Q&A: James Eder launched Student Beans aged 22. Now he's won Digital Business of the Year

“Stand for something, believe in it, deliver on it”

If you haven’t come across the website Student Beans, it probably means you went to university way back before the internet was hitting its stride.

Founder James Eder launched the business when he was just 22, in 2005.

Since then, The Beans Group - Student Beans’ parent company - has been bubbling away at its Kentish Town base and now employs 40 people.

Last year, it won the prestigious Digital Business of the Year at the National Business Awards.

LondonlovesBusiness spoke to Eder to get his insights into setting up a business as a young entrepreneur and to find out more about his latest ventures.

When and why did you decide to set up Student Beans?

I started Student Beans back in 2005 when I was 22 and just a few weeks after graduating from the University of Birmingham. I did a business plan as part of my degree where I actually came up with the idea for the business and after graduating it made sense to set it up. I co-founded the business alongside my business partner and brother, Michael.

We knew that when students arrived in a new city, they would turn to the web for help. Being in an unfamiliar city and living on a limited budget is tough. But we knew that the internet and a little entrepreneurialism on our part could solve these problems.

What drove you to set up your own company?

I always knew I wanted to do something different. At university, I worked as a brand manager for Yellow Pages, did work placements in The Philippines and Colombia with student organisation AIESEC and organised events on campus. All these opportunities lay the foundations for my next steps, I knew I wanted to run my own business and do something that really makes a difference. There is one specific experience that comes to mind: when I was 21 I stood for a leadership position at AIESEC that I didn’t get. I was devastated and felt like I had failed. It was a horrible feeling - but the positive of that experience came as I read a message in a book ‘The Naked Leader’ by David Taylor. It said: Imagine if you couldn’t fail? Who would you be? Where would you go and what would you do? Despite not getting that role, I re-evaluated what I wanted to do and made a decision to launch Student Beans with my brother. I knew I wanted to have an impact and on reflection it’s the best thing that could have happened.

You’ve been very successful in a crowded online marketplace. What made Student Beans stand out?

I think creating something that has genuine value and that people want to actually use. From day one we focused on building a strong brand. The name Student Beans was based on baked beans on toast being the stereotypical staple food for students and the aim was for us to become that staple website that students turn to every day.

What’s been the most difficult part of running The Beans Group? How did you get through it and what did you learn?

There are lots of challenges of running a business. One of the hardest parts of the journey was right at the beginning where students didn’t yet know about us and we had just a landing page saying ‘coming soon’. Since then we’ve had the privilege of working with some of the biggest brands in the world. One of the key things that got us through was playing to our strengths. I have always been externally facing, driving awareness of the brand and sales, whereas Michael is the opposite and focused on the systems and processes. Whilst both very different we add value in our own ways.  

You set up in 2005. Since then, social media has evolved considerably. How did you adapt, and what were the key insights you would pass on to other online start-ups and businesses?

I think a lot of people talk about social media and how it’s grown. But over and above different marketing channels is the importance of the core proposition and the message. When this is right, marketing then takes care of itself and people just naturally want to share good content. We saw this when we launched and remain true today - the deals and offers that are social by design and get people talking enable us to grow. Other examples and companies doing this well today are Uber and Dropbox, where they build sharing into their business models.

Through [youth marketing venture] Voxburner you work with some of the world’s best known companies and brands. What top tips have you got for building and maintaining successful relationships with big companies, from the perspective of being a relatively small one?

I think it’s definitely a case of focusing on value rather than size! Voxburner has access to an audience of engaged young people who want to give their opinions. This data is so useful to brands - they can understand this audience in an in-depth way and actively create strategies from it in their day to day work. Whilst we have an online presence we also bring people together twice a year at our flagship events: the Youth 100 Awards Ceremony and Insights Summit in early November and Youth Marketing Strategy, scheduled for March 2015. These events play a big part in supporting the youth marketing community, with top youth brands sharing best case practice and how they successfully engage with Millennials. In terms of building and maintaining successful relationships, ultimately people do business with people and behind every brand there is a decision maker that it is important to engage and build trust with.

Why do many organisations struggle to engage meaningfully with the youth audience? What are some of the common blind spots?

There’s a perception that the youth market is hard to reach and even harder to engage. It is true that young people are usually clear on what they want and have fully-formed opinions on different products, services and brands. However, with the right messaging and via the right channels, 18-24s can be a highly engaged audience for brands.

Young people don’t just want brands to sell, they want them to entertain and inspire or at the very least to be interesting. Brands can be heroes, just by bringing value, helping solve a problem or simply giving young people a reason to smile.

What’s your biggest career revelation about how best to grow your business?

A favourite quote of mine is “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” It’s from an African Proverb. Over the years we’ve grown the team and as we continue to recruit it’s important to surround yourself with a brilliant people that can complement and add to your skillset. It’s important to understand who you are, where you can add value and how to play to your strengths.

Which one killer tip have you learned from competitors or other businesses/organisations?

The key for me is about authenticity. Standing for something, believing in it and delivering on it. Too often this gets left at the door and brands can lose their way. When you are authentic, it also helps keep a focus of what the brand and company are all about.

What’s the idea behind your new project Kentish Cluster, and how are you hoping to expand it? What about the counties where there’s less of an alliterative option? What about the Gloucestershire Gathering or the Sussex Society…

Kentish Cluster is about bringing together the local community of businesses and people living in the area to meet each other and collaborate. Our first event was hosted by The Grafton in April 2014 and since then we’ve had monthly meetups at different venues around the local area and this month’s event was attended by over 150 people. The events have resulted in new friends, new jobs and new business relationships.

I’m sure there are people out there in other areas round the country that can benefit from the same type of thing. I’ll leave it to them to decide on their quirky names!

What’s next in store for you?

Student Beans is continuing to expand and grow internationally with a focus on SBiD our student verification technology and SBMag. It’s an exciting time as we enter our next phase of growth. Follow me on Twitter @jameseder or add me on Linkedin to stay in touch and find out more.

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