, you know, organizations and then becoming freelance or run a micro business and that That sort of thing. So you're part of a big trend there, James. So you talk to us now about getting bums on seats or generating leads, what form of the generations you actually do?

James Smethurst 2:15

So most of our lead generation is through Facebook ads. We do a heck of a lot through Facebook ads at the moment. It's probably one of our most lucrative lead generation. It's probably the most lucrative lead generation platform out there. To be honest, I do find that Google can have a bottomless pit. And certainly other lead generation platforms or other platforms that you can use to pay for these that the cost of the leads can can be outrageous in many respects, and is one of the reasons that can you know plummet a few businesses in terms of actually generating those leads. So we try and come up with the right strategy for every business that comes and speaks to this. We try and help them to generate the right leads for their business. Some of them may not even be through Facebook, some of them can be through email campaigns can be through, you know, using Google ads. So we're not, you know, we're not completely focusing on Facebook, it's probably just our main source of income in terms of how we go about the lead generation. But I certainly feel for any business out there that you know, obviously, you know, it's one of those getting those bums on seats is probably the hardest thing to do. And to generate those sales is one of my it's definitely is one of the most difficult things to do. And you know, you always want those really high and really fast ROI as quickly as possible. And we always do our best to help businesses where we can, and you know, so we always try and go through each business and generate a bespoke strategy for each business so that they're not all the same, and they all generate the results that we want, you know, My main value for my business is to generate the credibility. And, you know, we always say that to people, we give you that, you know, if it's something that we don't really feel is going to work, we will give you that honest answer, we will give you that honest feedback. But we do try our best to work with everybody. And we do try our best to actually generate the ROI that everybody wants to achieve. Even whether it is trying to make them a bit more realistic, in terms of the unrealistic ones that they come across are come across our desk.

Tony Radford 4:32

Right? Where are you based?

James Smethurst 4:35

So we're based all over the world. And we've been here now for six years, we were actually weirdly enough looking to move into an office in May this year, unfortunately, due to the current climate, that that didn't go ahead, but you know, it's something that I'm looking to revisit again in the new year. And I think it's, you know, it's one of those we have to take stock of where we currently are And, you know, really, I think probably make sure that we've got a plan of action going forward for the next 12 months.

Tony Radford 5:08

Yeah. And are your clients? Are they? Are they mainly on the world or elsewhere?

James Smethurst 5:15

No. And I'll be honest with you, our clients are all across the country. And you know, we literally have gone as far as Scotland and we have gone even over into Europe, down to, you know, the south of Spain. And we've had a couple of clients in France. So while in Switzerland, so we have literally sort of, we've done quite a lot of traveling, even though we're only based in the Northwest. But yeah, all our clients are predominantly based within the UK. We are, we are a UK, UK digital marketing agency. The great thing about it is is obviously, we were there's been digital we can literally operate from anywhere. So that's kind of one of the best things about it. And in all honesty, you know, we were using Probably a lot, a lot longer before anybody else was let me put it that way. So, we've, we've had had the, you know, we've had that implemented for a while, and it means that we can have these sort of face to face conversations without actually being in the presence of each other.

Tony Radford 6:18

So in terms of finding our clients, is it mainly referrals? Or do you do some other form of advertising?

James Smethurst 6:26

so, in terms of finding clients for ourselves, yes, we we kind of try and let word of mouth really take over? Is the honest answer. It's, it's probably going to be one of the best referrals and any, you know, micro business out there will completely agree with that. I think. If you can generate a good word of mouth about your company, it will always it will always make that referral a lot easier for yourself in terms of actually taking the contract over the line. And so we do a lot of we know we do rely a lot on word of mouth, but we Do do a lot of our own. Our own sort of press releases we do. We do a lot of networking. I currently belong to about three different networking groups, which I go to on a regular basis. And I do my best to sort of really push our business out there, we do do a lot of our own lead generation as well. So we do sort of, we do try and practice what we preach. It's probably one of the hardest things that most micro businesses will agree with me on, you know, it's really difficult to do all the work for other people. But when it comes to doing it for yourself, it's a different story. But we certainly try our best to practice what we preach. You know, we've literally actually agreed something today to go out on Monday, which will be a new lead lead generation for us in terms of websites. So, you know, we're we're trying to be as proactive as we possibly can be within the current climate.

