Gareth Davies had written his first computer programme by the age of 13, a stock control programme for his dad’s business. He had actually discovered computers at the age of 11 when he borrowed a friend’s Sinclair Spectrum, while for his 12th birthday his dad had bought him a BBC Micro.
That was something all aspiring computer programmers wanted in the 1980s – and it’s no surprise that by the age of 16 he was writing computer games.
“I didn’t finish any of them,” he recalls now. “I guess it’s my personality. I’m a good starter, not a finisher. But when I was 12 and sat on that kitchen table, I realised that with this technology I can do anything, given the time.” It’s an impressive record, but not particularly unusual. After all, the country is probably teeming with men who at a similar age to Davies wanted to be the new Clive Sinclair and have spent the intervening years – their twenties, thirties, and very possibly forties – poring over computer screens to the chagrin of their friends, wives, and children – assuming they have any.
Davies, by contrast, now aged 40, is married with kids and the managing director of Frog, a Halifax-based software company that is the market leader in providing learning platforms – or virtual learning environments – to Britain’s secondary schools. This really is quite an achievement, not least because in 2007 the company failed to make it onto the list of preferred suppliers that BECTA, the government body which has been responsible for trying to introduce more technology into the process of learning. It is currently being wound up by the new Government. Learning platforms were at the forefront of BECTA’s plans, as such software aims to create an environment where pupils can do research and interact with their teachers online, and leave homework to be corrected.
At the same time teachers – and of course parents – can keep an eye on how those pupils are doing. There shouldn’t be any chance to say you have forgotten to bring homework or lost your class report in a school with a properly functioning learning platform.
Other much larger companies, including Serco and Pearson, did make it on the BECTA shortlist and they should theoretically have had the easiest selling job around. BECTA was going to provide the schools with money to buy the platforms that the shortlisted companies were developing. But even so, many of these schools still opted for Frog, even if that meant taking money – sometimes up to £50,000 – out of their capital budgets. Some 14% of all secondary schools – not just those who already have learning platforms – are now signed up to Frog. As a result, the company, tucked away at the back of Dean Clough Mills, has been growing rapidly.
It currently employs 90 people – double the number it employed just 18 months ago – and has turned over £5m in the past 12 months with an operating profit of £500,000 that excludes a further £500,000 reinvested into research and development. What’s more, it has just signed up for a joint venture with YTL, a software company quoted on the Malaysian stock exchange, as the start of a hoped-for expansion into the Far East. YTL has also invested £2m in Frog, although Davies says it didn’t need the money.
“We’ve got £1.5m in the bank,” he says. And he and co-founder Tariq Isa still control 60% of the business. So how has Davies the teenage programmer turned into Davies the successful entrepreneur? Not necessarily through continuing to design programmes. Davies says he now can’t think of anything worse to do, although that’s partly because running the company takes up so much of his life that he doesn’t have the time you need to really develop a programme.
Davies grew up within sight of Alton Towers in Staffordshire, “so my choices had I stayed there would have been working in a local biscuit factory or putting a big furry costume on.” Instead he travelled to Leeds, working first in a software house and then as IT manager for Drummond, then one of the biggest worsted mills in the country with a turnover in worsted alone of £50m.
It was his experience of working at Drummond, he says, where he had an IT budget of £1m a year, that really brought home to him the message that the key to success in technology is not the technology itself. “Great software is about people, not technology,” he says. “I learned an awful lot about people and culture change and how to make software work while I was at Drummond.
“I was often approached by fusty types who would say, ‘You’re trying to change 140 years of tradition here, young man’. My immediate response to that was, ‘Good!’ I was trying to build software that was clever technically; technology that would make processes more efficient. “I was correct about wanting to do that, but was a 10% improvement better if it made people’s lives a nightmare? Perhaps not.
“I learned that it is sometimes better to be more long-winded if as a result the technology is more intuitive or easier to understand. And if it is then software will get people excited because they understand culture change.” It is this philosophy which is at the heart of Frog, he says.
Whatever the company produces he wants to make sure it is something anyone can work on, not just an IT geek. “It’s that same emotion of feeling that you can do anything that we put in our software today,” he says. “If you can get people to feel that same emotion, you get them to give a shit. That is the whole point of Frog.
“We have a load of Lego bricks that they can bring onto a page to help them build their own YouTube, say, or their own Facebook. They build it themselves without being a programmer, and go home and say, ‘Look what I did today’. The whole thing is capturing that emotion and the ability to do anything.” He can cite countless examples of how Frog is boosting education, many of which are included on the company website.
