Scotland's CAN DO take on business

Scotland’s CAN DO Fest moved into full swing last week with the EIE19 tech investor conference in Edinburgh and Entrepreneurial Scotland’s annual summit at Gleneagles among the early highlights. Billed as “Scotland’s Spring festival of impactful entrepreneurship”, CAN DO Fest features events for aspiring, budding and established entrepreneurs across the country, from Aberdeen to Oban and many other stops along the way. In 2019, themes like female entrepreneurship, our nation’s young people, sustainability and business for good are to the fore.

One of Scotland’s fast growth companies that can lay claim to being our brightest example of a business geared towards the benefit of everyone in society is Leith-headquartered civil justice startup Amiqus, and no one was surprised when inspiring CEO and founder Callum Murray walked away with another pitch of the day award at EIE this year.

I had the good fortune to meet a less heralded startup founder recently who also pitched at EIE, whose early stage healthtech venture could very well be one to watch in the months and years ahead. Pranav Shakti is the Indian co-founder of CogniHealth, a company aiming to transform dementia care via its free CogniCare app that supports families who support dementia sufferers at home. CogniHealth has a partnership in place with Alzheimer Scotland, and has built up an impressive user base in relatively short space of time since launch. 

For me, there are some parallels between the rise of healthech startups in Scotland and the now more established fintech sector. Fintech took a while to take off in Scotland, which is surprising on some levels given the longstanding strength our financial institutions. Similarly with healthtech today, I wonder if we need to get more behind this segment of the tech scene. We have a world class reputation in medicine and health and we are now producing digital ventures who are showing they can marry health-related problems with technology solutions to great effect.

CogniHealth developed its app for Android in the first instance, with co-founder Pooja Jaintargeting the Indian market, but lack of smartphone penetration convinced the team to switch its efforts back to the UK market and an iOS application that is now making impact. It was the kind of entrepreneurial masterstroke that was celebrated at Entrepreneurial Scotland’s annual summit last Thursday. 

When I caught up with Entrepreneurial Scotland’s chief executive Sandy Kennedy post-event, Sandy reflected on how far the organisation has come in recent years and the importance of the CAN DO Fest.  

“Just over 4 years’ ago we launched Entrepreneurial Scotland with what some said was a mad and unachievable ambition to crate a more entrepreneurial Scotland. Today, we had speakers and participants from around the world to share their experiences and insight of what it takes to become globally entrepreneurial. If we could just bottle that up - put it in the water - our job would be done”, says Sandy.

“With speakers like Sonia Lo, who is behind one the world’s most successful vertical farming initiatives, to our very own Steven Gray of ROVOP who has built a successful, global renewables business with high value jobs in 8 years, we had a really inspiring line-up.” 

“However, no one person or organisation can do this alone - we need to come together and work together and that’s why the CAN DO Fest is so important. Just a year in, there are over 30 events and thousands of participants across Scotland. We’re now more ready than we’ve ever been to take the next step towards making the impact we’re all working for. We need everyone with an entrepreneurial mindset to get involved. So, if you’re reading this and you are not already connected to the CAN DO movement, check out what’s happening and get involved!” 

EIE: Scotland's first tech fest

This week, EIE19 takes place in Edinburgh for the eleventh time. Every year for over a decade, Informatics Ventures has selected 60 of Scotland’s most promising early stage technology companies to pitch to investors for seed to series A funding. Down the years, investors from Scotland, London and the rest of the world have had the opportunity to meet Scottish tech success stories like FanDuelpureLiFi and Two Big Ears (acquired by Facebook in 2016) in their relative infancy.

As Skyscanner’s former CFO and current SVP of Growth, Shane Corstorphine wrote in a recent blog, “If you’re thinking of founding a startup, fundraising is likely to be very near the top of your to-do list.” Having been fortunate enough to advise Skyscanner’s leadership team through its scale-up and funding phases, today’s aspiring Scottish startups would be well advised to study Shane’s guidelines around how crucial it is “to understand the funding landscape in order to identify the types of investors that match the maturity of your business.”

Skyscanner is one of the few Scottish technology startups not to have gone through Informatics Ventures’ EIE programme, speaking volumes to how integral the support programme for Scotland’s technology entrepreneurs has been during its time. In 2019, we have a string of other prominent players supporting our tech scene and there are now other well established industry events like Turing Fest and FutureX’s Startup Summit but back in the day EIE really was the only show in town.

Perhaps most refreshing, the long-serving team of Colin Adams, Gordon Stuart (both recently retired), Steve EwingDanny Helson and Ronnie Johnston has always left its ego at the door and has been 100 per cent about the cohort of companies and their founders. As an adviser, it’s always nice to work with good people who show humility at every turn, and Informatics Ventures encapsulate these characteristics in spades.

Interviewed last year, FanDuel co-founder Lesley Eccles identified EIE as “an important part of our early journey, to be able to grow our investor base outside of Scotland.” Of course, getting our tech startups onto the radar of investors in London and further afield continues to be a significant hurdle. Earlier this month, in a similar vein, I wrote about ADV, an early stage venture capitalist that focuses on areas outside of London, that has actively encouraged heavyweight funds like Legal & General to invest in Scottish tech. 

Getting the media outside Scotland to cover the Scottish tech ecosystem can pose a not too dissimilar challenge. The media and investment community have something of a symbiotic relationship in that investors will pick up and act on press coverage. Advising the likes of Skyscanner, BlackcirclesCodeBase, pureLiFi, AdministrateCare Sourcer, Informatics Ventures and others has allowed me to open strong lines of communication with London-based journalists who, on an occasional basis, decide (often after some mild persuasion) to report on what is going on in what is still considered to be a satellite tech hub.     

We know we need to get more of our startups in Scotland to what can accurately be described as scale-up status. As former Skyscanner director Richard Lennox wrote in this column a couple of weeks’ back, “We have proven experience of growing globally successful tech businesses but the biggest challenge is whether we have the depth of talent pool to accelerate more such organisations in the near term.”

I am currently advising three startups who genuinely look like they could achieve significant scale-up success. If you want a clue to their identities, keep an eye out for some of the high quality executives with track records of scaling tech companies who are set to be hired by this clutch of Scottish startups over the next few weeks. 

Female founders and Scottish tech

Last week, some of Scotland’s main movers in all things tech released findings from a survey into gender balance in Scotland’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries, which found that most women would prefer to work for a small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) rather than a large corporate. 

The survey says SMEs are more desirable than large corporates because of flatter organisational structures and a greater inherent ability to be innovative. Respondents also said career progression and culture were more important than pay, but that SMEs could be doing a lot more to make themselves attractive to female applicants.  

Of course, a third option open to aspirational women is to found their own digital ventures - although industry research shows us this is a much less travelled route. However, as I recently wrote in this column, the size and shape of Scotland’s tech ecosystem and the level of support available therein including from enterprise agencies, should mean we see proportionately more female founders in the years ahead.  

I was discussing this with Alba Sort, a female founder from Catalonia, earlier this month as the healthtech startup she co-founded with her sister Anna plots a possible move from its Barcelona headquarters to Edinburgh. For me, this is the kind of good news story for Scotland’s tech community that should be celebrated as we continue to face choppy Brexit waters and we are facing a net outflow of non-UK nationals, many of whom help to power our nation’s technology startups.

Alba, a former head of marketing at Bigmouthmedia, one of Scotland’s most successful digital companies of recent times (Bigmouth was ultimately acquired by France advertising giant Publicis for £330 million in 2012), founded her first startup as the dot-com bubble was exploding and while it was ultimately unsuccessful, industry research tells us most first time startups will fail but that second time founders like Alba achieve much greater success the next time around the block.   

Last year, Indiehealth’s Sort sisters went to Boston as part of a Catalan government programme for high potential startups, where they got to meet key players from the US’s eHealth ecosystem. The trip led to a pivot for Indiehealth, with the company switching from a wellbeing gamification app to a personalised gut health specialist targeting individuals with gut health issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

Indiehealth’s new offering is called B.ENERGY PLUS, a premium gut health subscription service with an accompanying B.ENERGY APP - positioned as a tool to control IBS symptoms and help accelerate the diagnosis process - launched at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. 

Should Indieheatlh decide to relocate to Scotland, the company will join a sector of Scotland’s technology scene that is very much in the ascendancy - startups and scale-ups like care matching platform Care Sourcer, AI-enabled wearable device developer Current Health and microbiome therapeutics specialist EnteroBiotix. Later this month in Edinburgh, investors will get the chance to meet the next wave of Scottish healthtech startups, when Adelie HealthCogniHealth and MyWay Digital Health pitch for seed funding at Informatics Ventures-run EIE19.   