Tony Radford 7:52

Right. That's great. And what would be one of your biggest business challenges that you've had, you know, that you faced in the last couple of weeks

James Smethurst 8:02

I must admit, when you first told me about this question, I had to sit and think about it for a little bit because I must admit this, there's been many big challenges that we face. And for myself personally, I would actually probably say, networking was one of my biggest challenges. And I don't come from a battler but sorry, a background of networking at all. And I'm very, I was very new. I was probably the fresh puppy in the middle of the room. I'm pretty certain I stood out like a sore thumb. And, and I must admit, you know, I did my best to try and get my, you know, get my passion and my sort of story across the people about what we want to achieve. Initially, I think I was probably, you know, a deer in headlights. But I think over the sort of the last 18 months, two years, I think it's one of the one of the assets that I've actually found of myself. I've grown personally as a developed my networking skills a lot better. I do feel that people understand my passion in terms of my digital marketing. And I think it's probably one of the it has been definitely one of my biggest challenges. And I would say one of the biggest challenges that businesses faced is actually just the, the sheer extent of how quickly things, things happen. And the sheer extent of where you need to actually try and, you know, in many respects, automate as much as possible. Like most micro businesses, you know, I initially started out myself, just doing everything myself. And I think that was probably one of the hardest parts of the business. I would probably say the steep learning curve that every entrepreneur out there talks about, and it couldn't be more prevalent in your face and more, quite literally something that you're a little bit scared of actually within the first six to eight months of your business. do feel though once you've kind of got over that first initial hurdle, and you kind of relish that challenge, and you, you enjoy it, you know, I think that the words of sort of enjoying You know, you're, it's something but if you enjoy a job, you I can't remember the actual phrase now.

I'll come back to that. But I think it's as long as if I think it's if you know, work isn't work if you enjoy the job you're doing or something along those lines.

James Smethurst 10:29

you may be able to help me on that one. But yeah, I certainly feel it now. We're in a much better place than we were initially. And it's something that I want to you know, continue to grow.

Tony Radford 10:38

Alright, great. Yeah, I think a lot of people have that initial struggle with the you know, the room when you go into for networking mornings, you know, it's it's sort of something you have to push yourself into, like I'm a loner, for example, but I used to really push myself into those into those. Just going to talk to anybody

James Smethurst 11:00

Absolutely and I think one of the big things I learned was about being an introvert and an extrovert and I think anybody out there who is involved in sort of the the digital side of things it people related, I'm sure many of us will probably agree that we probably have very much introverted. You know, relationships were very much once of very much loners, as you've just said. But in order to do networking, you very much have to be an extrovert and put yourself out there. And definitely perfecting your 60 seconds pitch is something that I am, I've had to learn as quickly as possible. Because you don't get as long as you do on these podcasts to sort of talk, you know, you really need to get your point across almost as quickly and as sharply as possible.

Tony Radford 11:50

And presumably, many people in in in full time employment would not have had the benefit of being taught such skills, right.

James Smethurst 11:58

No, no, it was it was some You know, I think in all fairness, you know, my family were really helpful with but they bought me a million different books to sort of, say, read this read that this is how you need to do it. And, and you know, you do as much as you can to sort of try and perfect it. But I think one of the biggest advice or the biggest bits of advice I can give to somebody is, you know, go out there and be yourself. And one of the biggest sort of lessons have taught myself is, is people will always buy from people. And I don't think that's ever been more true now than it has ever before. And I think that's something I've certainly learned. But, you know, I go out there now, and I very much try and, you know, let people understand who I am. And, and unrealistically you know, let the match with my personality I try and, you know, try and work with people who we were able to have those conversations, those difficult conversations, and then not be difficult conversations. And, you know, I think that's kind of it's having that relationship with your client. That, that maintains and keeps your business going and keeps the credibility there.

