Munros and moguls: the twin peaks of the Scottish tech boom

Scotland is attracting top tech talent, and it's easy to understand why, writes Nick Freer. Here he reflects on EIE17 and quizzes RockSpace founder Duncan Logan, from Fife, for his start-up tips for those thinking of joining the success trail.
From farming in Fife to one of the biggest start-up entrepreneurs on the world stage, Duncan Logan gave a unique insight into Scotland's success story.From farming in Fife to one of the biggest start-up entrepreneurs on the world stage, Duncan Logan gave a unique insight into Scotland's success story.
From farming in Fife to one of the biggest start-up entrepreneurs on the world stage, Duncan Logan gave a unique insight into Scotland's success story.

Walking into the early summer sunshine during one of the coffee breaks at EIE17 with the Edinburgh International Conference Centre's CEO, Marshall Dallas, I bumped into Gareth Williams of Skyscanner. Dressed down in his usual style, with a hoodie tied round his waist, Gareth looks as much like one of his army of developers than the CEO and co-founder of Scotland’s most successful tech start-up.

The night before, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia and with actual sunshine on Leith, many of the UK and international investors for whom EIE (Engage Invest Exploit) is aimed traded stories about the tech start-ups they are backing this year, the ones that have come off in recent times and the ones that got away.

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Spotting Catherine Simpson, a partner from Scottish Equity Partners and the first VC to invest in Skyscanner in 2007, I make sure to introduce her to the reporter I’m looking after from international media outlet Forbes, who has made the trip to Edinburgh to see what “all the fuss is about” when it comes to the Scottish tech scene.

Later that evening, over a few drams at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street, the Forbes reporter, Entrepreneurial Scotland chairman Chris van der Kuyl and I chew the fat into the night and the journalist stops to take a look out at the fading afterglow across the Firth of Forth in Fife. “What an amazing sight”, he says, “what an amazing place you get to live and work in.”

Only last week, I met a senior Facebook executive who is desperate to get out of London and set up shop and home in Edinburgh. He thinks many of his colleagues will follow, developers and executives, some with young families, who crave a lifestyle not possible in a sprawling metropolis.

So let’s not pretend. Something big is brewing here in Scotland when it comes to tech. Collectively, we are doing something right. Companies like Skyscanner and its CEO-founder, VCs like Scottish Equity Partners, individuals like Chris van der Kuyl and entrepreneur support programmes like Informatics Ventures play prominent roles in the narrative that continues to grow.

But perhaps it is Scotland itself and its great cities like Edinburgh that is the real difference-maker in allowing such a promising tech scene to flourish. If you work at Rockstar North, developers of Grand Theft Auto, you can be running or climbing up a former volcanic mountain within minutes. Within half an hour by car or bike there is great surfing near the city on the East Lothian coast and some of the world’s best mountain bike trails.

From Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the West Highlands are within easy striking distance. Scotland’s two main cities have international airports within 40 miles of each other and skilled workforces and graduates from some of the best universities on the planet.

We are blessed with enterprise agencies who have relatively deep pockets to help with the grants, funding and support that can be the lifeblood for early stage technology companies and a sophisticated angel network.

Like a lightning conductor, EIE17 at the EICC on Thursday, 12 May, felt like a focal point for all of the above and that’s before getting on to the pitching companies on the day.

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A “values-driven start-up” called Amiqus that aims to democratise civil justice won the pitch of the day, app developer MindMate fighting the great fight against Alzheimer’s and dementia, a start-up building and launching satellites into space and many more were on show. Some of the pitches were nothing short of spellbinding.

Watching on were tech and business luminaries from Scotland, the UK and Silicon Valley. Keynote speakers Duncan Logan of RocketSpace, Steve Jurvetson of DFJ, Aberdeen Asset Management CEO Martin Gilbert and Scottish Enterprise chairman Bob Keiller gave priceless perspectives on their own entrepreneurial journeys - talks that will live on for many a year for those who were lucky enough to be in attendance.

Duncan Logan, Fife-born CEO and founder of wildly successful tech campus RocketSpace in San Francisco, was most certainly one of those talks for the ages. Logan’s wisdom has in no small part been formed by seeing more than 1,000 start-ups come through RocketSpace with 18 of those achieving billion-dollar or so-called unicorn valuations.

There are so many takeaways from Logan’s fireside chat at EIE17, but the strong mettle required by tech founders and the ability they must have to dust themselves down and persevere through failure is something we perhaps need to build more into our own psyche in Scotland.

In the US, Logan points to the 90 per cent of first-time founders who fail. Of that 90 per cent, 80 per cent don’t try to found a second company but for the small percentage who do get up and start again 90 per cent succeed second time around.

Other words of wisdom from the RocketSpace founder on what often translates to entrepreneurial success: founders who can create a “cult mentality”; leaders who will walk through walls to succeed; “think big, go at speed and lean forward on the skis”; “get to the US, get to China”; "if you want to create a big company, you build the team and let the team build the company.”

So how did Duncan Logan make the switch from agriculture to banking and then the rarefied tech air of Silicon Valley? “I was on the trading floor and realised that I was going to be replaced by a computer one day so I decided to learn about computers.”

*Nick Freer is the founding director of media advisory firm the Freer Consultancy and an advisor to Informatics Ventures