Another prominent Scottish healthtech startup is CitrusLabs (formerlyMindMate), a free cognitive health and lifestyle app that is used by over 1 million people worldwide. Headquartered in Glasgow, with an international office in Los Angeles and supported by a number of US venture capital firms, CitrusLabs is also noteworthy because all of the company’s co-founders are non-UK nationals, including CEO Susanne Mitschke who hails from Germany. 

Mitschke has previously described Scotland as a “paradise” for starting up a tech company, although Susanne has also expressed nervousness around Brexit, funding and talent acquisition. What is certain, is that having female, non-UK national founders like Susanne Mitschke and Alba Sort in the Scottish startup ecosystem adds considerably to its strength and diversity. 

Raising a seed round in Edinburgh

I had the pleasure of bumping into Jock Millican, revered director of Scottish angel firm Equity Gap at a recent Converge pitching session at RBS Gogarburn where I was the guest of Heriot-Watt’s chief entrepreneurial executive David Richardson. Jock remarked on a noteworthy year for Scottish angels in 2018, with the collective investing over £50 million of early stage capital into the Scottish ecosystem for the first time. 

A few weeks’ back at CodeBase, the great and the good of Scotland’s startup scene gathered to discuss the closely related subject of raising a seed round in Edinburgh. Sponsored by ADV, one of the only early stage venture capitalists who focus on areas outside London, investors and founders explored their experiences of good and bad practices around raising investment at the seed stage.

As the amount of investment into companies in Edinburgh increases and the region grabs the attention of investors from around the UK, how can startups take advantage? This was a chance to hear from some prolific angels, microfunds, VCs and institutional investors on what they look for, as well as some helpful guidance and key learnings from founders.

ADV itself is on a mission to fix many of the problems in the venture capital world which hold back some of the brightest European startups. One big problem is transparency between founders and investors which can create misalignment. ADV has actively encouraged some of its fund partners in London to improve their engagement outside the UK capital, local evidence of which came last summer when ADV led record early stage investment rounds (technically seed extension rounds) for both Care Sourcer and Snap40 (since rebranded Current Health). In the case of care matching site Care Sourcer, ADV illustrated its credentials by bringing heavyweight Legal & General in on the round to the tune of £8.5 million.  

As Andy Sloane, co-founder and Investment Lead at ADV, explains: “Edinburgh has become one of Europe’s most productive tech ecosystems. The companies that have been built, the talent that has both developed from and moved to the city and the venture capital now being committed is testament to that. We’ve backed a number of startups across Scotland and are always looking for more founders with the potential to build generation-defining companies. It’s been great to have witnessed the ongoing growth and development of this country’s startup community.”

Care Sourcer’s Andrew ParferyCallum Murray from Amiqus and Lantum’s Melissa Morris were the startup founders who shared their thoughts on the night, while Andy Sloane engaged in a fireside chat with FanDuel co-founder Rob Jones who talked about his latest startup venture, Flick. The investor perspective was given by Siobhan Clarke from Episode 1, Techstart’s Mark Hogarth, Kate McKay of Galvanise and ADV’s Tong Gu.

Episode 1 is a so-called “conviction investor” focused on investing at the seed stage and preparing companies for Series A, while Techstart is newer to the Edinburgh ecosystem and is positioned to invest between pre-seed and seed. Each founder said that if they could go back in time, they would do even more homework around investors. Of course, different companies have different funding requirements and the ADV event illustrated the range of investors available to startups seeking to fuel their next phase of growth.  

When I caught up with Amiqus’s CEO and founder Callum Murray post-event, he reminded me that the founders of Scottish technology companies Intelligent Point of Sale (sold to iZettle in 2016) and Kotikan (sold to FanDuel in 2015) were both very early stage investors in his own startup. 

Murray says: “We've got the ability to equal any other ecosystem. Edinburgh and Scotland have the potential to do things differently by, one hand, returning significant amounts of capital to investors but also by taking a longer term view and behaving in a way that benefits everyone involved.”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 1st April 2019

IWD 2019

There was a lot of excitement in our household last week about World Book Day. Our eldest dressed up as her favourite character from Harry Potter, while my wife found a dragon costume for our 4-year old as he and I share a slight obsession about the How to Train Your Dragon movies. 

Of course, there was another notable date last week, with Friday 8th March marking International Women’s Day. While the United Nations heralded International Women’s Day for the first time in 1975, the earliest historical references to the observance of a national women’s day are from New York in 1909. It’s harder to find a timeline around Scotland having a national day in celebration of the fairer sex, although a country that can boast individuals like Mary Queen of Scots, Elsie Inglis, Mary Somerville, Nan Shepherd, Annie Lennox, Liz McColgan, J.K. Rowling and Nicola Sturgeon has unquestionably built a narrative around pioneering and change-making women.

In my own family tree, women have been the maternal powerhouses that have guided our immediate and extended family through recent generations. From my own mother, to her mother (pictured above with her sisters and mother), grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts - from the south of Glasgow, Mid Argyll and Sutherland - women from a largely Protestant tradition have seen in decades of shifting social change, political upheaval, two World Wars, relatives and friends who went to war and some who never came back. Others emigrated to Canada and America.

On my father’s side were women from Skye, Glasgow and Ireland (the Catholic connection), including women forced to emigrate to a new and uncertain country over the Irish Sea. When life gets hard, I should really think back to some of their lives and the constant hardships faced. 

My own mother made my siblings and I feel secure and safe when we relocated to Canada and then the US. My parents chose to follow my Dad’s profession - a medical doctor and academic - to a new continent, it wasn’t as if we were forced to leave Scotland because of an economic downturn, never mind a famine. Still, we had our share of tough times adjusting to a new life and leaving beloved relatives behind.   

Renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende wrote: “We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.”  

I was chatting about some of these things to Anneli Ritari-Stewart over lunch last week and then at an afternoon event run by her digital marketing agency, iProspect (part of the Dentsu Aegis global network who acquired Edinburgh HQ-ed creative agency Whitespace in 2018), themed around International Women’s Day. 

Ritari-Stewart, a CEO with a young family who also competes for Scotland in powerlifting, has been influenced, as I have, by sport and sporting icons perhaps as much as by people from the world of business. Among my own sporting crushes is Jasmin Paris, a Scotland-based ultra-trail runner who is currently shattering longstanding records - and finishing ahead of the pick of the male competition - across the board while, in her most recent win, expressing breast milk for her 6-month old baby boy at each rest station along a 268-mile course route in the north of England's Peninne Hills (Paris slept for around 3 hours in total of her 83-hour course record and win).

Turning to the business landscape, increasingly, technology businesses realise the significant advantages of having a workforce that reflects the company’s customer base. Put simply, if you’ve got a more diverse team, your products stand a much better chance of hitting the right notes.

At the same time, gender parity remains a real issue. A 2017 survey of female students in the UK by PwC found that around 80 per cent of respondents couldn’t name a famous female working in tech. More alarmingly, only 3 per cent said a career in technology was their first choice. 

My own experience of working with a number of tech startups and scale-ups in Scotland is that there are a healthy number of females in leadership teams and that gender balance is embedded in the hiring approach of many. Most definitely though, we need more female founders and CEOs. Surely, that would get the needle pointed in the right direction. As a small nation with a correspondingly easy to navigate tech ecosystem, we undoubtedly have the opportunity to make real and lasting change.

Next month, the findings of an illuminating survey into the Scottish context are launched at an event at CodeBase in Edinburgh. Purpose HRAdministrateModulr and Girl Geeks have sponsored the survey aimed to gain a better understanding of what qualified STEM female candidates want from SME employers - what attracts them and what gets in the way. This is but one of a load of like-minded initiatives going on in Scotland at the moment. I think that's a great sign.

A contact of mine who is a reporter at the Financial Times (as well as being a young mother) posted something on social media over the weekend which resonated... "I really hope there will be no IWD when [my son] grows up because gender pay gaps will have been abolished and there will be an equal split between men and women, both at home and in the workplace".

If we don't know what 65 per cent of the jobs will actually be twenty years from now, but we can guess that most of them will be digital, I hope my own daughter can do whatever she wants in life without the kind of workplace and societal bias and prejudice which has blighted most of the 20th century.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman today (Monday 11th March)

Profit with purpose

At the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland in January, decision-makers from the global corporate order discussed a radical idea: to use the trillions of dollars sitting in pension funds, insurance groups and family offices to support Sustainable Development Goals.

