Monday interview: ESpark co-founder Jim Duffy

Jim Duffy, chief executive of Entrepreneurial Spark. Picture: Neil Hanna
Jim Duffy, chief executive of Entrepreneurial Spark. Picture: Neil Hanna
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GETTING involved in a new business can be daunting and occasionally troublesome. Jim Duffy should know, as it happened to him, writes Terry Murden.

After a year in the US on a Saltire Fellowship programme, he returned to Britain and joined a start-up firm, but the experience was not a good one.

“It was a disaster. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Understanding the customer, directorships, you name it,” he says now. “I was brought in to help steer it but I was the wrong guy. That’s when I decided there had to be a better way of doing this.”

The better way was finding some solutions to the problems he faced. He and his associate Brian McGuire looked at the range of business advice that was available and were not too impressed. “I did nine months’ research and looked at the support agencies. Too many ‘silos’, too many with their own pots of funding,” he says.

Duffy wanted something that would be “disruptive” – something that would bring budding business stars together, challenge them to prove they had what it takes and give them some self-belief. The outcome of his deliberations was Entrepreneurial Spark, a fresh style of company incubator that he wants to see kick-start a revolution in new business development.

Taking bits of the Boston-based Mass Challenge – a five-month competition – and other incubator and accelerator schemes, Duffy’s breakthrough came when Scots entrepreneurs Sir Tom Hunter and Willie Haughey agreed to support his initiative. Not only did they like the idea, both also provided fully-kitted out office space for two teams of start-ups. The centres, known as “hatcheries”, operate from Hunter’s premises in Dundonald, Ayrshire, and Haughey’s base in Govan. A third site in the capital will be announced today in conjunction with Edinburgh Napier University and Edinburgh City Council. The transport tycoon Ann Gloag, co-founder of Stagecoach, has agreed to become its entrepreneur-in-residence.

“It was fantastic to get Tom and Willie involved from the start,” says Duffy. “They are not just poster boys, they come along to events and use their positions to leverage help.

“These people are normally inaccessible. Having them on board gives the scheme kudos and credibility.”

ESpark, as it is usually known, puts would-be entrepreneurs through what Duffy admits is a rigorous and testing series of challenges. It is a clearly-­defined programme designed to find out if those taking part are really ­capable of running a business with the ­potential to grow.

“We look at the proposition and whether they have what it takes to be the next Hunter or Haughey. We interview them … we chip away at them, ask if they can execute their ideas and whether we can give them the skills to do so. We need to make them ‘investable’ by challenging their mindset and how they behave, how they collaborate, network, lead, and show the required work ethic.

“There have been tears and some of them walk out, but they usually come back after they have thought about what we have said.”

The programme, which launched in January, has received £375,000 over three years from Royal Bank of Scotland, which also provides expert advisers. More funding has come in from private investors and Duffy is in talks with another sponsor for the Edinburgh hatchery.

The fledgling entrepreneurs, known as “chiclets”, meet “enablers” and are given a set of metrics to work on over 45 days. By the end they should have researched their market and be able to pitch their ideas better. An event is held every week that they are expected to ­attend and all chiclets are brought ­together at the end of the period.

It may be too soon to judge ESpark’s success, but in its first year it has helped a number of start-ups progress to the next stage of their development. Food firm Eat Balanced and an online shopping website for parents, StorkUp, are among the 90 to have gone through the two existing centres. Edinburgh will take on a further 30. Duffy wants to get his third centre operational and then will look at other locations. In the meantime, ESpark has organised a competition with RBS to send six-start-ups to business school Babson College in Massachusetts to further their learning.

Duffy and McGuire have been regular visitors to Babson and attended the bootcamp this year. Duffy says: “Babson is where it all started for us; it’s where the Entrepreneurial Spark idea was born and developed and where I took my team to embrace the full-on entrepreneurial experience they provide. The opportunity to learn from some of the world’s best at Babson is one which could truly set a start-up business on the path to success.”

Duffy, 45, a trained teacher who became a cabin crew steward, is clearly revelling in a whirlwind of a year that has thrust him into a public role as the leader of a self-proclaimed shift in the way young businesses are nurtured. After his stint in the US, working with start-ups, he returned to the UK first to work on acquisitions in the oil and gas industry before getting involved in the small firm that went awry.

He has been openly critical of schemes such as Business Gateway, ­believing they fell short of what those starting a business really required.

“We spoke to them and now they get it. I felt they were too inflexible, but they have come on board,” he says.

He was fortunate to have run into Hunter through the Saltire Foundation charity. Hunter, a huge advocate and supporter of business creation, put some money into ESpark to help it get off the ground. With him on board, Duffy says it was easier to persuade other people to help and he is grateful to those who have provided facilities free of charge.

“The vision is to create a business start-up renaissance for and from Scotland,” he says. “In two years’ time I want other countries to look at Scotland and ask, ‘How did they do that?’”


Born: Glasgow.

Education: St Michael’s Academy, Kilwinning, then St Andrew’s College of Education, Glasgow.

First job: Air steward, British Airways.

Car: Eight-year-old Jaguar XJ.

Kindle or book? A book – I like

to feel paper.

Music: The Jam, Simple Minds.

Can’t live without: My iPhone.

Interests: Having something to do; running; work.

What makes you angry: People who say they can’t do.

Best advice received: You have two ears and one mouth.