Nick Freer: From Skyscanner to Scottish Startup Survey

Having lost my job in Edinburgh in the wake of the last financial crisis, not long married and with a child on the way, in a city I had only relocated to a couple of years before, I started up my consultancy at very probably the worst possible time in recent history.

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'I've got a real soft spot for the tech start-up world,' writes Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood'I've got a real soft spot for the tech start-up world,' writes Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood
'I've got a real soft spot for the tech start-up world,' writes Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood

It took me six months to pick up my first bit of business, a law firm and former client from my time in London. Shuttling between Edinburgh and London became the pattern until I won my first bit of business in Scotland with a technology start-up company called Skyscanner.

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The whole process was a weird one because I was initially asked in to interview for a in-house PR job, but they told me fairly quickly I was not the candidate they were after – they wanted a consumer PR person, not someone who did corporate PR.

I got the senior director’s name wrong in the interview and generally put in a very sub-par performance. “Back to the drawing board,” I thought as I made a sharp exit from The Stamp Office in central Edinburgh – one of Skyscanner’s scattered office locations across the city before it moved to its current HQ at Quartermile.

I remember glancing around the office on the way out and seeing all these young people in jeans and T-shirts, many with beards, sitting chatting around funky looking furniture. Others were glued to screens or having conversations on their mobiles in a number of foreign languages. It was then I realised I had significantly overdressed for the interview – I might even have been wearing cufflinks – and felt rather embarrassed as I phoned my wife with some more bad news.

Anyway, it turned out well because they got back in touch a few weeks later to say they had been thinking about the ideas I had presented and wanted me to help make connections for them with the business and tech press in Scotland and London as their first external PR adviser. Skyscanner quickly became the calling card for me and my fledgling consultancy, and not long after I picked up, another start-up company with big ambitions and a great story to tell.

Since then, we’ve advised scores of startups, founders and other organisations that make up Scotland’s burgeoning tech ecosystem. While we work across many other industry sectors in Scotland – professional services, property, construction, digital media, food and drink, social enterprise – I’ve got a real soft spot for the tech start-up world. It’s so exciting and I’ve got to meet so many amazing founders. some with ideas that could even change the world.

Professor Harald Haas of pureLiFi and chair of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh comes into this category, and I’ll always remember when news of Apple testing pureLiFi’s technology went viral and journalists from across the globe were phoning me constantly for a week solid.

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Today, the inaugural Scottish Startup Survey launches, led by Informatics Ventures in association with the University of Edinburgh Business School and my own consultancy. Informatics Ventures and its EIE programme is a perfect fit for the survey because the Informatics team has been working with many of Scotland’s most promising start-ups – like FanDuel, Mallzee, pureLiFi, Two Big Ears, MindMate, Appointedd, and the list goes on into the hundreds – since 2008.

That gave us a captive audience for the survey and while there are Scottish start-ups who haven’t been through Informatics Ventures’ accelerator-type programme – Skyscanner and fancied future unicorn Administrate for example – it’s undoubtedly a strong sample and is representative of life on the coalface for a start-up based in Scotland in 2017.

Funding, Brexit, indyref2, target markets, key hires, characteristics of Scotland’s ecosystem, most inspirational tech leaders and the start-ups who could be our next unicorns are the main themes running through this year’s survey.

• Nick Freer is founding director of the Freer Consultancy