SDGs were launched by the United Nations in 2015, covering targets around social and economic issues like poverty, hunger, health, education and global warming. Because governments and NGOs like the World Bank provide around $1 trillion of the minimum $4 trillion of annual investment commentators agree is required to create the necessary infrastructure, the great and the good at Davos decreed that private funding is unquestionably needed to make up the difference. 

As you would expect, there has been a level of pushback against highly-paid CEOs who, first and foremost, serve the interests of investors vis-a-vis other stakeholders to put their money where their mouths are. At the same time, in an age of duplicitous politicians, perhaps corporate executives, investors and even financiers can be more trusted to bring about real and lasting change.  

What is certain is that there has been an undeniable wave of interest in the importance of investing for profit with purpose. This fast-developing segment of the investment world was examined last week at Cazenove Capital’s private investor event at the EICC. As a guest of co-sponsor, private bank Hampden & Co, I camped for the afternoon at the ‘Mission Led Investment in Scotland’ conference which considered themes around investing in sustainability going mainstream, enabling social enterprise in Scotland and how you can create a portfolio of mission-led investments.  

An in-conference audience poll illustrated the knowledge gap at play, with 90 per cent of respondents saying they don’t think there is enough information available on sustainable investment in Scotland. Investors and corporates in Scotland should take heed, with overwhelming evidence showing millennials are driving change and sustainable companies are increasingly expected to have strong relationships with all stakeholders.    

As Cléo Fitzsimons, Cazenove’s responsible investment director explained, the investment industry parlance of choice in 2019 is Environmental, Social and Governance or ESG and spans a broad spectrum of sustainability that accounts for around $23 trillion of assets worldwide. Encouragingly for investors, many ESG-led funds outperform more traditional investment portfolios. 

Kate McKay, partner at dynamic Scotland-headquartered angel firm Galvanise Capital, expands: “For investors looking for a framework against which to understand the impact or mission of a business, globally recognised frameworks such as the UN’s sustainable development goals or the B Corps framework can be useful tools for investors who are accustomed to assessing the commercial success of a business using objective data and metrics.” 

“For businesses that have impact as part of their raison d'être, if they are seeking investment it will be vital that the desired impact is underpinned by a solid and viable business model.” McKay identifies Edinburgh-based ethical video advertising platform Good-Loop as an example of founders building a business that does a great job of balancing pure commercials with impact; Good-Loop contributes half of its revenues to social enterprise.

FutureX co-founder Bruce Walker, who leads the sixth annual cohort of Scottish companies out to Silicon Valley next month, adds: “We have been furthering a purpose and mission-based approach for years but it can take years for institutions to follow suit. Things are now getting exciting, things are moving much quicker.” Walker strongly believes entrepreneurship is the most potent catalyst for social and economic change. 

Walker recounted a trip to India around the $1 trillion Ganges clean-up project where a number of Scottish companies were invited to participate, illustrating that Scottish innovation can be at the heart of global change.

FutureX runs its second Impact Summit in Glasgow in May where the business for good and profit for purpose narratives will be further explored.  

Houston we have a problem

When we moved to the States when I was around 8 years of age, I took a bit of a shine to a girl in my elementary school class called Shelley. She described herself as Polish-American and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I became a Scottish-American one day. Even though my family got the green card that equated to permanent residency status (by way of my Dad’s sister who was a US citizen), we ended up moving back to the U.K. a few years’ later and I never got the chance to be that Scottish-American. Still, I feel like a little part of me is American all these years’ later.

My wife and I are good friends with a couple who moved back to Germany not long after the UK's 2016 EU referendum. They didn’t ever say, and we never put them on the spot by asking, but we always felt Brexit was at the root of their decision to leave. They loved living in Scotland, in lots of ways they were a lot more Scottish than my wife and I are. They had travelled the country coast to coast, holidayed in Scotland, got married here, had both their children here, as great cooks they loved the abundance of great seafood and they always did a mean Burns Supper. They had a very emotional connection with Scotland and they still do.

I was talking about this, and immigration in general, to a Swedish friend in Edinburgh’s famous Bow Bar a few weeks’ back. Johan, who works at the London office of a global digital agency, was saying around half of the Swedish people he knows in the UK’s capital have upped sticks since "the vote". With so many amazing cities to live in around Europe, why choose to be in a country where it could be perceived that half the people don’t necessarily want you to be there. He described it as an “emotional thing”. 

A national newspaper recently wrote a piece on London’s tech startup scene and how there is a sense of an international community that is suddenly adjusting to realities it never expected because of Brexit. A leading tech journalist was quoted as saying that people will “pack their bags and go wherever they’re most welcome” and that “the optics of Brexit are not about welcoming, they are about closing doors.”

Being quite ingrained in Edinburgh’s tech scene, I spoke to a few friends and contacts this week about their own views on the subject and what it means for Scotland’s technology ecosystem. 

According to John Peebles, born in the US, raised in China and the CEO of enterprise software scale-up Administrate: “It can be easy to forget that the most important asset a software company has is its team. Like most UK startups, our team is made up of people from many different nationalities and the uncertainty caused by Brexit is a risk that threatens the UK’s position. Like many others, I am an immigrant who came to the UK looking for opportunity with a desire to build something. It is critical that we don’t add barriers by making it more difficult for people from other countries to come here and contribute.” 

Lisa Thomson of Purpose, an HR specialist agency working with fast-growth companies in the tech and life sciences sectors, says: “This is hugely topical and we have been running internal workshops and awareness sessions with clients about Brexit. Sara on my team is a Portuguese national so we have drawn on some of her own experience. Attracting and retaining a diverse talent pipeline from EU and beyond is key and uncertainty is not helpful.” Thomson points out that one of Purpose’s client companies has 10 nationalities from a headcount of 25.

During my time advising Skyscanner around all things PR, when we were briefing journalists we would always talk about the number of nationalities working at the travel search site before we got to other metrics like app downloads and even revenue. That was something that came from the top, from the CEO and co-founder Gareth Williams. I think, as well as enabling the company’s internationalisation, it was also something of a badge of honour.  

IT recruitment dynamo Kelli Buchan, who has supported high intensity hiring phases at Administrate, FanDuel, pureLiFi and Care Sourcer, says the last two months of 2018 were the quietest she has experienced in the 15 years she has worked in the tech industry in Scotland: “People do not want to take risks at the moment until they know for certain how Brexit plays out.”

Andy Robinson, chief commercial officer at CodeBase-headquartered software development studio Cultivate, who count Europe’s fastest-growing technology company, Deliveroo, among its client base adds a note of caution: "We’ve seen first-hand the uncertainty Brexit has caused for European employees who chose the UK as their home and are now considering the prospect of leaving. Aside from the economic uncertainty, it’s a shame to see the country perceived as anything other than a welcoming place for the talented people we so desperately need to attract.”

Zoi Kantounatou, Greek national and co-founder of the entrepreneurial leadership group FutureX who run the annual Startup Summit, puts things in perspective: "European Union professionals don't see the UK as the place full of opportunities that it used to be. It's a big step to move somewhere new and you need to make sure it’s the best one for you, your future, your family. Let's not forget that the rest of the Europe is still open and it makes sense to choose a country that can provide stability and security. I have friends who are developers in Greece, fell in love with Edinburgh when they came to visit and were thinking of moving here but the uncertainty over whether they will be able to work in the UK has paused these conversations.”

Houston, it seems safe to say we have a problem. 

Yuletide log with goose pie

While Christmas is arguably the most wonderful time of the year, I’m always quite relieved to get back into the old routine when January comes around. Balancing Yuletide festivities with getting something of a break is always a challenge, with family and friends to catch up with and children to keep entertained.  

I definitely had a few nice Christmas moments over the piece though. In no particular order they included seeing our daughter sing carols outdoors with school friends, our son in his first nursery nativity play, a morning run through a winter wonderland-like frozen forest up on Deeside, driving home to Glasgow to see my parents and, last but not least, securing a decent-sized slice of a good friend’s annually-baked goose pie. 

Festive television highlights - alongside an umpteenth watching of The Grinch and an amazing version of Under Pressure by David Bowie and Annie Lennox at a Freddie Mercury tribute concert I came across when channel hopping one night - included an extended interview with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, chairman and CEO on Bloomberg. Interviewed by US financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein at The Economic Club in Washington D.C., if you happen to be in need of a bit of inspiration for 2019 I’d thoroughly recommend a watch.  

