Comment: Nick Freer looks at uniting firms large and small to grow scale-ups

If you visit PwC's website and happen to be one of the few people from the business community on Planet Earth who doesn't have an idea of what they do, you could be hard-pressed to work out what their main activities are.

Freer says the most promising scale-ups are winning big customers in big markets. Picture: Stewart Attwood

You don’t immediately pick up the kind of terminology traditionally associated with a Big Four firm – accounting, auditing and consulting – on the homepage, and language like “innovation” and “digital” is much more to the fore.

In Scottish terms, PwC made a big play in all things digital when its tie-up with Edinburgh’s tech incubator CodeBase was announced back in March. CodeBase chooses its partners, particularly from the advisory scene, with great care so it was definitely a fillip for PwC and its tech credentials north of the border.

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With a small, dedicated office at Argyle House – at the centre of so many great tech start-ups stories in the making in Scotland’s capital – the PwC team has taken a softly-softly approach to wooing the founders in the building, and this is starting to pay dividends as the firm picks up a series of engagements from CodeBase-headquartered start-ups.

Of course, this is small beer for a global accounting firm that generated almost £30 billion in fee income in 2016 and at last week’s launch of the PwC Scale Edinburgh programme, in partnership with CodeBase, PwC’s head digital honcho in the UK explained that embedding the firm’s people in the tech scene is more about keeping abreast of emerging innovation than winning fees.

Scale Edinburgh is the kind of tech accelerator programme that has been conspicuous by its absence in Scotland to date and, for this alone, PwC and CodeBase deserve plaudits.

While the Scottish Government and Entrepreneurial Scotland have combined on Scotland Can Do SCALE, a highly rated programme in its own right, most commentators agree that private sector players are required in this space to encourage transformational change.

So, going back a step, what does the term “scale” mean anyway? The UK’s Scaleup Institute, chaired by scale-up doyenne Sherry Coutu CBE, points to the universally accepted metric of an SME growing revenues by 20 per cent plus in each of its previous three years and having at least ten employees. In practice, on the coal face, the most promising scale-ups are winning big customers in big markets.

If you’re in digital health or travel tech, to name just two sectors, and your SME is making an impression in the US or in Europe or Asia, then it’s safe to assume you are well on the way to being a bona fide scaling business. In fact, you’ve probably already arrived.

Research released last week by another Big Four firm, Deloitte, indicates that increasing numbers of UK scale-ups and aspiring scale-ups are targeting the US ahead of Europe as Brexit dampens the appetite for EU markets. For many of our indigenous start-ups, the UK is usually targeted first, then Europe, then the US or Asia, so the survey from the number-crunchers over at Deloitte is worth close attention.

What PwC and Deloitte agree on is that collaboration between large corporates and young, innovative companies can spark growth opportunities for both.

Airts, Allatus, Bemo, Care Sourcer. Encompass, Healthy Nibbles, Money Dashboard, Symphonic and ZoneFox are the Scotland-based start-ups on the inaugural ten-week Scale Edinburgh programme.

It says these ambitious Scottish companies will receive high-level support and opportunities to engage with influencers and decision-makers from “some of the world’s leading organisations”.

Knowing a few of the CEOs and founders from the companies in the Edinburgh cohort, and how producing more scale-ups translates to serious economic growth, I wish one and all the very best.

Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners