Headlines on Scotland’s entrepreneurial culture may often focus on operations in the central belt, with high-profile success stories such as Edinburgh’s Skyscanner. But plenty of work is under way further north, to boost not just the amount of start-ups but also foster their development with the resources and inspiration they need to grow.
Serial entrepreneur Gary McEwan is chief executive of Aberdeen-headquartered Elevator, the social enterprise set up to help facilitate the start-up and growth of new and existing businesses. It has created what it says is the UK’s first Centre for Entrepreneurship, a £1 million facility in the Granite City “dedicated to supporting the entrepreneurs, business leaders and employees of today and tomorrow”.
McEwan says that to set the centre up he travelled the globe to find out “what made great entrepreneurial cities”.
“We set about creating something for Aberdeen that would take the best of the best and put it one place.
“It beats the isolation of sitting at home thinking ‘what am I going to do tomorrow’? A lot of people think entrepreneurs are loners but in fact they love to spend time with other entrepreneurs.”
McEwan showed a flair for entrepreneurship from an early age, leaving school at 16 and starting his first business with £20, eventually working with businesses across fields from transport training to electronic manufacturing and business consultancy. He has also secured accolades such The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2005.
McEwan stresses that the entrepreneurship centre was established to generate “one single place in the city, where things weren’t fragmented” as it aims to demonstrate why this collective approach “makes a huge difference”.
The facility offers access to organisations including Aberdeen and shire councils, Scottish Enterprise and Business Gateway, and Elevator says Business Gateway Aberdeen City and Shire’s latest figures show that Elevator helped 1,276 people start their business through Business Gateway services in the past 12 months. That is 27 per cent more than the Scottish Government’s target of 1,000 set for the area.
Additionally almost 6 per cent of businesses were started by people who had been made redundant from the oil and gas industry.
“We are seeing a slight increase in the number of start-ups simply because of the climate,” notes McEwan.
This autumn, Elevator is set to open another Centre of Entrepreneurship, in a joint venture with the University of Dundee, which in 2014 awarded him the title of honorary professor of entrepreneurship.
The project aims to fast-track business growth and help launch “many more high-growth ventures into the city,” which McEwan sees as being on the threshold of entrepreneurial renaissance.
“The city of Dundee is in a very strong position to embrace innovation and diversity,” he says.
Elevator also cites recent statistics from the Committee of Scottish Bankers revealing a slowdown in the number of start-ups in Scotland, dropping to 11,669 in 2015 from 11,772 in 2014.
McEwan believes the Scottish Government should look at why Aberdeen is exceeding its targets when the rest of Scotland is lagging behind, and says: “I’d like them to think that this is the kind of model that should be in every city, with everything focused in one place.”
As for future targets for Elevator’s regions, he jokes: “We’ll continue to completely ignore them. Our objective is not to meet a target – it’s to unlock the potential of the region.”
He also highlights Elevator’s accelerator programme, launched in 2015, and says support beyond initial start-up stages is as crucial as growing a business, for example to the point of international growth, requiring a “different set of skills”.
“The businesses have got all the potential in the world but the issue is that entrepreneurs seem to stop learning.
“We all know they need passion and energy and hard work at the beginning… that will get you so far but you need to become much more organised, much more methodical and much more systematic and strategic, and that piece is missing.
“What we’re doing is not just create companies but create an entire community of entrepreneurship so that our entire economy gets better.”
Education: Stonelaw High School, Glasgow
First job: Selling dog treats from door to door
Ambition while at school: Not to be in school, I wanted out so I could get a business started
What car do you drive: Mercedes hybrid
Favourite mode of transport: Plane if I’m in a hurry, bike if not!
Music: Mayday Parade, Biffy or U2
Kindle or book: Audiobooks (lots of hours in the car)
Reading material: Jeffrey Archer
Can’t live without: WiFi
What makes you angry: Quitters, unfairness, disloyalty
What inspires you: Achievement
Favourite place: Daybreak dive in the Red Sea
Best thing about your job: Being significant in the success of others