Meet James Dickson, CEO of Piota (Put It On The App), a leader in the emerging sector of communications and engagement apps. Piota supplies 400 schools in 15 countries and another 100+ organisations in health and social care, clubs, member organisations, charities, small businesses and more.

In this article James tell us about how his experience as a parent and school governor inspired Piota, the importance of a prototype and why listening is the most powerful tool of all.

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

Piota was founded in 2014 to create high quality apps at affordable prices. We started out to improve communication between schools and parents but nowadays we’ve broadened out and are more focused on supporting the NHS.

Our apps provide a way for a hospital service to put all the information, advice and signposting resources into one place for the patient to access.

The app can also send notifications, updates, urgent information, appointment details or anything else that needs communicating to the patient. And of course the patient can use the app to communicate back with the team at the hospital.

What was the lightbulb moment?

I worked in finance for 20-odd years in London, and towards my last few years in the city I became a governor at several schools. One of the things I saw was the difficulty they had in communicating with parents, particularly about what the child was doing, and this reflected my own experience as a parent.

When I was made redundant I thought right, either I should try and take advantage of this insight and create something that could have a positive impact, or I could look for another role in finance. And so I chose to start up Piota.

We started out in schools but it occurred to me that there were lots of other sectors out there who would be trying to reach an audience of, say, 500 to 10,000 people, but they didn’t have the budget to go off and pay £100,000 or £200,000 to have a bespoke app made. What they needed was something that could be easily customised to meet their needs.

What has that journey been like?

It’s a constant journey of two steps forward and then one, two or three steps backwards, but there’s always progress.

And I think that’s because our product is based on a technology which is available today, unlike for example AI, which is more about having a vision for how something might work in the future.

We started with a prototype app that we got to in people’s hands so they could look at it and say what works and what doesn’t, and then we’ve gone away and optimised it in hundreds of small or occasionally large iterations.

It’s very much about listening to what the experts, the clients, are telling you and then trying to distil that information down, tackling the most important elements first and then carrying on from there. The end result is hopefully a great app and a reputation as being a reliable and trusted partner for clients to work with.

How has KSS AHSN Supported you?

The direct support has come from introductions to people that KSS AHSN knows – it’s almost a matching service between the innovator and those who need something, which is great.

Those introductions are super helpful as companies are more likely to take us seriously because we’ve been introduced to them via the AHSN, and we see a much more advanced level of engagement in calls where the AHSN has made the intro.

We’re also talking with the AHSN about putting in some analytical work to try and assess the impact of the various products that we supply to different clients, which is something we’ve struggled to do ourselves.

We’ve also had great support from SEHTA about how to access the NHS and funding, as well as advice on ways to keep the focus of the company as sharply defined on the targets as possible.

What has been your toughest obstacle to date?

The COVID period has been pretty tough. Prior to COVID about 70% of our sales were to schools, but that basically dropped to zero in COVID as budget and personnel uncertainty spiked for them.

We were already involved with apps for the NHS but it didn’t grow enough to offset the fall in school sales. So our sales and budget were affected by this, but actually there was a greater impact on our staff. And one of the toughest obstacle overall has been trying to deal with staff members in a remote organisation during COVID.

It’s super hard to motivate people with everything that’s been going on, and that was a tough period for us.

But we’re coming out of it – the NHS now accounts for the great majority of our business, and we’re talking about getting an office so that we can have a fusion of home and office working, which will give us a good balance in future.

Hopes for the future?

Generally I’m generally pretty optimistic about things. On a company level we’ve got lots of ideas how to offer the NHS a way to deliver better and better services at lower financial and time costs.

And then, more broadly, we hope we’re helping to make more of a systemic change where this technology can really help really to improve clinical outcomes. Services are moving towards personalised care, and our app is well placed to meet the needs of that development.

A typical day for you would include?

The best days involve talking to clients about the app – getting primary feedback from people telling you what works for them and what doesn’t, or can we fix that part, which is all super helpful. It’s also really nice to hear anecdotal stories about how the app is actually helping them go about the process. There’s nothing more useful than live feedback, and so I try to fill my days with as many calls I can.

Besides that there’s the usual cycle of meetings, mainly via the screen, and post-Covid NHS in-person shows have restarted now, which is great.

And on top of all that I have various hats on, so I cover legal and finance work, and so I’m chopping and changing my day based on what’s needed.

One thing I’ve tried to build in to every day is some sort of destressing or normalisation activities, so I do things like play backgammon or do some sport, and I’m taking up cooking with the family – some change is as good as a rest.

What advice would you give budding innovators?

The first piece of advice would be to make the product physical in some way, even if it’s just writing the pathway down on paper, and then get it in front of the type of people you’re targeting and really listen to what they tell you.

The information you receive will be exactly what you need to design your product right, which will mean you can sell it to others and then from that all good things will flow – you’ll be able to access funding, for example, as people will see your success. You’ll get offers of partnerships and referrals for new clients. So that’s all I would say, listen, but listen intelligently.

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