Firms aim to be third Scots giant in Unicorn hunt

SCOTLAND’S digital technologies industry has been hit by unicorn fever.
Edinburgh-based Skyscanner was the first to achieve unicorn status. Picture: Ian RutherfordEdinburgh-based Skyscanner was the first to achieve unicorn status. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Edinburgh-based Skyscanner was the first to achieve unicorn status. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Not the mythical beast but the title given to the special breed of start-up whose valuation has exceeded $1 billion. It’s an elite club that includes the likes of Uber and Snapchat, and our small country is now home to two of them.

Edinburgh-based flight comparison site Skyscanner was the first to achieve unicorn status in late 2014 and fantasy gaming business FanDuel soon followed suit. Their success is phenomenal and has attracted considerable media coverage, putting our tech scene on the map like never before.

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With the spotlight on Scotland and its proven ability to incubate high growth companies, there is no shortage of ambitious start-ups who are hoping that some of the stardust will rub off on them too.

Among these hopefuls, we have two to three dozen firms employing at least 80 people with their eye on becoming unicorn number three.

Current interest in Scotland will hopefully attract welcome inward investment but money alone is not enough to ensure our smaller companies reach their full potential. Indeed, there are lessons to be learned from Skyscanner and FanDuel about the other ingredients involved in becoming world class.

The first of these is the importance of an international outlook. Our 2015 Technology Industry Survey found that many Scottish tech firms generate overseas sales, but there is plenty of room to increase our exports.

Start-ups also need people with outstanding management and marketing skills if they are to scale their business strategically and successfully. Having a great idea and building a product is one things but selling it to the world is another. Executive education is crucial and events like today’s ScotSoft conference can make a real difference by inviting the audience to escape their inbox and daily stresses to think about the bigger picture.

Scotland has proved it can hold its own on the global technology stage but we must make sure that the companies of the future are equipped to repeat this success over and again.

• Polly Purvis is chief executive of ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital technologies industry in Scotland. ScotSoft 2015 takes place today in Edinburgh.