Scotland delivering as tech hub

I was chatting to a technology startup founder the other day who, after we compared notes on whose golf game was in a more woeful state, reminded me that “you can’t get the product wrong”. “You can get everything else wrong”, he said, “but not the product”.  

I had the good fortune last month to support the CEO and PR team of San Francisco-headquartered UserTesting, a Silicon Valley tech company that has developed a product so successful that around half of the world’s leading brands use its on-demand customer insights platform, as the company announced that it was opening its first international office here in Edinburgh. 

UserTesting’s CEO, Andy MacMillan, remarked that he and his team see Edinburgh and Scotland as one of Europe’s next great tech hubs. In meetings we lined up with the press, MacMillan expounded the case for choosing the city ahead of other metropolitan candidates in the UK and Europe - with the computer sciences talent coming out of multiple Scottish universities and the standard of public-private partnerships among the factors that counted in Edinburgh’s favour. 

At a small private dinner we organised at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we were joined by senior figures from Scotland’s enterprise agencies, venture capital and university scenes to discuss, albeit on a very informal level, the opportunities and challenges for Scotland’s technology ecosystem. Over some fine food and a drop or two of the national nectar, we heard some spellbinding stories straight from Silicon Valley and by the end of the night the bridge between our ecosystems didn’t seem as big as many of us may have previously thought. 

Fast forward a week and my agency handled another announcement that is evidence of how far Edinburgh and Scotland has come in the UK and international tech stakes when a longstanding client, software development studio Cultivate, was acquired by Amazon-backed food delivery scale-up Deliveroo. One of Europe’s fastest-growing technology companies, Deliveroo plans to invest in an Edinburgh tech office at CodeBase, with Cultivate’s Andy Robinson heading up the team.  

When you consider that cities like London, Amsterdam and Dublin have received a lot more metaphorical love through inward investment by U.S. and European tech giants, it’s great to see Edinburgh getting a slice of the action and I feel privileged to have helped to tell the story around these recent announcements. Perhaps, we are on the verge of a tipping point in 2019. That could be the really exciting bit: if the commitment and ambition shown by UserTesting and Deliveroo to our tech ecoystem leads to a critical mass of international technology companies landing in Scotland.

In turn, a critical mass of large, scaling technology companies would keep more students and graduates in Scotland, while attracting more talent from outside, including Scots who have brain-drained to London because of a lack of quality tech jobs at real volume here. As young people increasingly desire lifestyle and wellbeing over material gain and Edinburgh shoots up the global charts as a desirable place to live and work, I get a strong feeling that things will continue to trend to our advantage.

Industry commentators regularly relay statistics around how rapid technological advances mean that most kids in school today will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. Having what UserTesting’s Andy MacMillan describes as “one of the next great tech hubs” here in Scotland will mean our future economy will be positioned to support the next generation with highly-skilled jobs. Win-win.  

This week I will be handling announcements for Heriot-Watt University around its graduate apprenticeship programme - the largest of its kind in Scotland - and Robotical, a tech startup who are teaming up with one of Scotland’s top football clubs to teach kids digital skills in the local community; with both initiatives representing building blocks that will help to create a world-class entrepreneurial society in Scotland. 

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 19th August

The search for Elon MacMusk, guest post by Gibb Bulloch

No one needs to convince me about the merits of spending time taking stock of your career—or that Scotland is the right place to do it. I’ll tell you why in a minute. But without sounding like I’m representing the Scotland’s tourist board, there are many reasons why it’s even easier today to combine career, health and wellbeing and be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. 

In the mid-1980s, I left my childhood home in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and set off to study in Glasgow before taking the well-worn path to the bright lights of London. So called “brain-drain” has affected many rural communities, not only in Scotland, but across the world. It’s a trend that has continued throughout my working career. I was saddened to hear of Argyll and Bute’s population dropping by a staggering 4% in 2017 alone. At the same time, Edinburgh saw double-digit growth in its population, while London continues to act as a lightning rod for young professionals from north of the border.

Despite these worrying statistics, I’d suggest that the grass may no longer be greener in the concrete jungles of our modern cities. Bute’s isolation, lack of access to employment and rural tranquillity were clearly underlying factors in the ongoing exodus of its younger generation. But with modern connectivity we’re entering the age of the “digital nomad”— individuals who can connect to the global economy to make a living, irrespective of their physical location. The lure of affordable housing and a safe, cohesive community could offer the island something of a renaissance—rebalancing the urban mix.

