Jim James has built businesses from a suitcase on 3 continents for over 25 years, all using public relations. His first brush with #gettingnoticed was at 18 when he jumped out of a plane in return for sponsorship and received expedition equipment in return for media publicity. He hasn’t stopped this model of brand+business building ever since.
Having grown up in Europe, Africa and America, it was perhaps inevitable that Jim would move to Singapore at the age of 28 to start his first company, EASTWEST Public Relations. Since 1995 the B2B agency opened offices in Singapore, China, India, and the UK serving over 500 clients. In China between 2006–2019, Jim built the business importing and distributing Morgan Motor Company cars, was interim CEO of Lotus, Vice-Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, and a number of other profit and not for profit ventures including the bi-annual British Business Awards. He is particularly proud of being the homeroom parent at the school of his daughters and serving on the food committee which replaced sugary drinks with milk in the cafeteria.
Jim returned with his young family to the UK in June 2019 to provide his daughters with a British education, and works with clients to ensure that they are able to get noticed for all that they do, and helps companies to enter the Asia market. He hosts “The UnNoticed Show,” a podcast for entrepreneurs with tools and tips for public relations, and has created the SPEAK|pr course providing a structured approach to getting noticed.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Jim James: I jumped out of a plane at the age of 18 and discovered that there was more money to be made in being an Entrepreneur than working for other people. Fortune enough to live in Africa, America, and Europe with my family, I went to University in the UK and at UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After 3 years of working as an international marketing manager for a music technology company, I discovered Asia and in 1995 left the UK to set up EASTWEST Public Relations in Singapore. In 1999-2001 I started go-events.com, raising money and growing to HK until the events of 9/11 brought us all crashing down.
North Asia beckoned. 2004 I went to study Mandarin in Beijing. In 2006 I returned to start the Agency. With Richard Robinson, I co-founded the Beijing Chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization in 2007, and in 2008 launched the British Business Awards as a member of the British Chamber of Commerce in China Committee. I was Vice-Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce from 2016-2018.
In 2011 my wife and I imported the first Morgan Motor Company car to China, and I approached the Company to become the importer. From 2013 to 2018 we set up and ran the only foreign owner independent car importer in China with a showroom in Beijing and sub-dealers in Chengdu and Shanghai. In 2015-16 I was interim CEO of Lotus Cars in China. In 2016 I launched the British Motorsport Festival modeled on Goodwood, which ran 2 times. WAKE Drinks importation gave me an insight into the consumer business, and as Chairman of Eggplant Digital for over a decade I was able to support a fellow entrepreneur at the forefront of technology.
In 2018 we returned to the UK.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Jim James: In my first business in Singapore (1995) I traded too well, and overtraded which nearly put me out of business. I had sold a lot of work and commissioned a lot of printing on behalf of clients (in those days we printed brochures, invitations and that was a real cause of financial distress). As I was unknown, having only just been in Singapore for 5 months, the printers all demanded payment before delivery. The clients also barely knew me and didn’t want to pay until they had seen the proof of printing. I paid deposits to the printer and gave the client reassurance – he was in Hong Kong and the project for which I was doing the creative and production was in Thailand!
I had S$14 left in my bank account; my client owed me US$25,000 and I owed the printer US$10,000. A simple but classic case of cash flow crunch. I was living in a cheap room with some guys who worked as school teachers and had no extra money, and the bank wouldn’t give me an overdraft.
It felt like my brilliant entrepreneurial life was about to come to an early demise. We didn’t have mobile phones then…again amazing to think, and no internet….so how to prove to the customer the job was done and that he could pay. I asked the old China man who owned the print company to take a phone call with my client. It was unusual because agents always keep the client and the supplier separate; what if they tried to cut me out and the client could save US$15k and the printer could get a direct client. I wasn’t marking up by US$15k because I had also done design and copywriting too.
But it was worth taking the risk. The printer and the client took pity on the 27-year-old English entrepreneur who had sold more than he could swallow.
Lesson learned…don’t trade into a self-created cash flow crisis.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?
