Big Interview: John Peebles, chief of Administrate

Tennessee-born John Peebles has been with the education technology start-up since 2011. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Tennessee-born John Peebles has been with the education technology start-up since 2011. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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Born in the US, raised mostly in China, and based in Edinburgh heading a workforce spanning 13 nationalities, John Peebles has a wealth of evidence of the benefits of multicultural perspectives.

And one childhood experience provided a valuable lesson that has translated into a business practice at education technology start-up Administrate, where he is chief executive.

“Something that always stuck with me was that when I was a kid in the early Nineties we used to love to go to the amusement park on Saturday, because at the time, China was on a six-day work week.”

Because he attended an international school running five days a week, “we could ride all the rides, it was all empty, there were no lines”.

In 1995 the country moved to a five-day working week overnight. “And you know what? Nothing happened. Productivity stayed the same or increased, and if you think about that, that’s quite remarkable.”

Administrate, which provides software helping training companies and training departments manage their entire business, has just celebrated the first anniversary of operating a four-day working week for all staff, with no change to remuneration after the switch.

Peebles says the initiative has definitely been a success, but laughs when he admits that it was “a scary thing” to 
bring to fruition even though “every study ever has shown that when you reduce working hours, your productivity goes up”.

He says it came about when he contemplated “if I could wave a magic wand and had infinite wealth, how would I design my life if there were no constraints?”

In what must be a true sign of entrepreneurial drive, he decided that while he would always like to work rather than spend his days lying on the beach, he would like a three-day weekend. He then “cautiously voiced” the idea to the chief commercial officer, receiving a positive response that was then echoed by board members and investors, although he jokes that staff thought he’d taken leave of his senses.

He stresses that everyone at the software-as-a-service firm “works really hard” but in a working week of 32 hours.

“I was a workaholic for a large part of my career — some would argue I’m still a workaholic — and that’s not healthy. This is almost in some ways a defence mechanism against that. We’re excited to see what people have done with that extra time.”

It comes as other firms have pursued reduced hours, such as agency Senshi Digital, which has permanently introduced a six-hour working day and found that it has made staff “more focused”.

Administrate certainly shows no signs of slowing down its progress, announcing last month that it is to hire 15 staff, mostly engineers, by year-end, adding to its workforce of about 40 across its offices in the Scottish capital and Montana.

The shorter working week has also helped its expansion, with Peebles saying it forced the company to “get better at internal operations and hand-overs, and things like that, before we needed to scale out and open a US office, for example”.

Peebles has been with the firm – touted as one of the next big Scottish tech growth stories – since 2011, initially as chief operating officer, then taking the helm as chief executive in 2012.

One of the things that attracted him was its focus on education, a subject evidently running through his veins. “My father ran a training company in China, my mother was a teacher and my sister is a teacher, and I taught English in Asia.”

He says that when people sit in a classroom they don’t realise “there’s a huge amount of work and heartache and anguish and money” that needs to be “tracked and defined and reported on and monitored and so on.

“That stuff, unfortunately, can distract from education if you’re not careful, and so we view it as our mission to ease and automate that burden as much as possible so that teachers can get back to teaching and students can focus on learning.

“It just instantly resonated with the experience that I’ve had and my family, and been able to see first-hand.”

He says his entry to the world of 
start-ups “wasn’t really a conscious choice” but came about almost by accident after completing a degree in computer science.

“I’m a geek, I guess,” he laughs. “I’ve always been interested in computers and technology. I really love solving problems, and I think programming is one of the most enjoyable things you can do because you’re solving problem after problem.”

However, he found that he had a better aptitude for building and leading teams, and says that as nobody would hire him when he graduated in a period of recession, “I really didn’t have a choice but to start a company”.

This was followed by involvement with healthcare firms such as Sentry Data Systems in Florida, and while in the US he had what proved to be a pivotal conversation with a Scottish chief executive, who sold the benefits of Edinburgh’s quality of life and scenery, and crucially told him that it was a great resource for programmers and related trades, which were in short supply in Florida.

Peebles “hopped on a plane” over to Scotland within weeks, and learned a lot about Scotland and its “ecosystem,” so when he had the chance to make the move to the Scottish capital, he jumped at the chance. Administrate is headquartered at tech incubator CodeBase, and Peebles says it is “incredible” to see how the hub, home to more than 80 tech firms, has “evolved into one of Europe’s largest incubators”.

He praises its collaborative culture, saying: “We all know each other, we’re all rooting for each other and it’s just a really neat thing.” Another major benefit for the keen sports fan is being able to pursue his love of cycling in “some of the most beautiful countryside” just outside the capital.

“I think when you’re running a company, being able to have a couple of hours where your phone isn’t buzzing, and it’s almost a meditative-type thing when you’re just fighting against yourself really.

“A lot of that is what being a start-up is like. They say in cycling that you go faster, but it’s always the same pain, and it’s the same way in building a company – you go faster but it’s always just as hard. I think I learned a lot about myself when I got involved in cycling.”

He is therefore unsurprisingly excited that record-beating Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is among the line-up of speakers at the LITE 2016 education technology conference taking place in the Scottish capital in September, which Administrate is running.

Administrate has itself been mooted as a potential unicorn, so how tangible is it for the firm to reach this level, defined as a private tech company worth more than $1 billion? “We’ve always had really, really huge ambitions for [the business],” he says. But rather than focus on valuation, “we want to be a ‘unicorn’ of people.

“My dream is really to build the ultimate human machine, and when we say that, what we mean is build a work environment that our employees love to come and work at, that’s beneficial for them… and also build an environment that makes our customers really successful, and helps them improve and grow.

“To me, if we can achieve those things, the money will follow if we get that right. We’re thrilled with the idea that we’ve helped millions of students around the world learn and that’s what really drives us.

“We believe we can build a really huge business from here in Scotland and change a lot of people’s lives.”

As for expansion plans, Peebles says: “We’d love to get the company to be really, really big, but… we’d want to adhere to our values.”

He also says it is looking to move into other international markets. “We’re looking at the Middle East very closely,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of business there, we believe that it can be a really good market for us,” he continues, while UK and North America are its core focus.

Peebles had been outspoken in his opposition to Brexit, but is now taking a philosophical standpoint. He says more than half of its business comes from outside the union, and this is “the fastest-growing portion” of its operations.

“We’re in a very lucky position, because as a software company we’re not importing or exporting anything other than talent… we’re really just committed to Scotland and making sure that we can look forward and focus on our business.

“We view the future as bright, no matter which way [the vote] went.”