Tony Radford 13:05

All right, what what would you say is the next step for your business?

James Smethurst 13:12

well, I suppose when it was announced the other day that We're now entering a recession, so we're actually in a recession. So my next step for my business and we had a team meeting on Thursday, is, is, is very much now what we're looking to do is really analyze the market. And, you know, try and align our companies with with with the various companies out there, who were, who were going to stick around in all honesty, and, you know, we obviously want to maintain our business and keep going. And but we also want to maintain our businesses with those who are still going to be here and, you know, we did a lot of analysis in terms of what happened in 2008. And the recession then, and, you know, we looked about who was still around then we've we've done a lot of analysis around that and and in all honesty, now We've re entered a recession, we've got to re analyze again, and sort of maintain that, that level of, of accuracy within our market and who we need to target to work with. I mean, it's one of the great things we try and work with as many people as we possibly can. But, again, you know, obviously, we need to make sure that we have bills are paid, etc. And then the business keeps going.

Tony Radford 14:25

Yeah, great. Thank you. You talked earlier about networking and the whole kind of energy that you need to drum up sales. I mean, you know, the next question is what you know, what is one thing you wish someone had told you when you started out? Is that it or is it something else?

James Smethurst 14:41

No, I would definitely say there's another answer to that. I think, weirdly enough, my one of the lads who works for me, Jamie, we, we kind of had this discussion. And I think one of the biggest things that I would suggest to everyone is speed over perfection and is definitely is definitely key. And I got this completely wrong at the beginning. Okay, I'm a bit of a perfectionist, I'm probably got a little bit of OCD in there somewhere. But I, I've certainly learned over time that I overthink things, which then means that by the time I bring something to market, I've missed out and somebody else has already done it. And even though their product may not be as good quality or may not be as high, you know, high, you know, the high capabilities of what my product can do, they've already tackled the market and they've already got the lion's share of the market which then therefore, means, you know, my product is pretty much you know, useless unless I have a fantastic you know, marketing team behind me which you know, we do but you have to pick your battles where you can. So, I would definitely say to everybody, you know, nothing has to be perfect to generate results. And you can you can generate, you can literally put anything out there which will generate some sort of Results I've seen in the past where we've generated results. Sometimes it's not always good, but it's always been a result. And when you have results, you have data, you have the ability to analyze that. And then you have the ability to make the right changes to make the right comparisons and not actually, in all honesty, to to redevelop your product to something even better. And so don't always go out there thinking everything has to be perfect to be on the market. It doesn't.

Tony Radford 16:32

Do you have a like a business mentor or support group?

James Smethurst 16:37

Yes, so

I suppose over the last year, I've, I've kind of I've had a business coach, a guy called Graham little who I think lateral might 2.0 is his business. He's, he's always he's always there for me to sort of run my ideas past. He's always been very helpful. And I obviously have my support group is immense, you know, of course. Got a really good family, I've got some really good friends who in all honesty are a fantastic as well as my staff, that being the sounding board for all my ideas. I'm not going to I'm going to be completely honest with you now, Sony, I have some radical ideas, probably some things that are way beyond what we probably can do at the moment. But it's good to have somebody to have have those ideas with and have a sounding board because they do all honestly give me really honest answers. And some of the answers I don't want to hear I'm very stubborn sometimes. So, I do I do stand my ground and try and and try and redevelop it further and put my point across. But you know, I've got a fantastic team of people around me, and it's really has helped me certainly, personally and professionally and you know, made me really take things forward.

Tony Radford 17:53

That's great. Yeah, thank you for that. I've got two micro questions if you like. Yeah. That's fine go for. The first one is if somebody gave you 500 pounds to spend on marketing, how would you spend it?

