Jim Duffy: Searching for that spark of leadership

So in the week that Entrepreneurial Spark announced its #BlowYourMind17 Impact Report, I think it's time for Scotland to be congratulated on how it supports its new start and early stage businesses '“ with the caveat that things need to change.
'Let's not rest on our laurels,' urges Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth'Let's not rest on our laurels,' urges Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth
'Let's not rest on our laurels,' urges Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth

When Entrepreneurial Spark began in earnest in 2011, a well-known enterprise figure told me it was a “two bob jock accelerator” that essentially would wither and die on the vine. As an entrepreneur, this was, of course, a red flag to a bull and gave us all at ESpark even more impetus to succeed.

I recall in our first year, we did not even have one serious investment over £100,000 in any of the businesses under our roof. But, we were backed all the same as people in the economic support industry (and it is an industry) saw something different.

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I always tell early-stage entrepreneurs that whatever they do, they need to be demonstrably different in at least one facet of their business. So, Entrepreneurial Spark was most certainly different as it focused on one thing: the mindsets and behaviours of those in front of us who wanted to create something special. It is working with £151 million worth of investment now in the door.

I recall when Royal Bank of Scotland came to us with the offer to scale up across the UK. Gordon Merrylees – who should be applauded for creating a whole new entrepreneurship strategy within the whole of RBS – told me that Entrepreneurial Spark had been identified as special. Why? Well, unlike other support mechanisms that are out there, ESpark does not start with the premise that the “entrepreneur” sitting in front of it has all the wiring right in his/her head.

Instead of focusing on business plan templates and marketing downloads, ESpark focuses on what is happening in the synapses in the entrepreneur’s brain. Ladies and gentlemen, this is exactly where businesses are created and sustained – with well-enabled, rounded and competent business starters who want to be coached and skill up accordingly.

Of course, ESpark is just one cog in the wheel within the economic development industry in Scotland and the UK. But Scotland has a whole group of people that are employed and committed to supporting, incubating, accelerating and growing constant crops of new business builders.

And it’s not easy folks; albeit it’s terrific working with such positive people. Starting, funding, growing and potentially scaling a venture takes everything a person has got.

Moreover, it takes years. During those years, so much can happen personally and within the business. Business builders are human. Human stuff happens to them. Things like family, health and leaky roofs. So, that is why having a well structured, dynamic, full-service entrepreneurial ecosystem is paramount to getting more successes.

Is it all working well just now? No, it is not. Are some agencies and organisations defending territory that means they get public money in the door each year? Yes, they are. Should we be encouraging more privately funded initiatives like that of RBS’s powering of Entrepreneurial Spark? Yes, we should. However, all this aside, Scotland has a pretty comprehensive offering. Yet, somewhere in my gut, I get the feeling that it really needs more disruption to make it more relevant and effective.

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What I’ve seen is, it is hard for people in well-paid jobs in the public sector to break free of the pack, speak out and be a catalyst for change. Even when they know things are not right and could be drastically improved.

But, all it takes is one person in the leadership to create a new vision and hold up a mirror and the ship can change course. I think this is really needed right now. There is no doubt that Scotland has great economic development infrastructure, but it needs to want to get better. If you are doing the same old thing in three years’ time then that is not good enough.

Let’s not rest on our laurels but rather ensure we keep ourselves constantly totally relevant.

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark