Searching for Scots tech scene’s next Skyscanner: Nick Freer business comment

I handled the Skyscanner press announcement around Mark Logan’s appointment as the travel search site’s chief operating officer in April 2012.

Nick Freer is the founding director of the Freer Consultancy. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer is the founding director of the Freer Consultancy. Picture: Stewart Attwood

At that time, Skyscanner was on a flight path to global domination and was in full on scale-up mode.

Six months previously, Skyscanner had opened its first international office in Singapore to capitalise on strong growth in Asia-Pacific and CEO Gareth Williams had stated his ambition for the fledgling venture he co-founded a decade before to become Scotland’s first billion dollar valued technology company. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

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Of course, a lot of water passed under the bridge over the following years and insiders agree that Logan played a key role in preparing the ground for Skyscanner to really take off. He helped the business become investor-ready ahead of Silicon Valley heavyweight Sequoia investing in 2013, crystalising that unicorn status.

In an interview with a national newspaper in 2018, Logan expressed his view that while Skyscanner may be unique, it is also replicable. He then tempered this remark by saying Scotland requires hundreds of good tech start-ups to grow one unicorn.

Last week, Logan’s Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, commissioned by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, was released to a considerable amount of acclaim across the Scottish tech scene. As one of the senior team from CodeBase tweeted out on the day, which seemed to capture the overall response to the report, “Brilliant to see a coherent narrative forming around the future of Scottish tech”.

The Logan Review states that Scotland’s technology ecosystem has still to pass through a “tipping point” in its development, “which is the point”, the report continues, “at which the ecosystem hosts a critical mass of viable startups and scale-ups”. Logan places emphasis on “Education and Talent”, “Infrastructure” and “Funding” and the report goes on to outline a detailed list of “interventions” which Logan says need to be implemented in their entirety unless we want to achieve what he describes as “incremental outcomes only”.

My own take on the report is that, most importantly, they picked someone with the right kind of credentials to undertake the review. When Skyscanner was sold to Ctrip for £1.4 billion in 2016, which was Scotland’s largest ever tech exit, Logan exited Skyscanner but decided to stick around and stay involved in the country’s tech ecosystem. He has founded a Glasgow-based programme to mentor software entrepreneurs, modelled on a Stanford University equivalent and advised a series of Scottish startups while going on to join a select number of their boards, including Care Sourcer and Swipii.

Investors looking for Scotland’s next unicorn will undoubtedly have paid close attention to the start-ups Logan has attached himself to. As outlined in the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, we are still some way off being able to say that we have a critical mass of Scotland-based start-ups who have a realistic chance to achieve global scale and it’s a belief that is echoed by a number of prominent VC firms I have been in touch with over the last 12 months.

In the year before Logan joined Skyscanner, the company had already reached a strong position on the revenue front, reporting top-line growth up 75 per cent to £15.2 million for 2010. That kind of yardstick applies to very few, if any, of the current crop of Scottish startups and scale-ups.

A well known UK tech reporter occasionally asks me who I think will be, as she puts it, Scotland’s next Skyscanner. My answer is usually pretty much the same – what I have heard from VC and angel investors in my network, who tech incubator CodeBase (the tech incubator supports around 400 companies who have raised over £600 million in investment) rate and start-ups I have got to know first-hand.

Do I believe we can produce another Skyscanner? For sure. Technology investment bank GP Bullhound’s co-founder and managing partner, Hugh Campbell, puts its best: “There are now more than 100 billion-dollar technology companies that have come out of Europe. As we become a more global society and economy, so the ambitions across continents have become more similar.”

- Nick Freer is the founding director of the Freer Consultancy

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