The Big Interview: Peter Proud, CEO and founder of Forrit
Peter Proud is the founder and chief executive of Edinburgh-based tech firm Forrit, which he has said wants to be “one of the next big things to come out of the Scottish tech scene”.
The firm – which rebranded from Cortex Worldwide – has developed a cloud-based web content management platform that it says enables clients to create, deploy, analyse and optimise their digital estates. Mr Proud originally wanted to be a fast jet pilot – but his legs were too long, and he instead became a high-flyer in the corporate world, holding senior roles at global giants such as Microsoft. In 2014 he created what is now Forrit, and it secured a management buy-out from WPP in 2017. The business, which last year hailed double-digit revenue growth, now has nearly 50 staff, a multi-million-pound turnover, and a client base including Microsoft, Tesco Bank and Lloyd’s of London.
Can you explain what Forrit does and what led you to founding it – and later rebranding?
Forrit is a software company that has built a platform as a service (PaaS) CMS. We founded the company in 2014 on the back of an idea I had while at Microsoft. From listening to client feedback around how hard it was to deliver digital content globally, I realised that by leveraging the Microsoft Azure cloud we could fix these issues.
I saw a huge opportunity in the market for a cloud-based headless CMS built in a secure and robust way that let clients deliver websites and content in many languages at speed and at scale.
One thing that quickly became apparent was that in picking Cortex as our company name we chose one that was too popular. It was becoming an issue and it was confusing for our customers so before we really started to scale, we bit the bullet and sought out a new identity that we could own.
Renaming and rebranding is a time-consuming and costly exercise. We stumbled on Forrit through my chief operating officer. His uncle had bought his father the old (auld) Scots dictionary and he saw the word Forrit… it means “forward”. We thought this was relevant as we were helping our clients move forward with their digital transformation. We found out retrospectively that in Icelandic it means program.
How has the business been affected by the pandemic – for example your platform has supported a massive increase in traffic to the Microsoft Education site.
One great thing about having a cloud-based business is that it is easy to manage from a geographic perspective – you can access your solutions securely from anywhere. This meant we were able to take the quick decision to close our physical offices and send everyone home. We did this before the government made it mandatory.
To be honest, other than the social and interactive aspect of running our business we have managed fairly well. I do wish we were all together, though, as I feel the innovation aspect is harder as creative thought is a team effort and people are more vocal when together.
From a client perspective, we have delivered massive projects remotely that have worked very well. One of the websites we run is the Microsoft Education website. With schools being closed all over the world, this website’s traffic exploded to tens of millions of users a month. We were able to scale it quickly and easily.
Can you summarise your career pre-Forrit, and how was it shaped by your childhood – you grew up on a council scheme in Dunfermline and got up at the crack of dawn to do a milk round from the ages of 12 to 17…
I went to Woodmill High School, and to say you had to be resilient is a pretty fair assessment. What it did teach me was that relationships and friendships were important. I made some great friends with whom I am still in contact. I am a great believer in the African proverb “if you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together”.
As for the milk round, I think we worked about 38 hours a week plus school. It made you fit, it made you appreciate the value of money, and it made you respect your colleagues – if you did not turn up it put a lot of pressure on the rest.
Most importantly for me, it made me realise that the customer’s satisfaction was crucial in business. It was ultimately fun and never really felt like work. I have loved the majority of jobs I have had and just made it fun for myself.
My main roles before founding Forrit were senior director for Microsoft in the sales organisation and a partner within Accenture Interactive, the digital arm of Accenture.
Both companies are demanding in different ways, which is fantastic if you are going on to build your own company. You learn the varied skillsets it takes to be a CEO.
Last year you announced a series of high-profile director appointments – how will they catalyse the firm’s growth?
Every organisation needs a strong board. Building fast-growing software companies (or any company) requires the power of collective thought from a diverse skills base. On our board we have two accountants, two lawyers, two technologists and two from a sales/marketing background.
We have built an enterprise solution without raising cash thus far to fund our product build and growth. We have had to be laser focused on how we spend our income and how we invest up to this point. Now, with our collective board we are able to use our collective relationships to give us access to clients and partnerships that will propel our growth and client base.
You say you’re a great believer in “inspiration, aspiration, education and opportunity,” with a particular emphasis on fostering young talent. Can you give more details on this?
Through Napier University we have 12 of our staff going through a graduate apprenticeship, with five graduating this year. This is one of the achievements in my career that I am most proud of.
The group in their final year have come from all walks of life; two were university drop-outs, one came out of the RAF, and one had no path to university. They are all amazing and have wonderful careers ahead with us.
If you give talented people the right training and space to flourish, they will fill that space.
Forrit has signed up to the Tech Talent Charter, Microsoft Partner Pledge and Scottish Business Pledge – what is the firm doing to encourage diversity in tech and what should be done more broadly to boost this?
Diversity is key for all organisations to succeed. It is a huge issue in the software industry as there is a view that it is a very geeky thing that is more suited to men. This could not be further from the truth. Building software products is a very collaborative, multi-skilled discipline where a diverse range of skills is required.
We have several female developers in the tech teams. We encourage our staff to speak at as many events as they can to encourage all people to look at jobs in software – regardless of age, gender or background. I find it both sad and frustrating how few CVs and applications we get from women.
One area where we see more women applying is in project-management. I think our industry needs to start shouting from the rooftops that software should be a first choice for everyone. It is easy to work from home, and the hours can be flexible.
Who do you admire in business?
I admire anyone who has started their own business and has had the tenacity to have made it successful. I never imagined it would ever be as hard as it has been getting Forrit to this point, so I know what others have done through.
Having worked at Microsoft for nearly two decades, I have to say Bill Gates. I was lucky enough to attend several meetings with him and he is just so, so smart. What makes him special is his intensity of thought. What he has gone on to do with the Gates Foundation is inspirational and a lesson to all high-net-worth individuals/billionaires.
I also have a friend who is a serial entrepreneur and sold one company for more than £100 million last year – and he has shared his success with his staff.
Forrit, as it is now, started out in 2014 – what would you like it to look like a decade after it started, in 2024? Would you consider acquiring other firms and are you open to Forrit itself being acquired?
I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t like to speculate on corporate decisions or transactions. All I know is that in 2024 we will be focused on doing what we do now, build the best software we can, strive to deliver the maximum value for our clients and shareholders (which include all our staff), give the best working environment for our staff, create great opportunities for talented people, and ultimately continue to be a top enterprise software business that helps put Scotland on the map as a centre of excellence for software solutions.