February 1981 James is born in Dorking, Surrey
March 1999 Becomes Burger King’s youngest UK Restaurant Manager
December 1999 Invests in his first property
January 2000 Promoted to Training Area Manager for Burger King, South East Region
January 2001 Moves from the catering industry to IT recruitment, working with top-range companies such as GlaskoSmithKline, AXA, CapGemini and Natwest
January 2003 Begins a year of world travel
January 2004 Returns to recruitment and simultaneously sets up an iPod accessories business
June 2005 Leaves the recruitment sector to work on his expanding business interests full-time
April 2009 Sets up SEO Desk and Tempo Web Design
May 2008 Partners with Europe’s largest IT distributor to launch Buytech.tv, an online television retail site starring Pollyanna Woodward (now presenter of The Gadget Show on Channel 5). To view a clip, click here:
Interview with James Nicholson
Tell us a bit about your early life – did you always plan to run your own business?
My early life could be perceived as something of a struggle, and I believe that had a direct impact on who I am and the path I took. I was raised by a mentally ill, single, mother and I grew up in relative poverty. This gave me the determination to do whatever I could to live the rest of my life in that situation. I should also point out that, however bad things were, I had help and strong guidance of loving grandparents, whom enabled me to choose the right life path. These two contrasting factors definitely gave me the determination and the emotional strength to become a successful business owner.
I didn’t know at an early age what profession I wanted to pursue but I did know that I would carve my own destiny and become a success.
What steps did you take to carve out that career path?
It still wasn’t clear to me, even by the time I left school, what my long-term career path should be. Like many, I went to college, but the truth is it wasn’t for me. I’m only qualified to GCSE level, but I never saw that as a handicap at all. I took a job at Burger King to begin gaining an income and quickly rose up the ranks. At the age of 18 I became the company’s youngest UK Restaurant Manager. A few years later, I was promoted to the role of Training Manager for the whole of the South East, training the next generation of managers and helping with restaurant start-ups. It was a lot of responsibility.
I always knew that Burger King was the beginning for me, and not the end. I eventually opted for a move into the commercial world. Recruitment was an area that seemingly offered generous financial reward for hard work and effort. I’ve never asked for more than this. I realised that I wanted greater flexibility, as well as greater control over my career and rewards. However, in 2003 I decided to do some traveling, see some of the world, and decide where I wanted my future to take me.
How did traveling change your view and did it help you to achieve your goals?
In the long run, absolutely it did. I traveled extensively, in several parts of South East Asia and around Australasia and America. As well as opening my eyes to new cultures and ways of life, it really helped shape my views and attitudes. It’s a cliche, I know, but travel really did broaden my mind. There is one event, above all others, that I would consider a defining moment on my travels. I was visiting Bang Kwang prison in Bangkok, otherwise known as the ‘Bangkok Hilton’. There I met a Malaysian man, Jagnathan, who was on death row for smuggling heroin from Malaysia to Thailand. I was struck by the fact that his motivation for the criminal act was simply to pay the healthcare costs for his sick child. But, more than that, I was greatly moved by Jagnathan’s attitude as he languished under sentence of death. He had a really positive outlook on life, despite his plight. He was even learning new languages! Incidentally, I’m happy to report that when I returned, in 2013, I discovered that Jagnathan had been freed to return to his family.
It was while I was abroad that my entrepreneurial self began to come to the fore. You might say that it came with an old-fashioned eureka moment. As you may know, traveling from country to country involves countless hours of staring out of a window, waiting to arrive at your next destination. As a result, I had amassed a fine collection of CDs to help me while away the many bus, boat and train trips I was taking. The space this collection took up was becoming problematic, not to mention the money I was spending on batteries to keep my Sony Walkman going. While on a ‘Kiwi Experience’ bus journey, a friend showed me his new iPod. I was genuinely amazed. 1000 songs, an 8 hour battery life, all contained in this one tiny device! As a big gadget fan, anyway, I decided to buy my own iPod as soon as I returned home and received my first pay cheque.
So how did this turn into a business idea?
Like everyone else, I wanted a protective case for my new iPod. After a little research, I found iSkin, the leading brand for cases at the time. I was interested in what opportunities these new products may be able to offer me, so I contacted iSkin about selling their iPod accessories in the UK. I was directed to their UK distributor and immediately set up an online shop, both on eBay and Amazon, to sell iSkin cases in the UK. Business began picking up with some speed. I was back in my recruitment role at that time and the office jokes revolved around my continual receipt of deliveries for dispatch to my customers that night.
The online business was so successful that, after a few months, I was able to leave my recruitment role to concentrate on it full time. After only two weeks I had employed another member of staff and was processing almost 250 orders per week. Within three years the business had a turnover in excess of £2 million.
Very good! How then did SEO come about?
I became frustrated at ineffectual online marketing. I was paying other companies thousands of pounds to conduct marketing which wasn’t working. I had a portfolio of 10 e-commerce stores and it seemed to me that those early digital marketing agencies did not really understand how search engines worked. I decided if you want a job doing properly, do it yourself. I learned SEO techniques, what works and what doesn’t, for myself and began to implement those skills.
It got results, and soon I had friends asking for my services with their own sites, or even help them build sites from scratch and then market them. It made sense to me to pursue this as a business in and of itself, so I set up SEO Desk. By this point the iPod market was saturated, going from 5 iPod accessory sites, when I started out, to over 10,00! It made sense to shift my focus from that to digital marketing.
I now run a flourishing business, with 10 professional staff members helping over 150 customers. At SEO Desk, we adapt each campaign to the needs of the client’s business, from an FTSE 250 corporation to small, local firms.
What else are you involved with right now?
Much of my energy is now devoted to digital marketing, helping countless companies build their online presence. I’ve worked in this industry for over ten years, now. I’m extremely passionate about it and feel I have a lot to offer my clients. I’m an active member of the industry, regularly attend events and have even been a guest speaker at some of. Among those events that my company regularly get involved with are The Business Show, TFM&A, Internet Worms, Kent 2020, Business Show North West, Internet Retailing and Let’s Do Business.
We also happy to offer company-wide training in digital marketing, for large corporations through to SMEs. These training sessions have been so successful that we are moving to the next stage, developing our own online training program, designed for online marketeers and business owners alike, looking to increase their online presence. These will include video tutorials SEO techniques. as well as social media campaigns.
I also continue to maintain my interest in property investments. I’ve always believed that renting your home is tantamount to throwing your money down the drain. I worked hard to buy my first home at the age of 18. This was a young age to take such a step, particularly compared to my peers, who were starting university or still living at home. Once I had made this first step onto the property ladder, I saw the opportunity for further investment and gradually built up a property portfolio in the South East. I am always researching areas that may offer a good return on an investment. The portfolio continues to grow.