From Bezos’s daily habits (going to bed early and getting up early, breakfasting with his kids and having what he calls “pottering time”), how he structures his work day (Bezos has his first meeting at 10am, always does “high IQ” meetings before lunchtime and believes senior executives are paid to make “a small number of high quality decisions”) and the causes he supports away from Amazon - primarily, pre-school education in low income communities and homelessness - it’s hard not to be impressed by the ultimate personification of a tech titan who retains so much humility and apparent selflessness. 

Born in New Mexico to a 17-year old schoolgirl, Bezos who founded space infrastructure business Blue Origin in 2000 (“I got to ride on the back of the pre-existing transportation system and telecommunications networks, so I want to build the infrastructure so the next generation can use it like I’ve used UPS to build Amazon”) and acquired The Washington Post in 2013 (“I knew nothing about newspapers but they needed somebody who understood the internet”), talked about what he describes as “day one mentality” running through everything he does and, reflecting on how Amazon has a headcount of over half a million, says he still wants the tech giant to have the “heart and soul” of a startup.  

He discusses how his best decisions in business and life have been made with “heart, intuition and guts, not analysis” (something Bezos also describes as “the power of wandering”) and says the “secret sauce” of Amazon’s success has been an “obsessive compulsive focus on the customer, as opposed to the competition”.  

Albeit on an extreme micro level, there were some affirming takeaways from the Bezos interview for me. On a personal level, I endeavour to spend as much time with my kids as possible, in spite of a fairly constant, heavy workload and, in terms of my work life, I have no shame in admitting to an OCD-like approach to my clients. If anything, the former (personal life) suffers from the latter (work life), but I think that is simply the nature of the beast and I’m okay with that. Helpfully, I think my wife is okay with it too.   

I definitely adhere to Bezos’s wandering principle. I have never employed a business development function but, I think in essence by focusing on consistently doing the best possible job for my clients, over time the word has spread about the kind of commitment and thoroughness I extend to the companies I advise. From my side, intuition has been important in determining both the companies I want to work with and how I go about advising them. 

Even the Losers

As the late, great Tom Petty sang on the third track of breakthrough 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes, “even the losers get lucky sometimes”. At the inaugural Scottish Tech Startup Awards at Edinburgh’s Central Hall last week, among the winners on the night there was a rich vein of also-rans who are too good at what they do to not taste victory on another occasion. So, as the American singer-songwriter sings on Even the Losers, “keep a little bit of pride”.  

Heatlhtech superstars Care Sourcer, startup poster child AmiqusFramewire’s Alisdair Gunn and angel syndicate Archangels were a few of the category winners on the night that, for me, was a triumph and refreshingly run more like a rock concert than a standard awards ceremony. If anything, poor acoustics which meant that only those people near the front could really hear what was going on added an extra frisson of excitement to proceedings - as for many they couldn’t hear the winners being announced until the names were flashed up behind the stage.  

In my book, individuals like Freda O’Byrne should be celebrated at every opportunity and it was nice to see Freda recognised by the startup awards for her contribution to the nation’s tech ecosystem despite being beaten to the post by Alisdair Gunn. Long before it was fashionable, never mind rated in educational circles, Freda founded Prewired as, in her own words, “an unstructured but supportive environment for under 19s to explore and learn about computer programming and related topics”.  More impressive? O’Byrne got Prewired off the ground with zero external funding. Of course, one person cannot change the world and the Prewired team has benefited greatly from the support of CodeBase’s Community Manager, Oli Littlejohn, and others in more recent times.  

Although CodeBase itself was not recognised at the awards, albeit the tech incubator’s first centre outside the capital, CodeBase Stirling, was nominated, it’s hard to argue that Scotland’s entire tech ecosystem would not have come on in the leaps and bounds that it has without the Jamie and Stephen Coleman-founded tech campus at Argyle House in Edinburgh. In fact, many of the startup nominees last week are headquartered there. Although, being the humble team I know them to be, the CodeBase guys and gals are usually happier celebrating others’ achievements anyhow.

A couple of days after the awards, I was reminded by Cortex CEO and founder Peter Proud that not all startups desire or seek the kind of publicity that comes from industry awards. Proud’s talk, at Microsoft in Edinburgh titled ‘Start-up learnings - warts and all’, focused on his belief that startups need to “crawl, then walk before they can run”. In other words, founders should continually test their product and put solid corporate functions in place before they go to market. The key element according to Proud is when a fledgling technology company can start to generate “profitable cash”.

While many founders want to tell you about what they are going to do, Proud says he would rather tell people what he has done. Cortex is in the process of “flipping”, as Proud puts it, from a services company to a software company and with an impressive list of clients, primarily global corporations based outside the UK, Proud walks the talk. For now, he says, “we are happy to be a grouse in the grass”.  

I for one would like to see Proud, who like many of the successful founders I’ve met surrounds himself with executive and non-executive talent of a high order, including in Cortex’s case former Archangels CEO John Waddell, feature at more Scottish tech events next year.  

Proud says to prioritise five main things you have to do in your company every quarter, and not more. One bit of advice he got from a conversation with the CEO of a US tech giant in the mid-2000s was around the most important attribute for corporate success - tenacity and a never give up mentality. 

The Mancunian Candidate

Global tech advisory firm GP Bullhound stopped in Edinburgh last week on the latest leg of a whistle-stop tour to promote its Titans of Tech report. Looking at Europe as a whole, GP Bullhound noted that with more billion-dollar tech companies than ever before and a record twelve months of fundraising, Europe can rival the US and Asia as a hub for the best tech companies on the planet. 

Fast forward a week and Faang stocks in the US - Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google - had $1 trillion wiped off their market value (around half the value of the entire FTSE 100) from yearly highs, spreading a chill over stock markets worldwide and turning bull markets bearish overnight. The European ecosystem has yet to produce tech titans of Faang stature, although Sweden’s music streaming platform Spotify is showing signs of closing the gap with a valuation close to $30 billion. 

The Scottish tech reality is probably best put into the context of what is happening elsewhere in the UK - rather than against the rest of Europe, never mind the States or Asia - and if you believe in the corporate mantra that “only the paranoid survive”, perhaps it’s time we admit to a bit of anxiety that we could be falling behind other tech hubs in the British Isles.  

Most venture capitalists with a trained eye on the UK ecosystem admit that Manchester has overtaken Edinburgh in unicorn-creating potential. Not only has the capital of the Northern Powerhouse produced more unicorns - think boohoo, The Hut Group and - but, perhaps more importantly, it has a much more extensive hotbed of pre-unicorn quality startups primed to prance towards sky-high valuations. 

So, how is it that Manchester is socking it to us in Scotland on the tech front? Population is definitely a factor, with Greater Manchester boasting a population close to 3 million. In geographic terms, travel time from Manchester to London is around 2 hours, considerably closer than Edinburgh and Glasgow and nearer to London’s critical mass of tech investors and their prized chequebooks.  

Former senior Skyscanner executive Richard Lennox wrote in this column a fortnight ago that we shouldn’t measure tech success by unicorns, rather we should concentrate on creating “small giants” - “companies who focus on being great over big, have found a product-market fit and are looking to to create sustainable, profitable, medium-sized enterprises”. Of course, if you produce more small giants you improve your chances of producing billion dollar companies like SkyscannerFanDuel or Rockstar North.  

Mark Logan, Skyscanner’s former COO, is now sharing his scale-up wisdom as an adviser and non-executive with a number of Scotland’s most promising early stage tech companies. Much fancied healthtech startup Care Sourcer, up for three awards at this week’s inaugural Scottish Startup Awards, is one of Logan’s growing NXD portfolio. With investor backing from Accelerated Digital Ventures (ADV), who made Care Sourcer its first ever startup investment in Scotland, close observers view the healthtech startup as a soon-to-be small giant and a very probable unicorn contender.  

Back at GP Bullhound’s Titans of Tech event, hosted by Informatics Ventures at the Bayes Centre, other Scottish tech stories of recent times - including AIM-listed Craneware (now with a valuation within touching distance of £1 billion) and wealth management platform FNZ (sold earlier this year to Generation Investment Management for £1.6 billion) - were discussed during a Q&A with key players from the Scottish ecosystem.

