Jamal Edwards is a man on a mission. In fact, he’s been on one for the past decade, ever since founding SB.TV, the all-conquering online broadcasting platform. Leonie Cooper interviewed him at the first ever NME lifehacks event, a day of workshops, panels and inspiration to help young people break into the creative industries. He had a lot of wisdom to pass on…
In November 2006 SB.TV – short for Smokey Barz TV, a nod to Edwards’ own, ill-fated rap persona – launched on YouTube, its content crafted in the south Acton estate where the teenage Edwards lived with his mum. Starting with Edwards filming his mates on the video camera given to him for his 15th birthday, he was soon following around his favourite rappers, and before he knew it had the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley in front of his lens and was summoned to follow Dr Dre on tour in Asia.
Though, as he bashfully tells NME, he lost all of the footage as he forgot to back it up. Whoops.
Within five years SB.TV had become a serious media concern, helping grime to go global but also broadening its remit to pop and helping launch the career of Ed Sheeran in the process. By 2013 SB.TV was valued at a whopping £8 million and in 2014 Edwards was awarded an MBE for services to music. Not bad for a guy who didn’t go to university and was almost thrown out of college.
All of which made Jamal Edwards the perfect person to deliver the keynote speech at NME’s inaugural Lifehacks event, which took place earlier this month at Islington Metal Works in London. Who knows, in five years time you could be a millionaire too…
So take us back to the beginning of SB.TV – where did the very first seed of the idea come from?
“I think the first seed of the idea came from me being a bit frustrated with my mates not being allowed on the mainstream platforms. Back in the day it was quite difficult to get our voices heard. YouTube was about a year old and I started uploading my own videos – there was a gap in the market.”
And it was all just because you got a camera for your 15th birthday?
“I first started filming just random stuff – I was filming my mum, I was filming stuff in my back garden. Then I started filming musicians.”
And then what made you turn it into a business venture?
“I was working at Topman, I had a nine-to-five for about four years and it got to a point where all my mates were like ‘Why you working in Topman, you should carry on doing SB.TV’. I used all the money that I had from Topman and brought my camera, brought my tape, brought my sound. I used all that money to put into my business. When my first YouTube cheque came through I realised I could change it into a business and start building it up. I got denied by YouTube three times before I got my YouTube partnership.”
You’ve just turned 26 years old, but what was the young Jamal like?
“I wasn’t business minded at all. It’s better to start with passion. People start off thinking about money – and it’s good thinking about money – but when you think about the passion it starts to make money. That’s the right way to do it. Everyone used to say you don’t have the right sound or equipment but I say make do with what you have.”
When you were a little kid who did you look up to?
“It was Richie Rich.”
The film character?
“Yeah. I remember watching that back in the day and I was saying ‘How can I do that to my house?’ And that sort of inspired me to get thinking. I didn’t have rich parents so I was thinking ‘How could I do that?’”
Were you self-taught when it came to filmmaking?
“When I first started it was mainly YouTube and Google tutorials. It was a lot of going online and researching, spending hours in the bedroom rendering videos and exporting them again. With the internet there are so many different things which will teach you how to keep on building a business.”
So are you still learning?
“Yeah, I’ve only recently got my first mentor, which was two years ago through a company called Nesta (a government initiative). I had a mentor called Nick Southgate who was the CEO of Shed Media.”
What kind of advice did he offer you as a mentor?
“The biggest piece of advice that he gave me was get your finance, – VAT, tax and receipts – in line and in order. Even if you haven’t got a big business, it’s still about your everyday spend. Trying to keep a note of that and then also at the end of the month looking at it, seeing where you can save, where you can make costs a little bit lower. That’s what I did. I realised a spent a lot of money on sweets! I started making a few hundred pounds a month saving on sweets. The little things can count.”
You didn’t go to university – is that something you regret?
“I would love to go in the future. I am thankful for getting an MBA from Luton University which was a Master’s degree in business and administration. That’s the course I wanted to do but didn’t. But it came to a point in college where I was juggling three, four things. I was working in Topman, I was doing college and I was doing SB.TV. So I would have my college shift and my work shift and then, on the bus on the way home, I would be editing videos. I was finishing college but SB.TV started picking up so I thought I might as carry on doing SB.TV.”
Where did your drive and commitment come from?
“There were so many closed doors, I think that was my inspiration at first – loads of people saying ‘no’. That was from waiting outside nightclubs to film certain artists who I’m really friendly with now. All the closed doors inspired me to keep going. I think also when I started to hit different milestones within SB.TV that’s when I realised this is being taken seriously now. I started when I was 15 and for the first five years I didn’t earn anything, it was just a lot of hustling and working my other nine-to-five jobs to pay the way, but after that we started to scale up.Ge
You’ve spoken before about the importance of hustling. Can you expand on that?
“If you made a list of five people you want to meet, just literally stalk them! I was always known as the boy with a camera – no one really knew my name. I was always with a camera in my hand just following people. That’s what got me in there. It’s about naming the top five people you want to meet and literally don’t stop until you meet them.”
Who were top of your list back in the early days?
“Richard Branson. Dr Dre. Bill Gates. David Beckham.”
How important is it to get your face out there and just be up for anything?
“I think spontaneity is the biggest thing that’s helped me. Whether that’s being in the lift with Nicki Minaj and the label saying ‘you can’t film her’ and me still going to film her, then her manager phoning me back the next day and saying ‘come to our next show’. When I went on tour with Dr Dre in Asia I had to drop everything and it was a stress. I lost all the footage – I didn’t back it up! I didn’t really think things through. I should have actually said, ‘I need a producer, I need a director’. It was just me and my camera. I learnt a lesson from that – even if you feel scared just ask for things, the worst thing they can say is ‘no’.”
Who was the first person to believe in you and pay attention to what you said?
“It was my form tutor in school. I was bunking my lessons to go film videos and it got to the point when college and my teachers were saying ‘Jamal you need to buckle down’. So I literally made a deal and sat with my form tutor. I’m like ‘Look, I’m doing YouTube SB.TV, can you work out a way where I can do school, do lessons, but if I come after school and learn more’. It was just asking people for help.”
What was your first video for SB.TV?
“I don’t even wanna talk about it! It’s a video I did in Birmingham, at Cadbury Chocolate Factory. I was on a trip and I was filming my friends, it’s so cringe but it’s good to see how far it’s come!
You seem like a very busy man, but do you still maintain a healthy work/life balance?
“I try my best to. I try and go to the gym, I stopped eating meat. That was down to JME, when I was out with JME and we’d go for lunch he’d always go to vegan and I’d always go to meat, so one day I tried a vegan restaurant and it was actually quite good. I’m not vegan – I tried it for two weeks and it was very difficult – but I have stopped eating meat. I always try and ride my bike too, I’m from Ealing and I always wanna go to Shoreditch, so I try and ride my bike there and back, which is pretty good. I try and get seven or eight hours sleep a night now as well, it’s difficult, but it’s so important.”
What advice would you give to someone that wants to start their own business?
“I think one of the things is starting it for a passion, don’t start a business just for a paycheck. I didn’t really get my first paycheck until five or six years in. A lot of people might be on to a good idea but, because they don’t make the money, they stop and I think that’s the worst thing. If you’re not getting money for your passion, then you need to get the money from your job. And don’t be scared, I’m not saying working in Topman was bad, but earning your money and actually spending it responsibly, that really can help in the long run.”