But in a paradoxical twist, I believe it’s the very isolation and ability to completely detach from the demands of a digital age that might offer the greatest potential for regeneration. I’m convinced these erstwhile drawbacks could, in fact, become comparative advantages that should be capitalised upon. 

The lure of a life in the business fast lane and a well-paid corporate job comes at a price. As companies have downsized, those who are ‘lucky’ enough to be kept on find themselves in ever-expanding roles and a 24/7, always online lifestyle that doesn’t respect weekends. Small wonder that there’s a mental health crisis emerging in the workplace—a topic where I have a bit of form.. The constant distraction of technology, results, busy roles, and tight deadlines means that the business world is suffering from a kind of collective Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD. What if we were to slow down a little— take the time to breathe and to focus less on what we’re doing and think more about where we’re going? 

Last year, I decided to trade my two-bedroom flat in London for a derelict farm on Bute which I am renovating as Scotland’s first “Business Decelerator”— a place that offers busy executives the chance to temporarily disconnect from their day jobs to reconnect with themselves. The space will create a fusion between big business and the transformative power of art, music, nature and community. Craigberoch is a venue that seeks to balance the typical business professional's bias for doing, with the power of just being.   

So, why here and why now? Scotland has a proud history of applying innovation for the benefit the planet—from Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin to the modern television invented by John Logie Baird. Besides the obvious benefits of resilience, wellbeing and employee engagement, I envision the business decelerator being a catalyst for social innovation—in our “always on” culture, it’s well overdue. 

Scotland could play an important role in awakening a generation of dormant Elon (Mac)Musk-type social intrapreneurs and innovators inside the corporate world—unlocking commercial value for our companies and social and environmental impact for the planet. On a personal level, I hope that Craigberoch plays a part in that important journey.

Gib Bulloch is the author of The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a Corporate Insurgent and is the Founder of the Craigberoch Business Decelerator.  He will be speaking at the FutureX’s Future Business Forum at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 17 September 2019. 

Eureka, Edinburgh's new Enlightenment

This week, TEDSummit rolls into Edinburgh’s EICC and with it some of the world’s greatest thinkers and agents for change, including around 150 past TED Talk speakers. TED describes itself as “a global community of people interested in how ideas can improve the world” and the chances are that many of us have watched and been impacted by a TED Talk, arguably an internet phenomenon since its inception.

Two of my favourite TED Talks are by Professor Harald Haas, Chair of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh and founder of pureLiFi, the wireless technology company. Professor Haas’s first address, at TED Global in 2011, “Wireless Data from Every Light Bulb” has been watched over 2 million times his second TED Global lecture in 2015 on the use of solar cells as LiFi data detectors gives further evidence of why TIME Magazine has rated Haas’s inventions as some of the most pioneering of recent times.   

Edinburgh beat off worldwide competition to land this year’s summit and it’s fitting that the country which gave birth to the Scottish Enlightenment in the 19th century continues to be heralded for its place in the world at the beginning of the 21st. In science, medicine, business, technology, creative industries, social enterprise, education, culture and sport, Scotland has proven that it can lead the way, be at the top table; less of a follower, more of an influencer. 

If you think of Scotland as a brand, it is a pretty cool one. I remember thinking this not long ago when I was speaking to one of my brothers who runs the O Street agency in Glasgow that has been instrumental in the design process for Royal Bank of Scotland’s new £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes. O Street and its collaborators factored in Scotland’s people, artists, writers, poets, landscape and wildlife and it was great to see the end results. My favourite remains the fiver, with Scottish author Nan Shepherd on one side of the note and a mackerel eating a midge - with the small, biting insect admittedly being something of a drain on Scotland’s summertime brand - on the reverse. 

Of course, Scotland as a brand may be hard for many natives to see; there’s that old saying about not seeing the wood for the trees. Perhaps it is the views of people from other places who choose to spend time here that are most telling when we think about Scotland as a brand. 

Speaking to Natalie Novick, the research editor of Tech.eu, a European media and market intelligence company dedicated to startups and the emerging technology industry, Novick says: "Something I admire about Scotland and the Scots is their true sense of optimism and positivity about the future, which certainly plays into the innovation environment here. There's an independent streak in the country's innovators, whether it's Lockerbie's MacRebur, who built their company on micro-investment and now builds roads across the world, or Edinburgh's Project Heather, working to rewrite social finance. Scots are proud to stand for what they believe in, which can give a country of it's size an outsize impact.” Formerly based in Germany and the United States, Novick moved to Scotland in 2018 with her partner who works at the University of Edinburgh.