They included Glasgow-headquartered Scottish Equity Partners (SEP) - original backers of Craneware and Skyscanner - and, giving a view from the top recently, the venture capital firm’s Managing Director Calum Paterson (Paterson is also the current chair of the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association) said: “The UK is now home to a third of all technology unicorns in Europe and accounts for 30% of all European venture capital investment. We have a supportive ecosystem for technological innovation and the emergence of an increasingly large and impressive pool of dynamic and agile technology companies right across the country - not just in London, but in regional hubs such as Cambridge, Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh.”

Can startups teach big companies a lesson around mental health?

Earlier this month, the press and social media were awash with coverage and posts around World Mental Health Day. I was so busy with clients on the day that I didn't manage to read as much as I wanted so, up in the Highlands for our annual autumn break I’ve taken a bit of time out alongside the R&R to scratch the surface on a pervasive issue that touches most of us in some way.  

A Mental Health Foundation study this year found that almost three quarters of people in the UK have felt so stressed that they have been “overwhelmed or unable to cope.”  If you’ve been in that kind of spot, I know I have, it can be a horrible place to be.  When I reached out to a few contacts on Scotland’s startup scene, it was encouraging to hear that what many of them are doing to address mental health in an open way could help turn the historical stigma surrounding mental health a thing of the past.

One social media post had stuck with me, from MadeBrave founding director Andrew Dobbie, who said “Mental health issues don't just affect the people with them but also those around them who support them, and it’s okay to talk about it. If friends of mine are struggling and ever need to talk - just say the word.” 

Edinburgh startup Cultivate, who support tech companies like Deliveroo and Care Sourcer around software development, is ahead of the curve in terms of how it handles one of the 21st century’s gravest ills.  Andy Robinson, Cultivate’s Commercial Director, says: “We want to create an environment that supports people and allows them to do their best work.  Emotional wellbeing plays a key role in this and so we have been providing optional, confidential cognitive behavioural therapy for a few years now.  This gives our people a tool which which they can proactively develop behaviours that help them both personally and professionally.”

Francisca Morton, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist who works with Cultivate employees on a weekly basis at CodeBase, crystallises the importance of mental health awareness for employees and employers alike: “Mental and emotional health is invaluable and, for employees, working for a company that knows that and actively participates can count for a lot. The inclusion of a corporate wellness scheme has proved an attractive proposition for prospective employees entering the company, showing that it has a commitment to staff wellbeing. It is my belief that even if one employee is assisted towards their wellbeing, there is a knock on effect within the company as a whole.”

Lisa Thomson of Purpose HR agrees and says forward thinking employers recognise that their employees are human with personal issues that “can’t be taken off like a coat” when they leave the office.  Thomson adds: “It’s really important for founders and managing teams in startups to be open, practice self-care and look after their own mental and physical health as running a business is incredibly demanding.  Leading from the front and being open and transparent can be really powerful and helpful for the team.”

Administrate CEO John Peebles underscores Thomson’s point: “Mental health affects young people and entrepreneurs more than the general population.  When you’re building a fast-growing startup, this means that up to half of your team may be struggling at any given time.  In a software company like Administrate, people are our most important asset and in order to help with mental health issues, we have a licensed therapist come in every other week to help our team with any issues they’re facing.  It’s free, completely confidential, close to our offices and safe and we’ve seen incredible results over the last few years.”

Paul Reid, who sold his first startup to a FTSE 100 company and whose latest venture Trickle is developing a software tool to track corporate culture so that organisations can engender bottom-up improvement, is well informed on the subject.  He tells me that when colleagues suffer from mental health issues such as stress or depression, they may not be fully aware until the symptoms reach breaking point.  

Reid says that while the startup sector can be an exciting space, the flip side is how much of a toll it can take on individuals.  Reid says companies need to be prepared to rapidly spot mental health issues in the team and then support people through recovery.  “The last thing you want”, says Reid, “is a situation where a person doesn’t feel they can flag that they’re having problems.”

The upshot appears to be that the startup community in Scotland is, excuse the pun, extremely mindful when it comes to mental health in the workplace, so much so that perhaps larger, more established corporates can learn lessons from its practices.

Finding headspace away from the comfort zone

One thing I’ve always been pretty good at is running. As a teenage middle-distance runner, I could have gone for a scholarship at a university in the US but opted for a law degree at the University of Dundee instead and soon gave up competitive racing. 

In hindsight, the law degree wasn’t a bad thing to have in my back pocket and since I’ve got back into my running after a 25-year break, I’ve enjoyed it even more than the first time around. I can also buy lots of nice running gear - I think there is a term for this, “running shoe porn” - but, more importantly, it’s made a big difference to work-life balance and made me leaner and meaner for the day job. 

Since starting back, I’ve put in the hard work and this has paid dividends as I’ve broken into the top-20 for my age group in the UK at 5 and 3 kilometres and the metric mile. Increasingly though, out and about on Scotland’s business scene I’m meeting people who put my relatively modest sporting achievements in the shade. 

Anneli Ritari-Stewart, Managing Director at digital performance agency iProspect in Edinburgh, is a great example. Not content with winning a national cup at ice hockey in her native Sweden, playing semi-professional football or storming the 105-mile Nokia Coast to Coast race via bike, foot and kayak, Ritari-Stewart has taken up powerlifting since relocating to Scotland where she has gone on to break a series of Scottish records and picking up three medals at last year’s Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships.  

Anneli says, “It’s all about getting those small incremental gains over time. Also, something I’ve learnt in business is that if you want to drive fundamental change it takes time but the small gains soon mount up to real progress.” I couldn’t agree more with Ritari-Stewart’s view that getting stronger physically also helps you to feel stronger mentally and can become very empowering. 

Earlier this month, Rettie & Co director Nick Watson undertook the inaugural For Rangers Ultra, a 5-day long-distance race through some of Kenya’s under pressure game reserves. As a fellow runner, Nick has talked to me about his pure love of running and it wasn’t lost on us both that Kenya is not only thought of as the birthplace of distance running, it has arguably also produced the finest distance running athletes the world has ever seen. 

Watson says, “long distance running is a very personal activity for me and is more about exploring new places and appreciating landscapes and nature than the race itself. Ultra running allows a high level of exploring to be squeezed into a relatively small amount of time. I got started on ultras through a love of mountaineering and being in wild places alongside the realisation that family, work and other commitments mean time is increasingly limited.”

When it comes to modern day Scottish adventurers, they don’t get much more impressive than world record shattering cyclist Mark Beaumont. I heard Mark talk to over one thousand people at the EICC on his glorious return to Scotland after his Around the World in 80 Days herculean feat, then at a more intimate dinner with Adam & Company earlier this year. 

When I bumped into Mark recently, we discussed the motivations behind business executives taking on high performance and endurance sports. I mentioned Callum Murray, CEO and founder of Amiqus, who rowed from Barcelona to Ibiza last year as one of the people who have impressed me most with their spartan-like dedication to an endurance event. 

Beaumont says, “there are definitely more executives taking on adventure travel, races and expeditions. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that many of them talk about creating a different headspace, balancing the pressures of work and having a major physical target to train towards, particularly around a busy work schedule and also being something that is important for their wellbeing. The challenges are mental, logistical and, often, about stepping well outside of their comfort zones.”  


Sketches from Spain: getting away from it all...

The annual summer vacation is here, time to relax and unwind in a Mediterranean breeze and put the trials and tribulations of 21st century life behind me for a couple of weeks. But wait a minute, getting up at 4am in the morning, struggling through the airport for a delayed flight then picking up a hire car in the searing heat dazed and confused suddenly doesn’t seem like a passport to a holiday chill-out.  

Fast forward a couple of days and things are settling down towards something approaching relaxation. We’ve found a nice beach nearby, the pool in the complex is pretty decent and in spite of being at the extreme end of the dermatological disadvantage spectrum on the pigment front, I’ve managed to escape serious sunburn so far.  

Having set my out of office with what I thought was a fairly robust instruction that I was most definitely planning to get away from things for a while, when I do check the inbox my pulse level rises rapidly when I see that more than one client has been in touch to request some action or another.  

I reflect on what a friend Gib Bulloch said to me recently: “Too many of us in the corporate world are operating in a state of semi-distraction, always online, acting, reacting 24/7. We’re so focussed on what we’re doing that we seldom stop to think about where we’re going.” 

