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Interview with EDP participant and Administrate CEO John Peebles

John Peebles

We recently interviewed John Peebles, CEO of Administrate and a 2014 participant of the Entrepreneurship Development Program, via Skype. Below is a transcript of our conversation. His company, Administrate, offers an integrated Software as a Service (SaaS) management system for training providers. The company went to market in 2012 and has customers such as PwC, Elsevier, Scania and learndirect. It’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

What led you to the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship Development Program?

Let me start by saying that, honestly, I have never really enjoyed the academic setting. During college, I was always kind of tinkering, consulting [as a programmer]--I was learning concepts from those experiences more than in the classroom. Classes were boring to me, and I didn’t like the homework. Getting out of college was great--it was a miracle that I graduated, actually. For the most part I consider myself a self-taught programmer, despite having a computer science degree.

Back in early 2014, a colleague gave me a brochure about EDP, and I said no way. But people here in Scotland kept saying how great it was and when I heard it described as many semesters of info presented in a week-long crunch, I thought, that’s actually an environment I might enjoy!

Because I have a computer science degree (not business), despite having a lot of on-the-job experience running companies, I have always felt there were gaps in my understanding of business concepts. I was looking for this program to address some of those, and I felt pretty confident it could be in part because I had read Professor Aulet's book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, shortly before the application period.

Also it's important to note that entrepreneurs here receive a lot of support from the Scottish government, and they covered most of the cost of the program and travel for me to attend, which was incredible. Without that, I wouldn't have been able to go.

Tell us a little bit about your company, and the stage it was in at the time you enrolled.

The Administrate team back then was 10 or 11 people. We were a small start-up that had spun out of a training company, where they had developed software to manage training workflow and measure training results. Turns out there was a lot of demand for access to this tool--training organizations and HR traditionally get no love in the software space--so Administrate was built to address the pain points of training managers and senior executives.

In short, we help a training organization run its operations. The product helps teams define what they what to achieve and establish how they will deliver this training in terms of workflow or automation. Then they can track outcomes and ROI. Students, instructors, and administrators can access the tool. And it can provide critical visibility in the same way sales and marketing tools have evolved to provide reporting to those departments. An average U.S. client, for example, spends $1,800 per person on training but they struggle to understand where that money is going or how effective it is, so the information our software can provide helps them spend that money more strategically.

At the time I enrolled in EDP, we were working hard to get to break even. We were funded by angels. We had always been optimistic, but we felt pretty far from where we needed to be.

What did you take away from EDP?

Sometimes you have these gaps where you substitute knowledge for gut feeling. But now, I have scientific research to back those feelings. For example, when we learned about pricing optimization it was backed by lots of research, best practices, case studies, and a framework to help you think about that problem. I really appreciated the rigor and research, which helped to underscore confidence in decisions, and it helped prompt me to check the literature when faced with questions in the future.

Also, the group project was really a great simulation of a start-up journey. It was a very valuable exercise. Prior to EDP I had done three or four startups, each with highs and lows, and that process is mimicked very well in the EDP project--it actually feels like you've done another startup by the end of the week. Plus, you meet with real VCs in a controlled environment, which is very valuable, and get a chance to work with a new team.

As far as traveling to MIT, it was great to get away from the office in order to have some separation and focus while going through the program. Through the EDP network, I met a lot of other Scottish executives and developed relationships with them. We share resources and meet up regularly. I wouldn’t have met those individuals as quickly or had as much of a relationship with them were it not for EDP. Some of them have become close friends today.

What surprised you about the program?

I was honestly amazed by the level of instruction. The teachers were extremely well versed in their areas of expertise. I was hammering them with questions. We even exchange emails from time to time.

The program also offered frank and honest interplay with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and venture capitalists. It's hard to get that.

Ultimately, I was shocked at how good EDP was, considering my past experience with academia.

You’re American, grew up in China, went to school in the States--how did you end up in Scotland?

Yes, I grew up in Tianjin, a large city in Northeast China. I went to college in Indiana and later helped start a company [Sentry Data Systems] in South Florida--which is a difficult place for a tech start-up. We met someone who was running their business from Edinburgh, and through them I learned what a great place it was for entrepreneurs, and a great place to live. So when I had the opportunity to leave Sentry and could essentially choose where I wanted to live, Scotland was as the top of the list. Coincidentally, my last name is Peebles, which is the name of a small town in Scotland where my family originated. And then Administrate recruited me, so it actually happened. I had really high expectations of Edinburgh and Scotland and to be honest they were massively exceeded. It's a wonderful place to live and work.

Where is Administrate in its growth curve today?

Today we have roughly 40 team members, the bulk of whom came onboard in 2015. We grew very quickly in response to market demand. As a result, 2015 was both our best and worst year as quick growth introduces a ton of challenges--we learned a lot in that growth spurt. Currently we are still recruiting, looking to add an additional 15 members, mostly in engineering.

One of the reasons we've been able to grow our team so quickly is the fact that we work a four-day, 32-hour work week, which was a concept that had been kicking around in my mind for a couple of years. Instead of burning people out, we wanted to send the message that we want to be a sustainable environment in how we work, and we now have a way to attract talent we otherwise wouldn't be able to access.

I grew up in China where, at the time, they had a six-day work week. I'd go to the parks on Saturday as a kid and they were empty--everyone was at work. This was true up until 1995, when they suddenly changed to a five-day week, and nothing happened productivity-wise. In fact, numerous studies have shown that, for knowledge workers, decreases in working hours leads to increased productivity.

We want to be innovative in our products but also in how we work. We said to our team, if you want to be a better mother or father, write a book, learn a language, now you have that time. No more excuses.

[Learn more about Administrate's four-day week in this recent article on TechCrunch.]

Today we're one of the fastest growing tech companies in Scotland, we've got a huge market we're attacking, and we're serving millions of students around the world. Our customers are growing and while we’re not perfect, we're super optimistic about the future. Part of the reason for this is the EDP program.

The next session of EDP is January 22-27, 2017. Learn more.

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