Business interview: Jamie Coleman, Codebase
He has just got the keys to Argyle House, a 1960s former government office in Edinburgh’s Old Town which, it has to be said, divides opinion. It’s a building that many would have voted to have demolished. But Coleman loves it.
“It was of its time and represented something new so it sort of reflects what we are doing,” he says. Not only does he like it, he wants eventually to occupy all 11 floors for his Codebase business, the new name for TechCube Management. It provides a home for about 30 small firms and it is growing at such a rate that Coleman is confident of creating Europe’s biggest hub for technology enterprises.
Until this weekend, the incubator was at Summerhall (which retains the TechCube name) based in the old Vets College beside the Meadows, but it had outgrown the building only a year after opening. Coleman has been excited by the expansion of his tenants, but is particularly encouraged that Edinburgh is gaining a reputation from afar as a centre for technology, even becoming a magnet for some of the games firms that normally gravitated to Dundee.
He attributes much of that appeal to a combination of factors, including the skills being developed at Edinburgh University and the wider attractions that the city has to offer to footloose businesses.
He describes himself as “someone who looks like a James Bond baddie” and while he believes firmly in the nuts and bolts of what he is trying to create, he drifts occasionally into the world of fantasy fiction to emphasise a point.
“The Eye of Sauron is on Edinburgh,” he says, a reference to Lord of the Rings. “The stars are aligned in a really interesting way here and by bringing everyone together in this one place we can create a cluster effect.”
He talks about the sector and his plans with the enthusiasm of a new football manager determined to get his hands on silverware. Coleman sets his goals high and will only allow in companies that meet strict criteria. Codebase is not somewhere simply to rent space for a business without some development potential. It usually means working on something that helps solve a problem. Surprisingly, perhaps, he does not have ambitions for Scotland to create a global technology business.
“I do not know who will build the next Twitter or Facebook but could we build one? Absolutely not. We do not want to. We will never have that year-upon-year of follow-up venture capital funding before they work out the monetising model. The VC cheques in Silicon Valley are seen nowhere else. It is not what we are good at.
“But we can build scaleable companies that can be monetised early and have customers. Those who spend years trying to make money will either fail or go to the US. What we do is build the tough stuff.”
The success of the travel search engine Skyscanner, now valued at some £500 million, is held up as a role model for others to emulate. “My brain dribbles out of my ear when I consider the engineering challenge faced by Skyscanner. Dealing with such a large number of visits is seriously tough.”
Coleman, who had been working in life sciences and drug discovery, is the landlord and self-appointed mentor at Codebase and sees his role as guiding and encouraging those who have a genuine chance of success.
“I am a bartender who stops idiots getting in the door,” he says. “There is a weeding out process. I do not have a crystal ball but I can spot something that is bad.
“The best thing that can happen here is that a company makes a fortune, flies away, IPOs [floats] and comes back to reinvest the money. The next best thing is they fail miserably and their staff start their own company knowing they have learned some skills.”
He launched the company two years ago with no support from public funds but a great belief in what he thinks is achievable and in the merits of being unconventional.
“I am a bit of a weirdo. I was well-known among the start-up community,” he says. “The government should do what it is good at and it can be an enabler, but the pension funds here could help. Give me 1 per cent of what they have and I could change Edinburgh. Clearly, they are looking for less risk, but the government and private sector can work together to reduce the risk.”
He refers to a matched-funding arrangement that exists in Ireland as the sort of programme the Scottish Government could adopt. Codebase collaborates with other organisations working to a similar end, such as Informatics, based at the university.
“The university is the best for computer science in the UK by a country mile and by all the metrics available. It has developed world-class research papers and I just want to vacuum up all that talent,” he says.
“We are 6,000 jobs short in IT in Scotland, so the challenge is obvious. But Scotland has an advantage in being trusted. People around the world like Scots.”
30 SECOND CV
Job: Managing director, Codebase.
Education: Ongoing, there will always be something new.
First job: Librarian.
Ambition while at school: Professional boxer.
Kindle or book? Book, the only old media I can’t live without.
Favourite film: Where Eagles Dare.
Music: The Dirty Three.
Can’t live without: Harris Tweed.
Claim to fame: Dinner with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Favourite place: Dunadd, Kilmartin Glen.
What makes you angry: The iTunes user interface.
Best thing about your job: Helping to build and grow great tech start-ups