There’s the example of the maths challenge that one school initially devised to test its own pupils, but which, because Frog is set up to allow sharing of programmes, has now been expanded so that different schools can challenge each other. Then there’s the science teacher in an Oldham school who was faced with the daunting prospect of teaching the bottom set.
“They didn’t give toss about science,” says Davies, “but the teacher noticed they all shared an interest in rap and hip hop. So, using Frog, the teacher downloaded Eminem’s photo from the internet, added some speech bubbles and delivered Eminem’s Guide to the Planets. The next week it was P Diddy’s Guide to Invertebrates. Eventually he found a couple of lads in the library doing their own independent learning.
“Kids are on the internet all the time using Facebook and all that cool stuff, and then they come to school and sit watching a teacher for an hour with chalk. It’s not surprising they’re bored.
“Sunbury School, one of our clients, developed something called the Box. Pupils who were disruptive were put in solitary, but were working on the same projects as everybody else through Frog. And they could catch up because they are not messing about. Exclusions at the school went down to zero.” He even says there have been cases where class sizes have been able to expand to 60 using Frog, because teachers act as mentors to pupils working on the system rather than wardens trying to hold a rabble together. There have been claims that all such IT wizardry effectively devalues the teaching profession, but he says it’s the Government’s own guidelines which are responsible for doing that.
When BECTA put together its shortlist it also put together a technical specification for how it thought learning platforms should run, and Davies clearly has little regard for that. He even suggests that part of Frog’s success has come from not having to follow it.
“The Government framework was actually there to deskill teachers,” he says. “We are trying to allow teachers to invade the world kids are in.” Given such fighting talk, it is surprising to learn that Frog has never been in touch with any of the teaching unions, nor have the unions approached them. Davies says they do come across the odd Luddite teacher and as a result they have a special way of introducing the system at a new school.
“We tend to implement organically,” he says. “We have half a dozen ‘Frog champions’; they start to do cool stuff, and then other teachers look over their shoulders, or they get pressure from the children. So 18 months in, the Luddites have no choice.” Certainly the company’s own research shows that 90% of the system’s users are active. How many software houses could boast of a similar achievement? So why does he think that one little company that had no support from any government body has managed to outbid so many other bigger players? He says it’s because what Frog is providing isn’t actually a learning platform in the technical sense.
It is something much, much more. “The conventional learning platform doesn’t do a lot,” he says. “It has email, calendar, document storage, and the ability to play learning content. Frog, in comparison, is a development platform. It’s essentially a Lego kit to let you build whatever you want.
We are providing means for teachers to innovate and share that innovation, rather than other platforms which say, ‘We think this is best.’” Yes, but other bigger players in the market could quickly start copying what Frog has done. Davies says they have already tried.
“Some competitors are trying to copy our product or marketing,” he says, “but they are copying what it looks like, not what it does.” He says the company is “at least two generations ahead of everyone else,” although a generation could last as little as six months. “There could be somebody, but it would take a lot of money to compete” he says.
“We have 17 developers, and nine designers – 26 people involved in developing systems. If you are going to catch up, you will need a lot more people than that.” For the moment, therefore, his focus is most on what lies ahead, principally the deal with the Malaysians. He says he is aware of the issues involved in teaming up with a business based in the Far East where cultures can be different.
“I have been there enough times to recognise problems,” he says. “It can be very hierarchical and a blame culture where nothing happens unless the boss says so.” Initially, between three and six people will out there, including the chief executive of what he claims will effectively become Frog Asia, the first of what he hopes will be an international expansion which could see the company have a clutch of overseas subsidiaries within five years. The company is also launching its first product for primary schools, although universities are currently not in its sights, because, says Davies, that sector has effectively been wrapped up by one operator.
Success, however, hasn’t been without its ups and downs. When Davies and Isa first decided to set up a company together, he gave up a six-figure salary to do so. He says: “I was still not 30 and doing very well, but I went home to wife and said I had quit my job. I went to Pakistan for five weeks, brought Tariq back with me, moved him into the house for 15 months, by which time I was in debt. We put together a business in textiles, linking designers in the West with manufacturing in East via the internet.
“You could design clothes in a browser, but it didn’t work because textile people had no money and venture capitalists had no interest in textiles.
“My mortgage was on the point of defaulting, so we pulled one little piece from the business which was building websites for SMEs. We spent 12 months running around SMEs, but they just wanted to give the job to one of their mates.
“Finally we showed it to a head teacher. He said it was bloody marvellous, and that’s how we got into education.” It’s only a shame that Davies can’t now remember the name of that head teacher who got them going in the right direction.