James Scott, founder and chief executive of Thrive.App, a communication and engagement tool for "hard to reach workforces", is experiencing a surge in demand as strategies to curb the spread of Covid-19 heighten.
The Holywood-based firm was set up in 2011 on the back of the growth of iPhone apps at a time when they were getting more “sophisticated and interesting”, according to James.
The company, which was originally an app building service, has positioned itself towards helping non-desk workers including delivery drivers, engineers, and more recently, medical workers.
And its appeal is now stronger than ever.
“We created a non-technical, really easy-to-use platform that anyone could get involved in and had 300,000 users from all over the world,” James says.
“But, like anything, you have to figure out how to make money, we had to convert that into pounds.”
And so Thrive.App was born. It had to be unique and it had to be of a spec that would appeal to the decision makers at Apple, James says.
“We thought about how we, as desk workers, have all the tools at our disposal, on our laptop and tools that help us collaborate, but what if you work in retail, manufacturing and transport? Those sectors have a huge percentage of their workforce that don’t work at a desk and probably don’t even have a work email account.”
James and his team, which now amounts to 21 staff, created Thrive.App to serve that working community and today they have almost a quarter-of-a-million employees across 75 global firms using the app from their smart devices.
“When we looked at businesses we saw that up to 70% were using noticeboards and line manager briefings to communicate with staff. It hadn’t moved on in 10 years and this app would be revolutionary for those kinds of workplaces,” adds James.
“The thinking is, today you can’t buy any phone other than a smartphone, and in the UK 90% of people have one, and that was the driver. The employees of those non-desk sectors have the devices but the employers didn’t have the channel so we provided one that would allow them to update it themselves.”
James says the app equates to a cost outlay of £1.25 per employee per month for its customers.
“We are seeing a lot more smaller organisations looking to get set up on it and what’s key is they can get up and running in a day or two at a very low cost to them, and that business model seems to work well.”
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus James has seen business boom. He says: “We’ve seen a real increase and last week was a real shellshock week for people. We are mindful and sensitive to what’s going on around us and we have noted that a lot more of our clients are relying on remote communication.
“We had enquiries from Florida and Thailand in one day, but that’s indicative of a normal week, and I think the coronavirus has sharpened people’s attention to how we communicate and they’re asking questions like: do we have the methods in place?”
The Covid-19 outbreak isn’t the first external event that has brought businesses’ attention to remote communication tools like Thrive.App. James says last winter’s influx of storms saw many firms put systems in place as a safety precaution.
Among Thrive.app’s larger client base is SSE, which has over 20,000 employees, as well as Moy Park and Carlsberg. An Post and Henderson Group are also among its customers in Ireland, as well as a healthcare provider in California and, more recently, a Brazilian firm.
James’ interest in IT was supported by his parents in his early years at school.
Raised in Lisburn, James studied at Wallace High. He believes he is the product of a “great education system” and recalls the school’s first computer with great fondness and a feeling of being “privileged”.
His mum, a homemaker, and dad, a former photographer, were very supportive of his passion for what was a relatively new sector back then. They bought a PC for the home encouraging James’ pastime and later he went on to study computer science at Queen’s University.
“I never really enjoyed the academic side of learning but during university I built websites for people on the side and it was a like a lightbulb went on. Work experience during the course was a great experience for me. I went to a company called Apion, a telecom software firm, and they were writing the first mobile internet gateway in the world.”
Travelling globally, from Tokyo to San Diego, further fuelled James’ passion for tech and nurtured his skillset.
“When I left Queen’s I went back and forth to Silicon Valley working with some very bright people. As a Queen’s graduate, it was an exceptional experience and when the dot.com bubble came and burst I was fortunate enough to have my own tech start-up.”
Looking at the gap between technology and education, James is hopeful more partnerships between companies and education authorities will cultivate a stream of skills for the future.
He says: “The school system is still very results-driven, but you need people with not just the theory, but practical and mentoring abilities. I think it’s things like modern apprenticeships that will help and encourage people to come into the industry. We would love to see more primary school children use technology more, and use apps that improve on what’s there already.”
James, a father-of-three, believes having supportive parents is key to success. He adds: “When I look back I see how important my parents’ support was so I encourage my daughter to do coding and to use the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Scratch App. It’s great for fostering an interest, and during a time when we will be looking for things to keep our children occupied this is great.
“I think working life has become a challenge and carving out time is difficult, but something like this resets our priorities and whenever we come out of it, what ever we can learn, we should enjoy the time we have to spend with our children.
“We have a saying at work and it’s: ‘Don’t just survive, but thrive.’ And I don’t think that could be any more appropriate right now.”
Q What was your best business decision?
A Gaining as much varied work experience as early on in my career as possible, to learn lots and discover what I really enjoyed doing.
Taking the opportunity to live and work outside of Northern Ireland for a few years gave great perspective, too.
Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A I have a real passion for using technology to solve problems, so I’m pretty sure I would apply my knowledge and experience in another field — Formula 1 would be the dream. I was fortunate to visit the Williams Formula 1 team last year and met Frank Williams himself.
Q What are your hobbies/interests?
A Growing up I was a huge motorsport fan, in particular Formula 1. I would have never missed a race, but became bored of it over the last few years and stopped watching. I’m glad to say the Netflix series Drive To Survive has recently rekindled my interest, lifting the lid on what really goes on behind closed doors in the teams.
Q How would you describe your early life?
A I always enjoyed discovering new things, whether that was computers from an early age, taking things apart to see how they worked and hacking them into new gadgets.
I was fortunate to grow up in a supportive environment with lots of opportunities to do those things.
Q How do you sum up working in the tech sector?
A It’s a really exciting time to work in the tech sector anywhere. The advances we have made over the last 20 years compared to the previous decades are pretty mind-blowing when you pause to think. The fact that 90%-plus of the population are carrying such a sophisticated device in their pocket and using it for so much of their daily lives is a massive shift.