Canadian tech investor Rita Nguyen, who splits her time between Scotland and Myanmar, says: “I chose Edinburgh as my second home for a lot of reasons, not least of which that it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Scottish people are innate storytellers and hugely entertaining and there are very few cultures in the world which are so strongly ingrained in the psyche of its people.” 

“I’m in the technology startup world and it’s interesting to see how founders in Scotland address their unique market challenges. Scotland itself is a relatively small market so in order to scale, Scottish entrepreneurs need to look beyond their borders.”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 22nd July

To unplug or not to unplug on vacation

Last month, my wife and I celebrated our 10th anniversary with a night away at the recently reopened Fife Arms hotel in Braemar. Owned by renowned Swiss art dealers and, on the evidence of the array of sports cars with international license plates parked out front, clearly attracting high net worth clientele from across Europe, it lived up to its billing as a luxurious stay in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Word must have travelled that it was a special anniversary as we were upgraded to a suite on arrival, one from which you could see the river Clunie rushing past in all its glory; most definitely a room with a view. We were going to go back to the hotel in Mallorca where we got married but circumstances - leaving the kids at home in Scotland for the first time and the fact that we had already booked a family holiday on mainland Spain not long after - meant a short weekend break better fitted the bill. 

Now sitting by the pool at our villa near Cadiz in southwestern Spain, we’ve had a nice break in the sunshine with relatives who are over from New Zealand and work hasn’t got too much in the way. I’ve kept true to my out of office message and only checked the inbox occasionally, done a couple of conference calls that were already in the diary and fielded a few calls about press stories and announcements in the workings.

For me, this is about as much as I can switch off anyway. I would probably freak out if I turned my phone off for a week, so I’m okay with keeping an eye on things while making sure I get some time away from the inbox and seemingly never ending email trails. A bit like politics, a week is a long time in PR world and, as the saying goes, time and tide wait for no man. Or something like that.  

I message a friend from the business world, Geneva-based Scot Gib Bulloch, to ask him what he thinks about balancing vacations with time away from the office. “As the scope of corporate roles has grown even larger”, says Gib, “ and the ‘always online’ 7 days a week culture becomes the norm, it’s more important than ever to carve out the time to totally unplug while on holiday - to disconnect in order to reconnect to a deeper sense of who we are.” 

I think Gib makes an important point here, namely around reconnecting with one’s self. Sometimes you need a change of scenery to get a bit of perspective and vacations, holidays or breaks - whatever you want to call them - can undoubtedly be good for the soul. 

Bulloch is taking this concept a step further by creating what he calls a business ‘decelerator’ on his native Isle of Bute. Craigberoch was initially conceived by Gib during the process of promoting his seminal book, The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a Corporate Insurgent, and you can hear him talk about his writings, Craigberoch and other interesting tales in person at FutureX’s Future Business Forum in Edinburgh this September.  

As I’m replying to Gib, a call comes in from a client CEO who happens to be staying only an hour up the road in Seville. He is excited because his company is on the cusp of launching a new, retooled product and wanted me to be one of the first to know. It’s a fantastic company, with a brilliant and very likeable team and world-beating technology, so it’s great to shoot the breeze and hardly a hardship when I’m sitting poolside in beach shorts.  

As we wrap up, I see there is a wee boy and a slightly older girl in Barcelona tops who want to kick around the new football we bought in the local supermarket yesterday. A gentle reminder of the really important stuff in this life. 

Scotland's crypto scene on the up

I remember drinking a pint of ale in a pub in the West End of Glasgow a couple of years’ back, a pub where you could pay for your drinks by Scotcoin - an alternative to bitcoin - via a smartphone application. I even had some Scotcoin in a digital wallet although I fear I have misplaced it somewhere in the ether that is the web. I remember hearing from someone more in the know on all things cryptocurrency around that time, that there were only a few thousand people globally who really understood the workings of blockchain technology.

Fast forward a few moons, and I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of the wise men who have made cryptocurrency their specialist subject when they descended on Edinburgh last week. Titan Ventures co-founder Michael Nye, Charles Read and Andrew Strong were in Scotland to address the latest cohort of companies invited onto the Wayra Blockchain and AI accelerator run at the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre.  