Bulloch’s recently published book The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent charts his own experience of burnout, while a more recent post-publication chapter in his life has seen the former Accenture social entrepreneur invest in a derelict farm on the Isle of Bute with plans to renovate the site into a “business decelerator” for executives in search of a greater meaning outside the daily grind.  

Zoi Kantounatou, the FutureX co-founder who is helping to organise an entrepreneur’s retreat to Nepal later this year following October’s annual Startup Summit in Edinburgh agrees: “Unwinding is such an important part of the journey as it helps you to stay focused and find the energy you need to run the business.”

Creative brand agency founder Andrew Dobbie of MadeBrave, who recently announced one of its largest ever contracts and its first acquisition says: “When you run a business, especially a fast-paced one, it can be easy to get carried away with work and forget to keep the balance right with family time and looking after yourself. After the first couple of years running my business I was feeling stressed with the balance being too focused on work so I made a rule that I wouldn’t answer work calls or read emails after I got home or at the weekends. Once I did this, I found other people’s habits started to change around me.” 

Liza Sutherland, a former startup founder who is now works at the University of Edinburgh helping to support promising early stage spin-out companies says: “Many of the startup founders I know only take time away from work when they are close to burnout when this kind of time should really be taken to reconnect with oneself and the people around us. As founders continuously strive to innovate and make the world a better place, you could argue that finding headspace and achieving enlightenment of the mind is the most important thing.”  

In the Art of Travel by modern day philosopher and author Alain de Botton, de Botton is excited by the prospect of going on holiday to Barbados until the reality sets in that he will have to take his complicated self to an otherwise alluring Caribbean destination. 

For the moment, I seem to have found some equilibrium of my own if only fleeting. The kids are in bed and out on the veranda I can see the distant Atlas Mountains in Morocco fade in the dying sun. I pour a glass of Ribero del Duero and settle down to a bit of Miles Davis masterpiece the Sketches of Spain… breathe in, breathe out.  


Scotland's report card on digital skills

I wrote recently about one of this country’s top venture capitalists and his view that in order to succeed in in all things tech, we need an increasing pool of local digital and IT talent together with more senior managers experienced in global growth.

This stacks up with ScotlandIS’s annual survey which found that the local marketplace is anticipated to provide the bulk of new people talent, with 70 per cent of respondent companies expecting to recruit from within Scotland in 2018.  No huge surprises here and a more interesting finding was around a marked increase in company demand for modern apprentices, with almost half of respondents saying they would recruit in this way.  

Peter Proud, CEO and founder of Cortex Worldwide whose cloud-based technology platform includes Microsoft as a key client, says the group's graduate apprenticeship scheme is "the second best thing we've done after founding the company."  Proud praises the work of ecosystem players like Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Edinburgh Napier University to support further learning and employers, the overall engagement of the Scottish Government and says that the performance of Cortex's graduate apprentices have "at least matched, in some cases exceeded" that of traditional university graduates.  Cortex's CEO, who will shortly take up a board position with ScotlandIS, also says his team is actively looking to hire from digital skills academy CodeClan over the next few weeks.  

CodeClan deserves a special mention here, with around 600 people set to have graduated from its 16-week Professional Software Development Course by the end of the year.  Key to CodeClan’s longterm success will be expanding the network of commercial and public sector employers who take on its graduates. 

George Elliott, Craneware’s chairman and a former Wolfson Microelectronics finance chief, reminded me last week not to forget about other skill sets: “It’s not just digital skills that we need but also commercial skills and knowledge of how to scale, market and sell the technology.”  Elliott, whose track record of selling into the North American market during his time at Wolfson is nothing short of legendary, says we are better at this in Scotland than we were but we have to do more to compete effectively.   

The CEO of one of Scotland’s most highly rated scale-ups, John Peebles of Administrate, says there is “a massive skills gap within the industry for people who are not engineers but have worked at large, scaling global tech startups.  The local ecosystem is still extremely embryonic, with most founders and management being first-timers.  The skills shortage will become an acute choke point for the local tech industry within the next three years as local startups begin to mature.”

Kelli Buchan, a highly rated technology recruitment specialist who has helped to build teams for fast-growth companies like Adminisrate, FanDuel, snap40 and pureLiFi, says, "Without a doubt Scotland, especially Edinburgh, has a thriving tech scene.  The opportunities in the digital sector are excellent and varied, for those who live here or those who move to work here.  However, the biggest challenge in this sector is the fact that the competition between employers looking for talent is huge.  There are simply not enough great candidates to fill the open roles which exist, especially in the startup scene.  From my experience with startups, recruitment is one of the last things they think about as they are so focused on building a product and securing funding.  When both are achieved, they then need to hire fast and the talent is so hard to find.  The advice I always give to CEOs is to think and have your hiring plan in place at the very beginning so you do not lose out to competitors”.

Susanne Mitschke, CEO and founder of MindMate, who develop apps to manage dementia from a headquarters in Glasgow with an investor base of US VCs, thinks Scotland has a very good standing when it comes to digital talent.  Mitschke says, “We use the University fo Glasgow’s recruitment system to find graduates and the quality has been fantastic.  I see many other companies, in places like London, Berlin and the US who have trouble finding software developers, particularly affordable ones.”  Mitschke thinks we could look to the US to replicate some of their most successful initiatives, like the General Assembly which teaches digital skills in marketing, design, data and coding.    

In big news in Scotland’s informatics circles, David Richardson, currently Director of Partnerships at the University of Edinburgh’s soon to be opened Bayes Centre is set to move to Heriot-Watt later this year to take up the position of Chief Entrepreneurial Executive at the university’s new Discovery and Innovation Centre.  

Richardson says, “We have fantastic initiatives in Scotland focused on addressing the digital skills gap.  Data science and cyber security are two of the hot areas right now and we need to continually work across industry, government and academia to help people upskill and retrain for the future.” 

Overall, Richardson thinks Scotland’s report card reads well but says we could be doing more at primary and secondary level in order to start the “digital journey” even earlier.

Eh, really PwC?! *

Most working weeks bring a few surprises and one last week was an email from global accounting firm PwC to confirm my nomination for the journalist of the year category at their annual tech awards.  I’ll admit to spitting out a few cornflakes reading the email over breakfast as I’m no bona fide journalist and only write a regular column in The Scotsman which tends to flit around Scotland’s startup scene.  

In addition to not being a journalist, neither am I an expert on tech so a firm of PwC’s standing could have done a better job on the due diligence front.  At the same time, I’ve never had a sniff at too many awards so, unless it was the early morning double espresso kicking in, I did feel a small surge of pride as I read about the grand awards ceremony at a top London hotel later this year.  

When I started to write about the tech scene a few years’ back, there weren’t any dedicated tech reporters in Scotland. At that time, we received occasional visits from London-based tech press and as an external PR adviser to Skyscanner, CodeBase and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics - who I usually dubbed as Scotland’s “Holy Trinity of Tech” - I had a good degree of success in bringing some of the heavyweights of the tech reporting world north of the border.  

Trips by the Financial Times and The Next Web were two significant “wins” after a fair amount of agitation on my part and the resulting coverage helped to bring some of the exciting stuff happening on Scotland’s digital landscape to an international readership.  

As well as the so-called “Holy Trinity”, highly innovative ventures like pureLiFi, at that stage like many early stage spin-outs or startups still in something of a fledgling state, piqued the interest of the London press corps and the tech press also took to founders like Mike Welch at, an e-commerce pioneer who made good print with his straight-from-the-hip commentary on scaling a startup from a Scottish base. 

Today, we now have critical mass in terms of Scotland-based journalists covering tech stories - the Future Scotland section of The Scotsman’s site and Leith-based digital news outlet DIGIT are just two examples - and reporting the ecosystem’s narrative to growing readerships in Scotland and beyond. 

Scotland’s tech world continues to produce compelling storylines, not least Ctrip’s acquisition of Skyscanner and FanDuel’s rollercoaster unicorn ride.  But there are also less well known and reported stories and, for me, these would include VR audio startup Two Big Ears and wearable tech scale-up mLED both being acquired by Silicon Valley juggernaut Facebook in 2016.

To help fuel our wannabe startup rockets, we have a sophisticated angel investor community, supportive enterprise agencies and world class universities to help provide human capital.  In Scottish Equity Partners (SEP) and Pentech, we have indigenous venture capitalists who can write the kind of checks that equate to rocket fuel for the companies with real scale-up potential.  All that said, the general consensus in VC circles is that Manchester is producing far more of these near-unicorn potential scale-ups than Scotland so that is something of a concern.  

