“Looking back at when I arrived in Scotland, I would never have been able to envisage that there’d be something like Codebase, or what’s going on in Leith, or the fact that there’s like 80 or 90 startups in this building alone and even more in the capital,” says Administrate CEO John Peebles.
Administrate provides centralised training platforms for organisations, both big and small, around the world. It’s from Codebase that the startup, along with a host of innovative, pioneering young companies, is playing a crucial role in the ongoing development of Scotland’s digital technology sector.
Placed in the vanguard of Scotland’s startup scene, Administrate is part of a headlong charge cascading into a competitive global marketplace.
Peebles appears finely-suited to the goal that Administrate has set itself; to become a global leader in EdTech. His father ran a training company and, during his childhood in China, he occasionally earned pocket money by helping to teach English to local people.
Since its inception in 2011, and Peebles’ arrival shortly after, Administrate has grown to employ more than 100 people, spread across three continents. Earlier this year, it secured more than £3.7 million in investment during a funding round led by NVM Private Equity.
Looking ahead, things appear positive for Administrate as it increasingly targets larger corporates, builds upon existing services and seeks to add to its team. In a broader sense, the sector itself is also flourishing, however, as Peebles points out, it’s been a long road thus far – and the road ahead is fraught with challenges.
Talking Scotland up, championing the sector and tapping into Scotland’s global sex appeal, so to speak, will be key to the success of the sector, as well as the startups and entrepreneurs operating within it.
“It’s funny because when I arrived in Scotland there were very few startups,” he says. “Skyscanner was still fairly fledgeling, FreeAgent was small and there were maybe a dozen people bouncing around and talking to each other about tech and startups.”
This period for the startup scene in Edinburgh envokes fond memories for Peebles; the beginning of a journey, which has brought about a grassroots tech revolution that draws upon the historic entrepreneurial culture that Edinburgh hesitantly flaunts.
“Even at that early stage, it was amazing because I came from a part of the US that had zero tech startups – South Florida. It’s cool but it’s got to be the worst spot to start up a tech company,” he explains.
“There’s no tech, no universities, no graduates. So, moving to Edinburgh you could find people that are like-minded, ambitious and from that alone, you can see how it’s just grown and grown.”
Since that embryonic stage, Peebles says the growth of Edinburgh’s tech scene has been quite remarkable and displays all the hallmarks of an even bigger saga waiting to unfold. Better still, is that the community spirit within the scene has remained buoyant – which has played a critical role in elevating a number of companies.
“What’s really cool is that those early relationships have remained strong over the last seven years. When you look at Turing Fest, for example, you see that they rose from the ashes of a failed startup. For me, that really says it all,” he adds.
While the culture in Edinburgh is vibrant and exciting, Peebles insists there are still areas that require attention, such as talent pools, the retention of said talent and outward communication. Tackle these issues, and Scotland is cooking with an impeccable list of ingredients.
“What Edinburgh needs to focus on – and it’s a function of where we’re currently at because most companies here are at an early stage and most founders are first-timers – is talent. It seems really hard to hire engineers until you start trying to hire for other roles or any form of management,” he asserts.
“In that regard, Edinburgh does struggle. But that’s a common problem pretty much anywhere outside the Valley and it will improve as time goes on.”
In an image-focused world of spin, Scotland also needs to board the hype train, despite our cultural predispositions.
Talking Scotland up, taking pride in our national ‘brand’ and tapping into cultural ties elsewhere in the world will be a crucial factor if Scotland’s tech scene wants to truly go global, he says.
“I feel like in Scotland there is so much good stuff to talk about, and it’s often not talked about enough, in the right ways, or we’re quick to shit all over what or whoever,” he suggests. “I think it’s part of a broader cultural problem, but I’m also saying this as an American and I can safely say that we’re too far the other way, so there has to be some happy middle ground here.”
The individuals, companies and the framework of the sector, he insists, is strong. However, people with real ideas and a broad vision of where the startup scene can (or should) go have to be more proactive in talking it up. Leaving this issue to fester could lead to stagnation or complacency and lead companies down the wrong path.
“The people who are doing great things but aren’t as vocal need to get out there and talk about themselves and the sector because, otherwise, what happens is we just get overrun by charlatans – which I’m not saying is happening, but the possibility is there and it’s been evident in other parts of the world,” notes Peebles.
“I think one of my favourite companies is Brewdog, and we can debate endlessly about the beer, which I do happen to like, and their marketing, which I do enjoy. But the thing I love the most about that brand is that they’re really proud of being Scottish,” he adds.
Administrate aims to tap into that very same national fervour and capitalise on the image that it conveys to a global audience; cool and trendy with a touch of ancient pride and heritage.
Indeed, the company is proud to call the US and Lebanon its second and third homes. However, the fact that Administrate is a Scottish company is something Peebles is incredibly proud of – and willing to shout about from the rafters.
“We’re proud of the countries we operate in, but the fact that we’re a Scottish startup is something that is deeply ingrained in every aspect of the company. We came from the Highlands and, until recently, all our investors were Scottish,” Peebles says.
“It’s an image, or a brand, that goes miles and miles in the US and around the world. It’s an exceptional differentiator, in that everyone in the US thinks they’re Scottish or Irish somehow, and it opens up conversations and sticks in people’s minds all over.”