James Coombes is the Head of Business at Block Earner, an Australia-based FinTech powered by blockchain technology.
To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I studied Commercial Law at Macquarie University and was chosen for a scholarship that included a trip to China. This trip ended up shaping my career even today.
When I left university, I did what every graduate does and went and got a secure job in finance. I learned about short-term finance and the benefits it has for companies and their working capital.
I worked closely with accountants and lawyers to understand the role funding plays in their businesses too, it all helped me form a good understanding of the way money moves. I also got to experience an early stage fintech scaling up, the business tripled in size without us adding headcount.
Eventually, I found myself seeking a new challenge, something that would really shock me out of what had become a very comfortable career. I was asked to join a young cycling retailer (99 Bikes) at the exact time I was looking for something new, I joined to open their new store in Western Sydney.
Within 9 months I was promoted to Area Leader which meant I was accountable for the performance of 18 stores across NSW, VIC and SA with over 150 staff. I was a rookie in the cycling space but brought a commercial perspective to the business at the right time.
The company grew extraordinarily quickly, opening a new store every 60 days on average. This role weathered me more than I knew at the time, I was making very difficult decisions that I wasn’t fully equipped to make. Looking back, however, I am so grateful for that experience, I learned a lot about myself and how to lead at scale.
Leading large teams never satisfied me though, the climb of a startup is something I was always fascinated by after reading books like Principles by Ray Dalio, The Cult of We and Elon Musk’s biography. The next 5 and a half years were engulfed by my founder journey, I started an electric motorbike company designed to disrupt the public transportation sector.
I fully underestimated the cost both financially and mentally to bring a novel product (especially a road vehicle) to market in a compliant manner. I was blown away by the customer feedback but always struggled to move the needle in a meaningful way.
After 3 years of toiling away and trying every growth hacking strategy under the sun, I was selected to tender for a Menulog deal. This deal valued the start up at over $10m but the start up world has a funny way of testing your resolve. The first round of pandemic lockdowns started the week following delivery of our test units for the deal to proceed. The uncertainty of that period meant the deal went on ice and we were never able to revive it.
I believe startups need the best product in the right market at the right time AND a sprinkling of good luck. Unfortunately, I was missing that last ingredient. 3 of our 5 top dealerships closed down and that meant the end of my first company. It was a humbling and testing experience.
From there I discovered digital assets and the evangelical community that comes with it. I couldn’t believe what I was learning about decentralised finance and distributed ledgers. I had to get involved. It took me about 6 months to learn what I needed to, whilst doing an online programming course I was able to build some automatic trading strategies using the Python language.
The strategies were delivering just shy of 20% annualised and I realised I had something valuable to share, I opened an NFTY investment fund and started accepting investments from family and friends. Within 45 days it was oversubscribed and I needed to turn money away, which was another valuable lesson in growing at your own pace.
That led me to my favourite role of them all, Head of Business at Block Earner. Now I lead the acquisition and retention strategy for Block Earner – an ambitious blockchain-powered fintech poised to make a substantial difference to the way we all view and use money.
What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I wake up at about 7am and do everything I can to not touch my phone, this works about 50% of the time. I have cold showers each morning to help me wake up and I’ve read it’s great for circulation.
I fast each weekday so I will normally have water and leave for work about 8am. During office days I spend about 75% of my day in meetings with different team members to work out what they need from me and vice versa or with external partners.
In a role like mine, there are a lot of conversations that go nowhere so it is about extracting the information we need as quickly as possible and then running it past the team to establish whether or not we want to move forward. This can be exhausting but I enjoy meeting people and finding creative ways to work together.
What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Work-life balance is largely about weekends for me, I view ordinary workday hours as arbitrary and restrictive. A large percentage of my best work happens outside these hours when people are happy to have more human interaction.
Weekends are completely unplugged from work in an ideal world, occasionally there is something to be done but I would dedicate less than 2 hours a weekend to work. On weekends I explore my other interests/passion projects which helps keep my mind active. I have never been good at relaxing in the traditional sense so I relax through activity.
I am working on a documentary project which interviews homeless people to discover what is wrong with our system that allows some people to have so little. The series also interviews highly successful people, in their home, juxtaposing the two in an attempt to diagnose some of the systemic problems with our economy.
I am also lowkey addicted to chess. I am aiming to move into the top 10% of players this year and enter some over the board tournaments.
In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
I have started to run much more often – runner’s high is a real thing. I am not a natural runner but would like to run a half marathon in the near future. Having a goal that isn’t work related helps me decompress.
I also play at least one game of chess every day with the goal of entering the top 10% of players globally by the end of this year. I am currently ranked in the top 19% but that is probably less than halfway there.
Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
Principles by Ray Dalio is amazing. The Bankless podcast is informative and a good way to stay in touch. Morning Brew is my favourite newsletter, easy to have things to talk about with partners.
If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Lance Franklin or Ricky Ponting — sportspeople have an interesting perspective as there’s a direct correlation between time in and results out.
Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
Clear boundaries with talking about work at home helps leave work at work.
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