Although just 24 years old, FutureX co-founder Bruce Walker could already be considered a veteran of the Edinburgh start-up scene. While still at school, he forged relationships with some of the biggest names in the world of UK business and created a company that would soon go on to partner with the likes of RBS and the Scottish Government.
FutureX is an entrepreneurial leadership group promoting a values-led approach to business through its partnerships, development programmes and international events, which include Edinburgh’s Startup Summit.
“Ultimately we want to redefine the role of business,” says Walker. His “big, audacious goal” is to reach a point where people starting a company are purposefully doing it to solve a problem, and money is the by-product that allows them to do that.
“I don’t think money is a dirty word, I think it’s an absolutely essential part of growing our system,” he says. “But we’ve reached this place where you’ve got lots of people who are interested in maintaining a system where only a few benefit. And there are lots of other people who are working exceptionally hard and adding tremendous value, but they’re not seeing any of it.”
It’s a mission Walker has embraced from a young age. As part of a Young Enterprise Scotland school project, then 17-year-old Walker and his classmates were asked to create a new company initiative. “We’d all been to the career adviser where they’d said you’ve got these grades, so you can take this course or do this job. No-one was talking about what to do if you actually wanted to start a business,” he says.
Embracing the true spirit of entrepreneurship, Walker’s team capitalised on this gap in the market by planning an event which pulled together learning resources for wannabe entrepreneurs, including local speakers from the business world, all under one roof. And WeAreTheFuture was born, a start-up that would later morph into FutureX.
At that early stage, Walker didn’t yet have a strategic long-term plan, nor could he know that the venture would go on to become his full-time job, and even his lifestyle. He employed a “scattergun approach” to organising his event, contacting every famous business person he could manage, with tremendous results. He says: “I sent emails to Tom Hunter, Brian Souter, Michelle Mone and every single one of them got back to me.”
He recalls sending ten emails without response to Sir Alan Sugar, until someone on the business mogul’s staff replied to say the boss liked his ideas. Walker took that quote and ran with it, saying: “I published that quote everywhere and the next thing you know it’s ‘Alan Sugar supports this young entrepreneur in Scotland’. That encouraged everyone else to suddenly get on board.”
Guest speakers included Brian Williamson, at the time managing director of research and development tax specialist Jumpstart. In a move that Walker describes as “a little bit forward”, he wrote to Williamson after the event asking for funding. He says: “I basically wrote saying, ‘Brian, I’ve no money and I really want to pursue this as a business. I think there’s a good opportunity, will you sponsor me to get going?’”
Together with Jumpstart owner Don Galloway, Williamson sent a £500 cheque, no strings attached. That money allowed Walker to buy business cards, a website domain and “little things that make you feel like you’ve got a real company”.
After high school, Walker studied international business and business management in Edinburgh, continuing to grow WeAreTheFuture alongside his degree. Two years into the programme, the company had grown to such a point that he was constantly shuttling between lectures and business meetings, and emailing during class. His lecturers left him with an ultimatum: either show up and be present, or don’t show up at all. As he puts it: “I could either be reading in theory about how it worked, or I could actually just be doing it.”
He decided to take a year out to pursue the business full-time after securing Virgin Atlantic as an official partner. The deal opened the door to free flights to California for participants in WeAreTheFuture’s accelerator programme, an annual week-long leadership scheme, giving a select cohort of tech entrepreneurs access to Silicon Valley’s successful business leaders. “People assume that companies partner with us just for brand recognition, but often it’s clear they want access to working with young businesspeople and young businesses,” says Walker.
He feels this has led to an evolution in corporate venturing. It used to be what Walker calls “a long-term gig”; an established company would invest in a new firm, but it would take time before the start-up became profitable, and therefore before the investor saw a return. “Now there’s a new language around corporate venturing, addressing how to partner with smaller businesses who might provide solutions to problems within your company,” he says. “And instead of investing in them or buying them, giving them a contract. That gives them revenue, validation, and some testing.” The corporation has access to innovation and tailor-made services, while the smaller company secures a stable, powerful client.
Last year, WeAreTheFuture joined forces with like-minded start-up Power of Youth to form FutureX. The two companies’ offerings seemingly complemented each other, as Power of Youth fostered close relationships with entrepreneurs through retreats and small groups, and WeAreTheFuture had the infrastructure to deliver larger scale events and programmes.
“We thought if we could pull together the facilitation skills of Power of Youth with small groups of people and amplify that out to thousands of people, we can have a real meaningful impact. Scotland’s a small place and sometimes I think it’s better to consolidate and collaborate than it is to try and compete with each other,” says Walker.
He believes Scotland’s size is a two-sided coin, bringing the benefit of knowing that almost anyone you want to speak to is only a few steps away, but also the danger of getting caught up in the “Scottish bubble”. He adds: “It’s about realising that this can be your solid base, but if you really want to grow a business of scale you need to be thinking about an international market quickly. Inevitably, your competitors, wherever they may be, will be thinking the same thing.”
FutureX has certainly been busy scaling up. Over the past 12 months, the team has grown to eight, with future vacancies in the pipeline, and has branched into new business sectors, running bigger summits and working increasing closely with partners, such as Scottish Enterprise, to deliver new initiatives like the Scale summer school. In March, Sir Tom Hunter’s The Hunter Foundation agreed a three-year deal to provide financial backing for FutureX’s first Impact Summit in Glasgow.
Walker is careful not to claim part of the success of businesses FutureX has previously worked with, recognising its services as “one of many touchpoints” in their life cycle. However, he does admit to feeling a buzz when they go on to hit major milestones, citing as examples Edinburgh-based Snap40 and Dunoon-founded TickX, which in recent months have secured funding of £6 million and £3m respectively.
FutureX’s next hurdle in its audacious mission is showing that a purposeful strategy reaps rewards. Walker says: “We need to get to a place beyond just using the rhetoric around purpose and values, where you actually have to show how it works within your strategy. At the moment we’re at the early stage of just introducing that language into the world. But we’re already seeing strong signs.”