James Smethurst 18:08

500 pounds. And oh, good question.

Someone gave me five, I'd probably spend it on Facebook ads would be my honest answer to you targeted targeting specific businesses or specific business industry and really promote how I'm going to solve a problem for that for that industry. For example, and I can only think of one example at the moment would be the government has released this 50,000 pound voucher on how you can make your homes more efficient. And, you know, something I would be looking into is how we can help build this within the building industry to really advertise and help those people who are getting those vouchers. really helped them how to make the most out of this ski and it generates more sales for builders it generates more traction in terms of that industry and that's something that you would be you know something that I would probably look to spend that 500 pounds on because I do feel that the ROI back off that would probably be you know, five to 10 times that that figure

Tony Radford 19:23

Right, okay. And finally, you know, for a micro business owner or freelance personal something, look, can you give us one actionable sales tip

James Smethurst 19:35

and I mean, it kind of goes off the preview example of suppose but one of the biggest things in terms of when it comes to sort of within the marketing industry, certainly, and the big difference that we we work, our hardest at doing is if I can if I can sort of break it into an analogy for you. If you go into a shop, you get the option to Go up to something you get to touch it, you get to feel it, you get to really view how it looks, you get to if it if it plays a sound, you get to press a button to get it to play a sound. And now that's great for obviously doing that on, you know, in a shop, etc. The difference when you bring that to sort of the digital and the online side of things is you really have to access the creative side of your brain. And really try and get your target audience to really use their imagination about how all of the above is within that product. So probably one of the biggest and best analogies I've got from that is if yourself and I both had a burger stand. For example. Tony, I'm going to I'm going to put a question to you on this one. If we both had a burger stand and we needed to market our burgers to the industry, how would you go about doing it?

Tony Radford 20:59

I'd actually To stand out from the crowd, I would sell them without the buttons because I'm on a ketogenic diet and I think carbs. So it's absolutely, yeah. So I'd say I'd be the only burger van selling burgers without a burn.

James Smethurst 21:15

Well, and that's that's, you know, you're not wrong in answering with that answer my way looking at as a marketeer would be I would market my product or my burger in the hungriest market possible. So I would be looking at events, I would be looking at the end of a finish line of a marathon, I would be looking at the end of the finish line of a triathlon. Trust me, I've done both, and you need food at the end of it. And so in many respects, it's not always having the best burger, but it's having the hungriest market and and so we you know, if you think about it that way, you can always make sales from that. And it's one of the best ways if you if you're selling a product that wouldn't you would normally find in store. It's how, uh, how would you find a web These people be online if you need to sell it to them there. And that's how I try and look at things when I when I actually make those sales tips in my head, how I look at how I go about selling something.

Tony Radford 22:12

Do you mind if we just dig into that for a couple of minutes?

Unknown Speaker 22:14

No, no problem. So

Tony Radford 22:17

So how would you advise people to find the hungries market for that product or service?

James Smethurst 22:26

competitive analysis in all honesty, and that's always going to be a very, you know, market research again, it's all the boring stuff and honestly, is the answer to your question. And nobody likes to do the competitive analysis. Nobody likes to do all the market research. And they are the best parts of how to sell a product. You will learn so much about your audience you will learn so much about your market if you if you do all that properly. And you do it right. There is business This is who we work with. We This is one of the probably one of the biggest reasons they come to us and sort of speak to us about, things aren't quite going to plan things aren't quite going as well as we'd hoped. It's mainly because all of that competitive analysis and and the market research probably hasn't been done to the hilt in terms of actually generating as much information as possible. All I can say on top of that is information is key. And in terms of all this, that's how I would know straight away just from selling a burger who's going to buy my burger, people who are hungry, and and where am I going to find these hungry people? Okay, and that's, you know, straight away just going on for sort of, it's very having to describe it, my dad would describe it as very lateral thinking. But I think you have to do a little bit of lateral thinking outside the box thinking in terms to actually break into those markets.