Cryptocurrency, or crypto, has been a blockbuster financial news story over the last few weeks ahead of the launch of Facebook’s new cryptocurrency Libra. Libra is a development in money transfer that many commentators believe will disrupt the banking sector, central banks and possibly even rival the dollar as a new global unit currency unit. It’s also the view of many in the know, that what some have described as the “first everyday implementation of crypto” could spark the mass adoption of cryptocurrencies.  

By the same token, excuse the pun, other industry observers have asked questions about Facebook’s motivations, whether or not Libra is really about financial inclusion for the developing world and how fellow tech and payment giants who are not partners to the project, Amazon being an obvious example, will react. 

The Geneva-based not-for-profit Libra project backed by eBay, Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, Spotify and Uber, among others, faces significant privacy and security challenges and US and EU regulatory authorities have already marked their intentions to challenge Libra at every turn. 

When I caught up with the Nye, Read and Strong, the Libra story wasn’t too far from any of their lips. Nye says he sees “both positives and negatives” with Libra, while admitting that an individual’s financial data is “highly vulnerable”. Read opines that Libra will “take a lot of power away form central authorities” and talks about Facebook’s potential given its multi-platform offerings like Instagram and WhatsApp. Strong thinks Libra is a good thing because it will “bring awareness [of crypto] to the man in the street”.  

Nick Jones, CEO and founder of the soon to be launched Zumo Money app, says: ”As a founder, it's great to see the Blockchain and crypto community developing so rapidly in Edinburgh. There is a massive opportunity for Scotland to establish itself as one of the global centres for this emerging sector, especially in fintech with the depth of experience in the space. Having Michael Nye and other top influencers visit the Wayra accelerator is a real bonus for us as alumni as we can access their expert knowledge. As we prepare to publicly launch Zumo and prepare to scale from our current team of 20, its reassuring to see that Edinburgh can attract top talent in this area. A second high quality intake of startups starting the Wayra program really validates this.”

In conversation with Jones and Wayra accelerator mentor Daniel Lesnick, both identified a few of the exciting startups to watch from the current cohort. Sage City is creating a Blockchain network that utilises so-called sidechains to help organisations improve efficiencies and lower costs, Ocyan is an infrastructure platform that enables cloud applications to scale up in the Blockchain space and Trace is helping businesses locate, protect and visualise data. 

Fintech: to disrupt or not to disrupt?

At a developer conference in the US last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said: “Payments is one of the areas where we have an opportunity to make it a lot easier. I believe it should be as easy to send money to someone as it is to send a photo.” Facebook insiders say the team developing the new currency, a digital coin linked to the value of the dollar, has reached out to crytpocurrency exchanges - through which users could store their coins safely or convert the Facebook coins into other cryptocurrencies - and registered a new company in Switzerland to develop the required software and infrastructure. 

When I was discussing this story with Scottish entrepreneur, adviser and investor Richard Braidwood last week, Braidwood made some interesting points about the generally accepted terminology in the sector. “You could argue”, says Braidwood, “that there is a continual over use of the term ‘disruptive Fintech’. In the conversations we’ve had with investors and potential clients and partners, we repeatedly have to position ourselves as a non-disruptive enabler that is looking to work across the Financial Services industry.” 

Braidwood’s latest venture, Visible Capital, where he is a co-founder alongside Ross Laurie and Christian Burgin, uses PSD2/Open Banking data to automate the information required to onboard customers in the wealth sector, aiming to reduce friction for customers, providing accurate insight for investment managers and moving the whole market toward real-time customer insight.

We proceeded to talk about the whole definition of Fintech. Startups who use technology to offer existing financial services at lower costs with better customer experience? Technology companies who provide payment services (commentators are predicting that Facebook will release its cryptocurrency later this year)? Or incumbent financial firms investing billions into innovation? Braidwood references Lloyd’s at this point, with the banking group in the process of transforming its digital banking experience, as part of a £3 billion investment programme that will create 500 new jobs in Edinburgh. On this basis, Braidwood suggests that we should perhaps be thinking of Lloyds as Scotland’s largest Fintech based on the existing broad definition of the sector. 

Visible Capital’s co-founder also takes issue with the term disruption. “Disruption entered the startup ecosystem as a cultural ethos within small tech businesses who believed their innovation would gain them large market share from incumbent organisations. But, for me, disruption is causing upheaval with a lack of positive contribution, in fact it frequently destroys, while innovation is about improvement to an existing process, product, service or sector. Most Fintechs are not disruptive, instead they are enabling ways to improve the customer journey and experience, innovating to remove operational inefficiencies, and streamline and enhance regulatory compliance.” 

