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This founder talks Brexit and the challenges of upscaling a business today

9 Mins

Data, analytics, and ‘artificial intelligence’ have become mainstay terms in business conversations worldwide.

But just how many of us really understand what these things do? And how, if applied and understood correctly, they can be used to expand and accelerate businesses?

For those of us not working within these immediate worlds, we need to stop nodding our heads absentmindedly and pretending we understand these ‘new technologies’ when we don’t.

But Richard Potter is a founder and CEO who certainly does. He launched Peak in 2014 in response to the disconnect between companies intending to go digital and who want to use tech to grow, but are failing to do it well. Now the digital native finds his business at an exciting crossroads, which may include, before long, the promises of global expansion.

Real Business catches up with Potter to talk about the challenges of leadership, Brexit Britain, and the magic of tech, including its potential to accelerate businesses everywhere, including their diversity agendas…

Company: Peak
Websitehttps://peak.ai/

Tell us about your journey to AI solutions?

Peak was founded back in 2014 by myself, David Leitch and Atul Sharma. We were all of the belief that, while there were a lot of companies out there doing AI and data analytics, none of them were doing it quite right.

We set up Peak because we wanted to change industries – to transform the way that businesses used their data to operate and achieve success. Our aim as a company is to enable businesses, large and small, to do great things with data & AI by providing access to our technology and the people who created it.

There’s a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion in business, how do you see this happening in the world of tech?

Some global tech companies are realising the benefits of having a positive and authentic focus on diversity and inclusion. Slack is a really good example here. However, there’s also the not so good, such as Uber. It makes me wonder whether tech is no different from other industries; some good, some bad.

“I’d hope that tech companies can be generally progressive and lead the way in important social issues such as diversity and inclusion, but that’s perhaps an unrealistic expectation.”

At least from Peak’s perspective, we take diversity and inclusion very seriously and are working to promote it in the workplace. We were founded on values of inclusivity and openness, and that extends to how we grow our workforce and empower our teams.

“Specifically, we believe that diversity is essential in creating a high-performance team and culture at Peak, as well as building great products for our customers.”

How about the lack of women in tech?

I think there are three sides to this issue – and it is an issue across all areas of STEM. The first is training and making it a more attractive career path for women, particularly engineering. I think this is changing hugely already and, if you look at Peak’s data science team, we already have a high percentage of women in the team.

The second is realising that being “in tech” is much more than just engineering or coding. From the point a tech company begins to scale it will have a wide variety of roles, from sales and marketing, to customer support, finance, corporate development, alliances, as well as pure tech roles. That’s something that can make a tech company very inclusive and attractive for everyone.

“The final part is having policies that help working parents be great at work and at home. I know myself from trying to balance both that it’s not easy and a supportive employer will result in a greater number of working parents and, therefore, women in its team.”

Our head of people, Lucy Tannahill, recently wrote a blog on the targets we’re working towards as an organisation, which includes a 50% increase in female employees by 2020.

Another barrier to business acceleration may be Brexit, how is your company preparing for it?

It’s a challenge preparing, as it’s mainly driven by uncertainty. We don’t know what Brexit will look like and how it will affect our ability to recruit, trade and move our teams around. We also don’t know how it will affect data regulation, which is obviously key for Peak.

On top of this, if people are worrying that it could trigger a recession, then all we can all do it make sure we are in as healthy a position as possible going into 2019.

How do you stimulate innovation in your own business?

Innovation is the successful commercialisation of technology, but not inventing those technologies necessarily. Apple is an amazing example of that.

In this regard, we build our teams around a core set of cultural values, one of which is curiosity. Through constantly questioning norms and the status quo, you will foster innovation within your company and bring value to your customers continuously.

We often hear the phrase ‘SMEs are the backbone of the British economy’, do you agree?

I’ve never really stopped to think about it in this way, but I’d agree that small businesses are the backbone of our economy – while they may not dominate the headlines like larger organisations, over 16 million people are employed by SMEs. I think as a country we have a strong work ethic and, as individuals and communities, we often identify ourselves by our work.

Has the role of CEO changed over the past 10 years?

I’ve not been a CEO long enough to know, but I can’t imagine doing my job and not being focussed on well-being, diversity, and inclusion and creating a positive culture. I think the days of managing by directing are gone. While there always needs to be someone to take ultimate responsibility, we can only get the results we want by being as inclusive and accommodating as possible. That means focusing on our employees, their well-being and what works best for them.

What are the goalposts for Peak in five years’ time?

We want to build a global tech champion out of Manchester and Jaipur, our two founding locations, with a high-performance team and culture. In the short term, that means growing the team from 60 now to over 100 in the next 12 months.

Looking further ahead, it’s about expanding into new territories, such as North America. We’re also looking at the sectors we can support – currently, our focus is on retail, which we’ll continue to grow while also building our presence in other industries, such as automotive.

What is the one mistake you made in your journey to CEO?

There were periods in my career when I wasn’t progressing and didn’t feel like I was learning. It took me too long to proactively do something about that and take control myself. It’s important to take ownership of your own development – if you wait for others, you won’t develop as quickly as you might want to.

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