Jim James: I was designing a brochure for a client in Thailand – whilst I was in Singapore. This was in the days when we printed materials and the production costs and runs could be crippling if they went badly. My client said that they loved the color of the brochure which I had designed, and dutifully printed out a sample and sent it by courier.
When they said they loved the color, I took that as approval of the design and pressed ‘print’ to make 10,000 copies of this 4 page A4 brochure. Thinking I could now claim victory and look forward to repeating business, I was thrown sideways when they called me to reject the brochures.
- “But you said that you love the color” I stuttered.
- “Yes – we do, but we can’t use it in Thailand because it is the color worn by monks only.”
I wasn’t laughing at the time, but I later saw the funny side. The reprint took all of my profit and some. It’s easy to make assumptions about what other people are thinking, and that can be so costly especially when working across cultures.
Now I don’t ask, “do you like it,” I ask “will you pay for it?”
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Jim James: Resilience for me is being able to continue walking towards the horizon when underfoot is broken glass.
What is most important to your organization—mission, vision, or values?
Jim James: Values – they define how we take each and every action; like steps on a long journey. It is great to have a mission (why you are on the journey) and a vision (how you will get there) but if you don’t take steps every day those are only platitudes.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
Jim James: In my view leadership is accepted when risk is mitigated and reward is articulated. In my experience, it has been important to create opportunities for up-and-coming managers to take controlled risks which don’t undermine their self-confidence but which at the same time demonstrate to them what they are capable of. Different people have different risk appetites, and indeed these change according to time and situation.
Creating opportunities to take non-mission-critical risks, giving a reassurance that success is not a requirement but the trial is the result in itself, and demonstrating that I am living by the same rules of advancement myself have al proven to be rejuvenating for people who have worked with me on their career path.
What have you learned about personal branding that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
Jim James: Consistency of communication which is based not on who I am but the people I serve. For many years I worked to promote myself and followed the model of promoting my company; but since starting The UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast, and writing the book, sharing the insights of others rather than myself, I am finding that my network and influence have expanded.
We are so anxious to sell ourselves that we fail to listen to those around us who will let us know what they need from us.
So listen more, talk less, and the personal brand will become more accessible.
What’s your favorite leadership style and why?
Jim James: My favorite (sic) leadership style is a situation-dependent one. In my view leadership isn’t a constant profile but rather an intuitive response to the circumstances; as a leader, I need to adapt to these changes or lose my role. In essence, it is inflexibility that causes leaders (and politicians) to become irrelevant. It perhaps explains why we have great ‘war time leaders’ who are then rejected in peace time (Churchill for example) and why some CEO’s are excellent during at growth by acquisition but incapable of scale through innovation.
My favourite style then is the one which extracts the optimal results from the people and the situation at hand.
Do you think entrepreneurship is something that you’re born with or something that you can learn along the way?
Jim James: Entrepreneurship is not one dimensional; it has many facets and people can be born with some and learn others, or be put in situations whereby they must become self-reliant. Just like the old nature|nuture argument with children.
There are dimensions of Entrepreneurship that some people are more predisposed towards than others; e.g. risk appetite, physical reaction to stress, IQ/EQ, work ethic, mathematics ability, understanding how to add value. There are other dimensions of Entrepreneurship that can be acquired; e.g. risk appetite, physical reaction to stress, IQ/EQ, work ethic, mathematics ability, understanding how to add value. Yes – they are on the same list because the human being is the consummate being when it comes to adaptability.
Being an entrepreneur is essentialy, in my view, about seeing how something can be better than it is now, and having the desire to do something about that. I think that’s human nature. The issue is whether people have the confidence and the mindset to embrace the obstacles which face them when affecting that better situation.
What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?
Jim James: “Breathe.”
For me, the conscious act of breathing, of appreciating the good grace that I have to be alive, is the most important quote. Business is what we do with our time, but our breath gives us that time; I find it calming to remind myself to take a breath, and to enjoy life.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Jim James for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Jim James or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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