I was curious to hear who Braidwood is most excited about on the Scottish scene and was not too surprised by his answer, Blockstar Developments. Blockstar is in the final pre-launch phase of its Zumo app, having been one of the first companies invited onto Wayra’s Edinburgh Blockchain accelerator. Zumo will enable customers to easily acquire crypto currencies, store them securely and exchange them with traditional currency seamlessly within its digital wallet. A Convertible Debit Card will allow users to spend crypto just like ordinary money. Having raised £1.5 million in seed money last July, the team is set for a significant series A round later this year. 

On the international scene, Braidwood identifies Ripple, a California-based global Blockchain settlements network that provides liquidity for foreign exchange reserves and allows companies to make cross-border payments in XRP, the cryptocurrency developed by its founders. “It will drastically reduce cross border payments remittence from days to seconds while reducing the cost to the end consumer, says Braidwood. Ripple has over 200 clients worldwide, including some of the world’s largest banks and commentators point to the company as being well positioned to serve as a world reserve currency. 

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 3rd June

Building a funnel of high growth companies in Scotland

There was some unfortunate news from the Scottish tech scene last week, with the announcement that IT network deployment specialist Hutchinson Networks had gone into administration with the loss of around one hundred jobs. I spent some time engaging with the company last year around its communications requirements and, like many others I’m sure, got the impression that things were pointed in the right direction with growing UK and international sales.

At the same time, the company was only a year on from securing a £2 million plus financing round that came seven years after Hutchinson was founded. So, as a friend from the tech community remarked this week, perhaps sales were not quite as strong as advertised. Whatever the case, hopefully Scotland’s industry skills shortage means that the Hutchinson folks who lost their jobs will find new employment in the near term.  

While this episode is a lowlight for Scottish tech, there are encouraging signs of Scottish tech scale-ups on the verge of making significant breakthroughs. In areas like cloud computing, healthech and fintech, the collective hope is that Scotland’s most promising scale-ups can reach what might be described as pre-unicorn status - in other words, technology scale-companies that can realistically move towards $1 billion valuations.  

High calibre venture capitalists I have spoken to about the subject say that other UK tech hubs outside London, including Manchester and Cambridge, are doing a better job of producing these pre-unicorn candidates but that the stars are starting to align for Scotland - we just need to move a lot quicker. We might learn some lessons from LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partners partner Reid Hoffman who writes about “blitzscaling, the lightning-fast path to building massively valuable companies” in his latest book.

Of course, tech ecosystem success in Scotland is not going to rely on how many unicorns we produce but the general consensus seems to be that a much stronger bedrock of £50-100 million-valued companies (described as a “funnel of high growth companies” by an entrepreneur and startup investor contact yesterday) would be a big step in the right direction. In reality, you would expect companies to be taken out at this level - by way of acquisitions or IPOs - so Scottish unicorns may prove to be truly mythical beasts in the years ahead.   

At the E2E #ScaleUp2Success event at Spaces in Edinburgh last Wednesday evening, Scottish Business Network founding director Russell Dalgleish shared the generally accepted definition of a scale-up (which comes from the UK’s ScaleUp Institute) as a company with 5 or more employees, north of £1 million in revenues and turnover growth of at least 20 per cent for three years straight.  

Clyde Blowers Capital CEO and chairman Jim McColl, who revealed news about his new banking venture positioned to support SMEs, talked about having a “big vision” and getting “the right people who will find the way ahead”. “If you have 1 per cent of the market”, said McColl, “you need to think about how you get to 3 per cent”.

Cortex Worldwide Founder and CEO Peter Proud said tenacity is integral to scale-up success. “Build something that is scaleable”, said Proud whose company counts Microsoft as its main customer, “hire well”, “aim high” and “keep going”. Five years on from starting up, Cortex has built a market-leading technology platform, a high quality team to match, is self-funded by revenue and has credentials in spades to be one of the next big things in Scottish tech.    

There was some great news for Scotland’s creative industries scene last week with the launch of the Creative Bridge accelerator at CodeBase. Through priming candidates with entrepreneurial and digital skill sets, the exotic mix of creative talent and technology could lead to powerhouse companies of the future. 

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 Jain targeting 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 Onthebeach.com - 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.