Nick Freer: Edinburgh's Turing Fest deserves a world stage

Turing Fest, self-described as 'Scotland's tech gathering', was at its biggest and best last week at the EICC in Edinburgh.

Nick Freer looks back on this year's Turing Fest. Picture: Contributed

Like the city’s own tech community, Turing is still relatively small compared to international equivalents like Berlin or Amsterdam but the two-day tech binge – predominantly around product, strategy and marketing in start-up world – is important, not least because great tech hubs need great tech festivals.

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Tech Open Air in Berlin and TheNextWeb in Amsterdam are larger scale annual tech festivals that hold up a mirror to all the amazing things going on in the tech ecosystems of those cities. Start-up founders mix with venture capitalists, the media and advisers – key moving parts of the ecosystem – and, this year, Turing Fest ticked all the right boxes.

Skyscanner chief Gareth Williams drew the crowds with his fireside chat. Picture: Skyscanner /PA Wire

Skyscanner CEO Gareth Williams led the ranks of Scottish start-up founders, along with the likes of Administrate CEO John Peebles and Cally Russell of Mallzee, while Scottish Equity Partners was in attendance along with BGF Ventures, the London VC firm that recently signed its first deal in Scotland when backing health tech start-up Care Sourcer.

Skyscanner, CodeBase and Silicon Valley Bank are among the group of supporters that make Turing Fest possible and, a lot like Informatics Ventures-run EIE, the great and good of Scotland’s tech scene were in attendance. If you weren’t there, you were most definitely square. Perhaps most encouraging, was the notable increase in international attendees and speakers this year.

One of my favourite interviews was with one of the senior product guys from New York-based Trello, an online management tool that was acquired earlier this year for near to half a billion dollars. Michael Pryor talked about building a product that “people love”, software being “more human”, the blurring of the lines between work and home life and how mobile development is following these trends.

Skyscanner chief Gareth Williams drew the crowds with his fireside chat. Picture: Skyscanner /PA Wire

Harry Briggs of BGF gave an illuminating talk from the perspective of a venture capitalist, centred around finding and backing talent and keeping in mind that people are as important as product. Briggs ran over some house research indicating that almost half of start-up founders feel highly stressed on a daily basis, mainly around raising funding and their own personal finances, 40 per cent suffer mental health issues but, in spite of this, almost 100 per cent of founders would do it all over again.

Sherry Coutu, author of the Scale-Up Report on UK Economic Growth in 2014, espoused “embedding yourself in the right network” and “recruiting people who have been there and done it before”; advisers who have “built systems that scaled”.

Unsurprisingly, Gareth Williams’ fireside chat drew the largest crowd of the day and the firebrand founder showed no lack of post-acquisition ambition by stating his aim for Skyscanner to become one hundred times larger than it is today and the most trusted travel brand on the planet. Quoting North American writer William Gibson, the Skyscanner CEO said the “future is already here” and it is very probably on the east coast of China when it comes to software development.

A somewhat lesser attended talk by David Freer of O Street, the design studio in Glasgow that counts Spotify and Google as clients, was rather good too… and not just because he happens to be one of my younger brothers. O Street was the lead designer of the mackerel and midge embossed RBS £5 notes released this year and design skills are increasingly sought after in the tech world.

It turns out that younger brothers can sometimes outdrink their elder siblings, so I left David with a set of keys to the flat and pointed him in the direction of John Peebles at the Mash House afterparty so they could talk US office openings. Administrate opened its first US office in Montana last year and O Street open shop in Boulder, Colorado in 2018.

• Nick Freer is founding director of the Freer Consultancy