At the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA) annual Scotland dinner at The Balmoral Hotel a fortnight ago, SEP managing partner Calum Paterson delivered one of his first keynote addresses since becoming BVCA chair.  On the eve of the World Cup kicking off in Russia, Paterson peppered his speech with a bit of gentle ribbing of the English contingent and the performance of their national team at recent tournaments.     

Joking aside, as Skyscanner’s first institutional investor few get the workings of Scotland’s tech ecosystem better than Paterson.  In a press interview earlier this year, Paterson acknowledged that some of SEP’s most successful investments have been based in Scotland.  On the flip side, he went on to say that increasing the pool of people talent remains a challenge and that we must ensure our young people have fair and proper access to education and learning.

* I am of course very grateful to have been nominated for PwC's annual UK tech awards.


Sunshine on Leith

If you go down to Leith today you’re in for a big surprise. Teddy bear picnics aside, there is a fast-growing ecosystem of tech startups that have abandoned Edinburgh’s city centre for a work life on the shore. While lower rents and rates are part of the story, as one prominent tech investor told me recently, “there’s more grit about Leith, it’s more like Glasgow than Edinburgh and that suits some people better.”  

Well, we know grit and grind are essential for every startup so there’s undoubtedly something in this. Neither should it be forgotten that two of our most successful digital success stories of recent times - Skyscanner and Bigmouthmedia - began their corporate lives in Leith, on Timber Bush. Less well known is how some of the search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists Skyscanner hired from Bigmouthmedia helped the flight search specialist to really take off.  

Going even further back, Leith Agency co-founder John Denholm says, “back in 1984 when we decided that Leith would be a great place to start an ad agency, it was the sense of bohemian dereliction that appealed to us, to give us a creative edge in contrast to agencies in Edinburgh’s West End that looked like accountants. The Malmaison was a hostel for the homeless, Commercial Quay was still a whisky bond and there was only one eating place, the Waterfront.”  

The executive search and headhunting agency that John Denholm now runs with his wife Nicki, Denholm Associates, recently struck up a partnership with a Leith-based tech startup who many see as having the form to be one of Scotland’s next big tech stars. Amiqus, whose compliance software product Amiqus ID is making waves across the legal and professional services sectors, has an equally fancied CEO at its helm in the form of Callum Murray and Sir Sandy Crombie as its chair.  

One of Scotland’s first bona fide tech accelerators, Seed Haus, was partly born out of iZettle acquiring Intelligent POS and its founder Robin Knox going on to launch what is already one the most important fixtures on Scotland’s tech map. Entrepreneurial leadership group FutureX is also key to Leith’s growing tech credentials and the team shares office space with film production company, Campfire, on Constitution Street.  

Kate McKay, a former Saltire Fellow and associate partner at angel firm Galvanise Capital, who are based in the Round the World studios in Leith, identifies the strong focus on creative industries and a new generation of entrepreneurs who reflect the changing nature of work. McKay says, “there’s nothing too flashy going on but it does feel like there is a growing population of like-minded people who have their heads down and are getting on with interesting work.” Some of that interesting work includes recently launched peer-to-peer, blockchain enabled sports betting platform, mungoparc, a prime example of the innovation taking place in EH6. 

At the top of Leith Walk, Edinburgh Greenside, formerly known as Blenheim House is winning awards with 50 per cent of the space pre-let to Scottish fintech player Nucleus Financial and other tech businesses expected to follow. While the site is arguably more city centre than Leith, there is a growing swell of optimism that stronger links between Edinburgh and Leith are in the making and will be for the greater good.  

Nick White of property consultants Cuthbert White, who were involved in the sale of Greenside, is seeing a lot of commercial activity in the city going east, a trend he thinks will markedly increase with the extension of the tram line. White says, “Leith is still seen as dislocated from the city but the tram will be a catalyst for change and its new spine should see a significant ripple of development.”

Edinburgh architectural firm 7N produced a white paper last year titled “What If?” that reimagines Leith Walk as Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, although admittedly with a cafe culture more akin to Copenhagen than Catalonia. What seems certain is that Leith Walk is an underrated boulevard that has still to punch above its weight. Champs-Elysees? What about Champs Eh Leithie? Perhaps the next few years will help to cement its revival and, with it, that of Edinburgh’s twin city on the shore. 


Character is the tree, reputation is the shadow

In 2018, corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is seen by an increasing number of commentators as a near dirty term, widely perceived more as a box-ticking exercise than a movement for good.   In the case of Volkswagen’s disastrous CSR performance in 2015, “dirt” was the operative word as the “deiselgate” scandal cost the German car manufacturer billions and the head of its CEO.  

A fortnight ago, Facebook’s moral position was called into question over the Cambridge Analytica debacle and although Mark Zuckerberg and media analysts alike do not appear unduly concerned over the #deletefacebook campaign, what is clear in today’s business world is that it’s as important to have your house in order on ethics as it is around finance, operations or sales and marketing.    

A former Zuckerberg mentor came out in the media last week to suggest that Facebook may be treating Cambridge Analytica like a public relations problem, not a business problem.  This brings an Abraham Lincoln gem - “character is the tree, reputation is the shadow” - to mind and there are scores of narratives around businesses that spend more time manipulating the shadow as opposed to tending to the tree. 

A number of factors - including the growing influence of Generation Y and all-seeing 24/7 social media - mean companies who ignore their ethics do so at their peril.  In a similar way to thinking global from day one, today’s founders need to address their corporate values from an early stage.  Values drive culture and problem children of the digital economy like Uber illustrate that a faulty moral compass can lead to dangerous waters.

Some of these issues were discussed at a fireside chat between FutureX’s Bruce Walker and Galvanise Capital’s co-managing partners, Devina Paul and Nick Jones, at Whitespace in Edinburgh last week, with Jones opining that there is a strong case for the core team of early stage companies being involved in both developing values and attaining some level of ownership.   

FutureX, populated by young forces of nature like Walker, Adam Puris, Zoi Kantounatou and Laura Westring, is an increasingly influential force in Scotland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and a beacon for the “business for good” agenda that is ripping through the established corporate order from San Fransisco to Singapore. In Bruce Walker’s own words: “we're one of the leading advocates of purpose-driven business and work internationally to establish platforms, programmes and partnerships to prove that you can build a better world through business.”

What is perhaps most impressive about FutureX - born out of its previous incarnations as WeAreTheFuture and Power of Youth - is the fact that this relatively small team is able to make such a significant impact on a nation’s business scene.  It is less surprising when you see Walker, Purvis and Kantounatou use international networks to produce world class events - as I experienced first hand at last year’s Berlin Impact Retreat.

This month, the team take Scottish startup founders on a Silicon Valley accelerator programme that takes in some of the most innovative technology companies on the planet, venture capitalists who have backed the likes of Twitter and Tesla and campuses that have incubated tech stars like Airbnb and Spotify.  Startup success stories like Snap40, StoriiCare and TickX are some of the names that have benefited from previous trips.  

At the end of the month, FutureX stages the inaugural Virtuous Economy Leaders forum alongside The Hunter Foundation, where a select group of Scottish and international business leaders gather to explore emerging trends around the “the next enlightenment and a virtuous economy”.  

In May, a larger collective - described by Walker as “a refreshingly diverse gathering of over 300 students, teachers, entrepreneurs, politicians, refugees and enterprising citizens” - descend on the Barras in Glasgow to reimagine what the global economy of tomorrow could look like.

Those in the know say corporate values must be regularly reinforced and it doesn’t take long to find the following on FutureX’s site around “questions we ask ourselves every day”: curiosity, compassion, vision, insight and authenticity.  Excuse the pun, but Walker and team really are “walking the talk” when it comes to value-driven business.

EIE is a fine vintage in 2018

Now in its 10th year, EIE’s annual investor showcase moves to the University of Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall in 2018, a fitting venue when you consider the university’s contribution to the research and commercialisation of computer science. Edinburgh’s School of Informatics is rated among the top informatics centres globally and excitement builds ahead of the opening of the adjoining Bayes Centre, a hub for data-driven innovation, later this year.  

In Edinburgh’s rise to become one one of Europe’s leading tech capitals, the city’s universities are an important piece of the jigsaw. Scotland’s sophisticated angel investment scene, strong support from the nation’s enterprise agencies, the incredible scale-up stories of Skyscanner and FanDuel, prominent VCs like SEP and Pentech, the UK’s largest incubator, CodeBase, and the UK’s first digital skills academy, CodeClan, are other key pieces that make up a picture of growing tech success.  