Tony Radford 23:56

Yeah, we offer a an An app for small business owners and freelancers, it's called proactive and it's something like a planning tool plus a CRM joined together. And I've just gone I'm just going through a process with a usability consultant. And the first thing she had me do was competitor analysis. And it's extremely enlightening, really, in a good way and in a threat way as well. But it's but it's but it's so, so necessary. Now. She's got me talking to my users. And that's also you know, it brings up all sorts of things and gathering that data is time consuming, and you kind of think, is it worth it, but it absolutely, it absolutely is. And it was a great thing. So thank you very much for answering. I can totally identify with that.

James Smethurst 24:48

Yeah, I think it's it's certainly one of those things that most marketing consultants will advise people to do, and see what your competitors are doing. I advise you know, we, for example, we worked with Some much larger companies than I care to even imagine for a micro company in all honesty, and I, you know, I sometimes wake up in sweats in the middle of the night wondering how we're actually going to do the various bits we're going to do. But one of the biggest things that I always fall back on is knowing, you know, this is what their competitors are doing. And what we're currently planning on doing is miles better than that. Okay. But they're made, they're generating results from that as well. So, you know, in many respects, see what see where the results are coming from, you know, there's, it's always one of those people, people always trying to look for those, get, get get sorry, get rich quick schemes. That I do believe that they don't really exist in terms of in terms of actually doing things properly. They may, they may learn, they may work in the short term, but certainly not in the long run. If you want something doing properly is going to take time. But the best thing about it is you're going to have the time but then reaps the rewards from that as well. And you know, it's a slow process, but At the end of it, you know, the world's your oyster, as they say, you know, and so that's why I always try and say to people don't, don't try and don't try and bite bite off more than you can chew, take those little bites, because eventually, you know, everything will start coming to you at the end of it. So that's, that's a bit more advice. I know, I've pretty much given loads, but try and help work out.

Tony Radford 26:20

So that's great, thank you and, you know, silver bullets, they don't really work. And if you're, if you go through that process, once you I mean, in terms of all the analysis and all that kind of thing. It's a learned skill and you can do it again in the future. Can't you see you've invested in yourself in your learning really, which is a good foundation for your business, I think.

James Smethurst 26:40

Absolutely. Absolutely. And we, you know, listen, everyone makes mistakes. And I think one of the biggest, biggest life lessons my dad certainly taught me from from years ago was, you know, any mistake you make you learn from it. And even when it means you jump into the deep end of a pool and forgotten how to swim without your armbands, when you're four years old and he has to pull you And, you know, you learn from it, you learn not to do it again. And, and so you know, or you learn how to do it differently. Let me put it that way. Major beef, maybe just go and swim in the shallow end for a little bit. But I you know, I think every, every bit of business that I currently do, I'm learning we're constantly learning here. I mean, in all honesty, you know, anyone who's working in the marketing industry, you are constantly learning from the different different different new bits of technology, different new pieces of information, the market moves so fast. You know, even sometimes we struggle to keep up. But it's just trying to maintain and keep yourself on top of it all. And, you know, in many respects, that's why we always try and help people by giving them that advice.

Tony Radford 27:48

Thanks, James. It's been a really good conversation with lots of helpful tips and advice and thoughts for our listeners. What would be the best way that people can get in touch

James Smethurst 28:01

So yeah, if you go on our website, it's WWE, the social desktop code at UK or you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, we're on all four. Or you can give us a call on Oh, double 3012008 double four. I think that's right. I'd love to. Yeah, no, it is. Yeah, that's right. Zero double 301200844. I'm saying it to myself, because I'm sure it's right.

Tony Radford 28:32

And how about email,

James Smethurst 28:34

email info at the social code at UK.

Tony Radford 28:39

Okay, James. Thank you. Thank you very much. It's great to talk to you. You're welcome.

James Smethurst 28:43

Lovely to talk to you too, Tony. Thanks very much.

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Published: 03/09/2020

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