Nick Freer comment: Start-ups hit all the right notes on the night

As the late, great Tom Petty sang on the third track of breakthrough 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes, 'even the losers get lucky sometime'.
Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart AttwoodNick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood

At the inaugural Scottish Startup Awards at Edinburgh’s Central Hall last week, among the winners on the night there was a rich vein of also-rans who are too good at what they do to not taste victory on another occasion. So, as the American singer-songwriter sings on Even The Losers, “keep a little bit of pride”.

Health-tech superstars Care Sourcer, start-up poster child Amiqus, Framewire’s Alisdair Gunn and angel syndicate Archangels were a few of the category winners on the night that, for me, was a triumph and refreshingly run more like a rock concert than a standard awards ceremony. If anything, poor acoustics which meant that only those people near the front could really hear what was going on added an extra frisson of excitement to proceedings.

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In my book, individuals like Freda O’Byrne should be celebrated at every opportunity and it was nice to see Freda recognised by the start-up awards for her contribution to the nation’s tech ecosystem despite being beaten to the post by Alisdair Gunn. Long before it was fashionable, never mind rated in educational circles, Freda founded Prewired as, in her own words, “an unstructured but supportive environment for under 19s to explore and learn about computer programming and related topics”. More impressive? O’Byrne got Prewired off the ground with zero external funding. Of course, one person cannot change the world and the Prewired team has benefited greatly from the support of CodeBase’s Community Manager, Oli Littlejohn, and others in more recent times.

Although CodeBase itself was not recognised at the awards, albeit the tech incubator’s first centre outside the capital, CodeBase Stirling, was nominated, it’s hard to argue that Scotland’s entire tech ecosystem would not have come on in the leaps and bounds that it has without the Jamie and Stephen Coleman-founded tech campus at Argyle House in Edinburgh. In fact, many of the start-up nominees last week are headquartered there. Although, being the humble team I know them to be, the CodeBase guys and gals are usually happier celebrating others’ achievements anyhow.

A couple of days after the awards, I was reminded by Cortex CEO and founder Peter Proud that not all start-ups desire or seek the kind of publicity that comes from industry awards. Proud’s talk, at Microsoft in Edinburgh titled “Start-up learnings – warts and all”, focused on his belief that start-ups need to “crawl, then walk before they can run”. In other words, founders should continually test their product and put solid corporate functions in place before they go to market. The key element according to Proud is when a fledgling technology company can start to generate “profitable cash”.

While many founders want to tell you about what they are going to do, Proud says he would rather tell people what he has done. Cortex is in the process of “flipping”, as Proud puts it, from a services company to a software company and with an impressive list of clients, primarily global corporations based outside the UK, Proud walks the talk. For now, he says, “we are happy to be a grouse in the grass”.

I for one would like to see Proud, who like many of the successful founders I’ve met surrounds himself with executive and non-executive talent of a high order, including in Cortex’s case former Archangels CEO John Waddell, feature at more Scottish tech events next year. Proud says to prioritise five main things you have to do in your company every quarter, and not more. One bit of advice he got from a conversation with the CEO of a US tech giant in the mid-2000s was around the most important attribute for corporate success – tenacity and a never give up mentality.

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