Entrepreneur Jamal Edwards on how he’s learnt from failures, including the ‘big break’ that turned into a spectacular failure when he lost all the film footage.
At 15 years old, Jamal Edwards started out making short firms of urban foxes and his grime-loving friends messing about on a £200 video camera, a present from his parents, on his Acton estate. Now 27 and an MBE, the founder of video channel SBTV has been described by Sir Richard Branson as the “walking definition of the word entrepreneur” with an empire worth millions. He was a key player in bringing grime mainstream and launched the careers of a diverse roster of singers, from Ed Sheeran to Dave.
Do you think you can be more fearless when you’re young, that you’ve got less to lose?
I’m fearless now and I was fearless back in the day, but in different ways. Now failure is much more in the public eye. But I do believe if you lose your fear, you lose your passion.
When I was young, it was just about doing my filming, posting it on YouTube and learning from it. I learnt to not be afraid of being told ‘no’. If you ask for something – like when I got my first job in Topman – I knew the worst that the manager could say was no. My friends were scared of no, but once you’ve stepped over that barrier you lose some fear. You’ve got to believe in yourself.
What’s a time when you took a big risk?
I think one of the earlier risks I took was when I took SBTV from underground to mainstream and a whole new audience, filming people like Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora.
Music has no boundaries but people were so narrow-minded and left a lot of bad comments. My music palate is really wide: I like grime, rock, house, R&B, hip hop, soul. If something makes my head bop, I want to film it. But after the feedback that it wasn’t what people wanted to see, I figured out I had to run different strands for different music so I could keep the audience and grow it. It was a big risk but it paid off.
You were one of the first people to ‘get’ YouTube as a platform, launching some of the careers of our biggest music stars.
I wanted to shine a light on talent that wasn’t being repped by mainstream media and make local voices go global. People call us the millennials but we’re the do-it yourself generation.
The generation below me have been born into tech; 15 and 16-year-olds who know how to film and edit. But kids aren’t learning how to present themselves and social media etiquette. That comes back to haunt you.
How do you feel about failure?
I never regret any failures and I learn from the failures I make. I think one of my biggest failures is rushing into things too quick, but it’s also the biggest lesson I learn. Failure is a hiccup. It’s a bump in the road.
And the flipside, success?
Successes are ‘oomph’ moments and everything in between is just life. ‘Oomph’ moments for me have been getting my MBE at 24, hitting half a billion views, the 2011 Google Chrome advert and now I’m filming 10 Years of SBTV with people like Jesse James and Ed Sheeran.
When did you learn through a failure?
I was fearless going outside Acton into all areas with my camera. Not in a nosey way, but following what I was interested in. My friends couldn’t believe I was going all over London.
There was one time I waited for hours until 2am to get a picture of Dr Dre and I put it online and got loads of likes. And a week later, his senior management got in touch and invited me to go on tour for the launch of Beats in Asia.
I was 16 and I said to my mum “I’m going to Asia with Dr Dre.” And she said, “No, you’re not, you’re going to college”. I was doing a BTEC in media and moving image and working part-time at Topman.
I persuaded her I needed to go, that this was the moment I’d been waiting for. That tour was relentless but it was inspiring being with one of the greatest producers and entrepreneurs, someone I really looked up to. I was filming daily with him, really up close and personal. I’d brought my own camera equipment going solo, while there were all these other huge film crews. I wanted to impress him.
And right at the end of the trip, my memory card failed. I lost everything, all the footage. I felt like the world was going to end. It wasn’t a good trip home.
I wanted to quit. It was a proper depressing time. I was emailing them and they wouldn’t get back to me.
How did you come back from that failure?
That taught me a lesson – I should have asked and had a team with a director and a producer, not just jump straight in. I’d messed up this time, so I wanted to keep on working hard and prove myself by making really good content, so they’d get back in touch – which they did. I dusted myself off and carried on. That’s why I don’t really believe in failure – it’s a lesson learnt.
Now as an executive producer, I’ll always tell musicians how they can improve. I’m quite brutal – that’s my job, I’ve got a responsibility to tell them. It’s constructive criticism.
You’ve addressed the subject of mental health recently in your films. Do you think it’s hard to admit to feeling you’re failing?
Yes I do. Back in the day I never talked about failure with my friends but as I’ve grown as a person I’ve started talking about it a lot more. I wanted to show it’s not all about the ups. It’s important to show the downs because with social media it looks like everything’s lovely. I want to show the real. I feel a responsibility to talk about mental health issues and trigger more conversations. I’ve had lots of lovely messages. (He flicks down one of his three phones to show a message from a psychiatrist thanking him for the positive effect his message has had.)
When you were starting out, what drove you?
Ritchie Rich and films like that where kids had everything. I wanted a rollercoaster in the garden and I knew I’d have to graft for myself and work really hard. Now it’s funny I don’t like materalistic things. I want to be comfortable and enjoy what I’m doing.
Ten years is a half way career and 20 years is a proper career, so I’m at my half way point. The next five to 10 years I’m going to be scaling it up. I’m building SBTV for longevity. I care about the legacy. These 15 and 16 years old born into tech are the future. You gotta push on.
Jamal Edwards is part of THE AMEX FEAR-LESS SERIES which celebrates the achievements of the nation’s rising stars through their own unique and inspirational stories. Jamal joins five other British influencers who talk candidly about their personal path to achieving their potential and the bumps in the road they encountered along the way.