The founder and chief executive of Entrepreneurial Spark, which claims to be the world’s largest free business accelerator, has never mapped out any clear career path for himself. After graduating as a teacher in 1988, he followed some female friends into working as a cabin steward with British Airways, where he spent four years. And despite 11 years with Strathclyde Police, he changed jobs within the constabulary at least once every 24 months.
“They were good at managing me, but I had too many ideas in my head,” he recalls.
A clear-cut “INTJ” (introversion, intuition, thinking and judgement type) on the Myers-Briggs personality test, Duffy eventually ventured into the world of business, starting up three franchises in his home town of Glasgow before then selling up and setting off to the United States on a Saltire Fellowship. It was there that he developed the model for Entrepreneurial Spark (or ESpark as it generally known), a “disruptive” business accelerator programme launched in 2012, when he was once again back at home in Glasgow.
That first “hatchery” has since grown to a network of three, with the likes of Lord Willie Haughey, Sir Tom Hunter and Ann Gloag supporting sites in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Edinburgh. To date, they have supported 350 firms whose combined turnover amounted to £41 million last year.
Despite the laudable numbers and rapid expansion, Duffy was getting itchy feet again last summer, and by July, he was drawing up plans to start up his own enterprise.
“I felt it [ESpark] had done its job, and it didn’t need me any more,” he says. “I thought maybe it was the right time to call it a day.”
What stopped him was a multi-million-pound partnership deal with Royal Bank of Scotland and its subsidiary, NatWest, which was announced in September and paves the way to opening eight new hatcheries within the next year and a half. The first, in Bristol, takes in its first 80 start-ups next month.
“It is a big shift,” Duffy says. “This is a brand new phase for me – I am going from ‘starting’ to ‘starting to scale’. My role is changing. It is going to become more strategic.”
That said, Duffy sees no shift in ESpark’s ethos, which has been carefully designed to avoid the cycle of “valuation-venture capital-valuation” that prevails in the US. ESpark takes no equity in its fledgling companies, a point of pride for its founder.
What it does do is put would-be entrepreneurs through a rigorous series of challenges over five months which are designed to ensure that those who emerge at the other end are capable of running a business with the potential to grow. The focus is upon developing individuals rather than specific business ideas, which Duffy says can be chopped and changed to suit the relevant market.
“We have got a methodology that is very different,” he says. “Most [business accelerators] talk about what they do and how they do it, but ESpark is about the ‘why’ for me.
“I want to enable and inspire change through entrepreneurial activity.”
The five-year expansion deal with RBS will see employee numbers at ESpark grow from 17 to 40, with the annual budget jumping from £600,000 to £2m. This includes plans for new annual awards night, with start-ups from across the UK vying for a piece of a £1m prize pot. The exact date and location has yet to be decided, though the first event will take place later this year.
International expansion remains a possibility further down the line, but at this point Duffy is giving little more away on those plans.
“The interesting thing is, people are coming to us from further afield,” he says. “There is interest out there, but my focus right now for the next 18 months is rolling out the eight new hatcheries.”
While conceding that entrepreneurs are “wired to grow”, Duffy insists that ESpark’s expansion is not merely growth for growth’s sake. The aim is to inspire as many people as possible to pursue their vision.
Published earlier this month, ESpark’s latest annual impact survey recorded more than 1,000 jobs created by the start-ups it has housed, almost double the 520 created in the first two years of the business incubator’s existence. Survival rates were said to be a “remarkable” 86 per cent.
And of course there is the money: investment secured by ESpark hatchlings shot up from £8m at the end of 2013 to more than £18m at the close of last year.
With further growth in the offing, Duffy is recruiting a board of directors, which will allow him to take a more strategic role in ESpark’s development. Against his “INTJ” nature, he is also working to become a bit more “statesman-like”.
“I have always been a lone wolf character,” he observes, “but I have realised that you cannot do things on your own.”
Born: Glasgow, July 1967.
Education: St Michael’s Academy, Kilwinning; St Andrew’s College of Education, Glasgow.
First job: Air steward with BA.
Ambition while at school: “My Primary 5 teacher told me I was ‘Instigator of All Things’ in my class.”
Car: BMW 3 Series
Prefered mode of transport: “I love the train. It gets there fast; there are not a great deal of stops. You can look out the window and think, or you can work.”
Can’t live without: “Good health, because I would be the worst patient in the world.”
What inspires you? “I don’t know what inspires me, but at the stage of life I am at right now, I believe we are creating something special, and that is important.”
What makes you angry: “Cliques, and people who play politics with things they don’t really know anything about. Politics ruins businesses.”
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