The highlight for Scotland’s tech nation in 2016 was unquestionably Chinese online travel giant Ctrip acquiring Skyscanner but two other lesser known acquisitions of EIE-supported startups by a Silicon Valley juggernaut in the same year also caught the eye when, in the space of a few months, Facebook snapped up audio virtual reality specialist Two Big Ears and University of Strathclyde spin-out mLED.  

Last year, EIE17 pitch winner Amiqus secured its latest external funding round with investors from Scotland and San Francisco, with the US-based investor having watched the award-winning pitch by CEO and founder, Callum Murray. There is a pattern emerging around Scottish tech, with increasing numbers of investors from outside the country backing our most promising startups and founders.  

Q1 of 2018 was a very good quarter for a number of EIE alumni, with pureLiFi wowing Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with its latest technology, TickX being backed by BGF Ventures and Alzheimer’s app MindMate lining up a series of US VC investors as it tackles one of the greatest health challenges facing society in the 21st century. 

In overall terms, EIE has been a springboard to over £600 million of investment into alumni companies. Perhaps the greatest story is around FanDuel and it will be fascinating to hear first hand from co-founders Nigel Eccles, Lesley Eccles and Rob Jones on the 19th of April as they recount the meteoric rise of the fantasy sports site in the US. Many of us will also be looking forward to an update from Nigel and Rob on their newest venture, eSports social streaming platform Flick.   

Informatics Ventures’ second Scottish Startup Survey went out onto the startup coalface in recent weeks and this year’s early findings reveal an optimistic sentiment running through the tech community in Scotland, although founders and CEOs see ongoing challenges around investment, skills, sales and Brexit.  

What is not in doubt is Edinburgh’s rising star in all things digital. As global business news heavyweight Forbes reported after its trip to EIE last year, “Edinburgh is a sleeping giant that investors will be keeping an eye on, a city of beauty and the past that looks like it is also becoming a city of the future.” 

Building a winning culture

Alongside the collective sadness over the passing of Sir Roger Bannister last weekend - quite poignantly on the occasion of the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Birmingham - there were some fantastic tributes to the man who became the first to break the four-minute barrier for the mile.  

One recollection centred on the team that made the 3.59.4 run at Iffley Road, Oxford in May of 1954 possible. Chris Brasher and Sir Chris Chataway were the pacemakers who helped Bannister stay on track for his pioneering run into the record books, a tight knit group who built their own culture of success - Chris Brasher, for example, went on to win Olympic gold in the steeplechase in 1956 - both on and away from the training ground. Brasher’s son recounts a time when the three men, struggling to improve their times, escaped the university cloisters to walk the hills of north Wales. On their return, they had found the extra seconds they had been searching for.   

As a schoolboy in the late eighties, I was fortunate enough to be part of Scotland’s top middle distance running club at that time. The team, based in Clydebank, couldn’t afford tracksuits like a lot of the other running clubs we competed against. I remember a nemesis of mine who ran for the Johnnie Walker-sponsored Kilmarnock athletics club taunting us about it ahead of a race. One of my club mates, Glen Stewart, son of Lachie Stewart, the 1979 Commonwealth Games gold medalist at the 10,000 metres, turned to us and said, “spin round boys.” We might have been a raggle-taggle lot but when we turned our backs most of us were wearing Scotland or GB tops.

Our camaraderie at Clydebank AC was a big part of our success and our achievement of individual and collective excellence came down to process - we trained hard and targeted the races on the calendar where we wanted to reach peak performance. It was important to have a great leader and we had one in the form of our coach, Alan Marshall, a former middle distance international himself and a bank manager by day. 

We also had leaders within the group - an older guy we all looked up to, the comedian of the group whose sense of humour made the training on cold, dark evenings more bearable and the “big man”, a guy who doubled as security when we were out for a few drinks on a Saturday night. 

I next experienced a winning culture with one of Europe’s top corporate communications agencies, Maitland, in London. Working alongside PR consultants who were former FT and Economist editors and reporters and highly rated investment analysts and fund managers from the City, a collegiate-type commitment to process, in a not dissimilar way to my time with Clydebank AC, translated to business success for the firm. 

In 2018, company culture and related areas like brand, including employer brand, have never been more important and there is a lot of buzz around corporate values and how they translate to business outcomes. Last week saw the announcement of the inaugural Impact Summit in Glasgow in May that sees The Hunter Foundation backing FutureX and its mission around business as a force for good and, on a personal level, I’m honoured to have been asked to get involved with proceedings. 

Over the last couple of years, through working with agency clients like WhitespaceMadeBraveH&A and Denholm’s Inside Out and seeing first hand the great work they have done with other clients like Anderson StrathernRettie & CoGraham + SibbaldSharkeyand the EICC, I’ve got a further feel for how thorough brand examination and repositioning can be. Like the running analogy, you don’t always need a brand new tracksuit but how you look and feel to your stakeholders and customers is hugely important. 

Perhaps the most exciting corporate cultures on the Scottish scene are those growing by something akin to osmosis, seemingly without too much by way of design, in our startup community where names like AmiqusSeed HausCodeBase (who celebrated its 4th birthday last week), Care SourcerMindMateLendingCrowd and Administrate are leading the charge.

Life's a strAIght pitch

There’s a great movie from a couple of years’ back called Ex Machina, an Oscar-winning flick that that will likely go on to become more famous for its subject matter - the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) in the early 21st century - than its various awards. 

At a talk at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics last month organised by entrepreneurial support group Informatics VenturesBill Joos, former VP of Sales at Apple, engaged the gathering on how AI is heading for the mainstream in the years ahead and around other tech trends that are here to stay. As Joos observed, while there is a good dose of trepidation around AI, we most definitely need to appreciate its inevitable progress. 

Bill Joos has a touch of the cinematic about him - you could easily picture him in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster as a professor or father figure type - and he is able to get to the point and explain complex products, models and systems in near layman’s terms. No surprise then that Joos has advised hundreds of Silicon Valley startups in recent years on how to get their key messages across to investors - a process and way of thinking he has packaged up with the moniker “Life’s a Pitch”.

Joos says there are five types of pitch an entrepreneur has to master - the “handshake intro”, the “one minute pitch”, the “napkin pitch” and the “investor” and “customer” pitches. The self-confessed “pitch doctor” went on to say that “long pitches are lazy” and “brief pitches are hard”. According to Joos, an old Gaelic proverb puts it best, “say but little and say it well.”  

In a valuable takeaway for me, as a PR person who helps companies craft their own messaging, Joos says he favours the ability of a business to describe its activities in under thirty seconds and to also have an even shorter descriptor in seven words or less.  

Referring to his old boss at Apple, Steve Jobs, and an address Jobs made at Stanford University in 2005, Joos expounded the importance of networks to “connect the dots” in terms of populating your entrepreneurial idea with the people that can make a difference to your chances of success. 

Last week, Informatics Ventures announced the sixty early stage tech companies who will pitch to UK and international investors at McEwan Hall in Edinburgh in April. Unsurprisingly, AI is increasingly to the fore in the EIE18 cohort and other emerging trends include HealthTech and what is now commonly described as “business for good”. We hope to draw out more trends and founder sentiment when we launch the second Scottish Startup Survey with Informatics Ventures and the University of Edinburgh Business Schoolthis month.

A major news story this year has been around gender balance - in the boardroom and in the tech world - and approximately 12 per cent of the startup founders pitching at EIE18 are women. That compares to a global average of something in the region of 15 per cent in 2017 so we’re in pretty good shape in Scotland with a bit of room for improvement. 

Former EIE alumnus Leah Hutcheon of scheduling software startup Appointedd won a UK-wide entrepreneurial award in January and another female entrepreneur from the EIE programme, Susanne Mitschke of mobile health app MindMate, herself a recent pitch winner at EIE, is leading a team that are not only positioned for success with a strong base of international venture capitalists, but are also tackling one of society’s greatest destroyers - Alzheimer’s, dementia and other forms of cognitive decline. 

Bill Joos’ tech trends on the rise, in addition to AI, include the spread of Blockchain, the advent of 5G, augmented and virtual realities, autonomous vehicles and omnipresent voice user interface.

Irrespective of developing tech trends, I hope our nation’s daughters gets the same opportunities as our sons when they decide to follow a career in tech. Of course, only if robots have not taken over by then and, as the film Ex Machina hints, brought about the end of the world as we know it.