Trailblazer 40 Below: New Media Maven Embraces His Fears
James Robert Lay, grower of relationships at PTP New Media, doesn’t believe in regrets–regardless of the outcome.
“Do one thing a day that scares you,” said Lay, who founded his company at his parents’ house when he realized he wasn’t headed for the NBA or the Grammys with his punk rock band. “We’ve got to rethink the idea of fear in our culture. It is not a bad thing when you realize how much growth can happen if you live that whole Eleanor Roosevelt philosophy. The moment you start to get complacent or comfortable, that’s the beginning of atrophy, which leads to death whether it’s a person or organization. Don’t regret those mess ups, embrace them because it will help you or your organization grow that much more.”
When he founded Past to Present (now PTP New Media) in 2002, he didn’t really have it all planned out beyond wanting to help companies do things differently and grow in ways they never thought possible through Web design.
“I was working as a waiter to pay my own way through college, playing in a punk rock band, it was a beautiful day, and I just quit. I sold the band equipment, walked to the courthouse and started the DBA Past to Present,” said Lay. “It was seven months after 9/11 and really that was my personal wake-up call that life is way too short. On that sunny day in February, I knew it was just time to be doing more with the limited time we all have.”
He didn’t discover credit unions until a few years later, in 2004, through a chance encounter with Thomas Hast, vice president of marketing at JSC Federal Credit Union during a job fair at the University of Houston Clearlake, where Lay had a booth.
“I was playing the role of an employer looking to hire, but I wasn’t exactly ready to do that at the time. Really, I wanted the experience of what it was like to interact with peers, and it was funny because the people in my classes had no idea I even had this business,” said Lay. “So it was pretty dead because there was a nasty storm, and Thomas and I started talking. He is the one who got me into all this, gave me my initial opportunity and really mentored me as well.”
His parents were longtime credit union members, yet Lay didn’t really know much about credit unions until that stormy night on campus. It took a few years, but it all clicked for Lay, who recognized that fate or luck had led him to credit unions for a reason.
“It can be a nasty, money-driven world out there. So what an amazing thing to work with credit unions and have a purpose tied to helping them connect with members and communities,” said Lay. “They, in turn, help people and at the end of the day I get to be a part of that. Who wouldn’t want to live and support something bigger that connects us all as people and wake up feeling energized and proud of what we have done with every project, every single day?”
Keeping people at the center of every decision has been the core of what drives Lay as his company has evolved from just creative services to a mix of products and services.
“I’m a very capitalistic person but at the same time I believe in responsibility and putting people first. Do that and the rest comes naturally,” said Lay. “One big shift in focus for us over the past two years has been to taper down on the Gen Y and focus on bringing a sense of fun internally for us and externally for credit unions and their members. One thing that unites Boomers, Gen Y and Gen X is the fact we want to have more fun. Figure out ways to provide an escape moment even if it’s for a few fleeting seconds. Don’t be afraid to try something new.”
Playing off the idea of humanizing the credit union movement ultimately inspired Lay to launch CU*SWAG in 2009 as a way to give away a higher quality fashionable T-shirt that members would want to wear out, rather than just to sleep in or wash their car.
“Ideas come from being open to life. You never know when something will tweak that moment and you’ll put different dots together to see it in a different light. For example, there’s an automatic negative association with the word destruction, but sometimes you need to blow up an idea to breathe new life into something.”
He added that it starts with questioning the why behind everything from strategy to tagline.
“Credit unions should be asking what can we do so that we can continue to stay relevant as a preferred choice for consumers,” said Lay. “Too often in answering that question people look at the here and now, not 2015 or 2020. Stop thinking about only a month, quarter or year. You’ve got to look out and see the opportunities beyond today.”
He also advised credit unions to stop with the practice of rip-off and duplicate.
“Stop trying to be all things to all people. Find and be the best at your niche. Too often product/service creation starts with the technology and business viability rather than starting with people and how it will affect them, make their lives easier,” said Lay. “Credit unions always talk collaboration but what does that really mean? With just 6% market share, stop looking at the CU or bank down the street as the competition. Non-traditional financial institutions in the marketplace are increasing at a rapid rate. Look at the Suze Orman card, Movenbank, Square and the Simple model. It’s only a matter of time. Yes, there are all these external threats, but that’s where the idea of engagement and really focusing on the people come into play. Credit unions are local and community based and there is something appealing about the idea of buying local.”
Lay said credit unions should also stop building campaigns around offering mobile banking because for today’s consumers it’s considered table stakes- the basic technology expected of a financial institution. He added that technology is just a tool that enables people to connect with one another and that craving for human interaction is why the branch experience still matters. He said credit unions should look through another lens for ways to take an everyday moment and turn it into something unexpected and more memorable.
“Look at auto loans, everyone does them but what if a credit union helped offer a car wash at the branch as a value add benefit. Not just taking a water hose to rinse off the car but full detailing. Or what if when someone closes on a mortgage you help them move into their home? Imagine having that branded credit union mortgage moving truck pulling into a neighborhood. Talk about destroying the box,” said Lay. “It could even be as simple as sporting a button at the branch that said chocolate chip or peanut butter and when a member answers handing that member a chocolate chip or peanut butter cookie. A strong people focus, creating an experience that builds relationships, that’s what will surpass what might be offered by a Facebook or Google.”