Nick Freer comment: Start-up spirit shines at Edinburgh summit

The seventh edition of Startup Summit took place in Edinburgh on Halloween last week, with Bruce Walker, Zoi Kantounatou and the FutureX team putting on a spookily good show. Walker, who created the concept of the summit as a schoolboy in Bridge of Allan, began proceedings at the Assembly Rooms by reminding the 1,000-strong audience that it's tough to be a start-up.

The importance of culture and brand was a key theme running through Startup Summit 2018, says Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood
The importance of culture and brand was a key theme running through Startup Summit 2018, says Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Walker and Kantounatou went on to outline Startup Summit’s primary aim: to help build Scotland’s start-up community and ecosystem into the kind of powerhouse it needs to be to compete on the global stage. There was another strong line-up of speakers this year, including former Skyscanner COO Mark Logan, founder Mike Welch, SurveyMonkey CMO Leela Srinivasan, Administrate CEO John Peebles, tech entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl and the co-founders of Scottish accounting software success story FreeAgent.

Leela Srinivasan, a Fife-rasied University of Edinburgh graduate who was an early employee at business networking giant LinkedIn, ran a spot survey on the attendees at Startup Summit which indicated that more than 40 per cent were founders, around 25 per cent were business leaders, with the remainder made up of advisers, students and academics. One thing Scotland’s tech ecosystem is arguably lacking is CMO expertise, so Srinivasan had a few nuggets of wisdom for the collective.

Srinivasan said the very best content marketing “puts the customer at the heart of the conversation” and that companies must “treat their customers right, because they become your community”. During her time at LinkedIn, Srinivasan brought 100 of the platform’s top users together to share experiences and better understand what they wanted from the product. In turn, the so-called “LinkedIn 100” became powerful evangelists for the brand.

The importance of culture and brand was a key theme running through this year’s event. Steffen Stauber, of Berlin-based, purpose-driven agency Create Meaning, identified values as central to start-up success. “As a founder, it’s your values to begin with and over time they should adjust to all the people in your business,” he said.

In a Q&A session on the main stage, Mark Logan, former COO at Skyscanner and now an adviser and non-executive on Scotland’s start-up scene, discussed activating values at scale, saying he believes “culture gives a foundation to win” and “cultural investment precedes financial success.”

Serial tech start-up investor Chris Neumann’s talk on artificial intelligence (AI) stated that “AI is the most significant tech advancement since the silicon chip” and heaped praise on University of Edinburgh alumnus Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called “godfather of deep learning”. Neumann noted that Silicon Valley now invests some 60 per cent of funds outside the Valley, as tech centres around the world grow and mature.

Chris van der Kuyl quizzed an international panel on Brexit and how we might be able find opportunities in the thicket of the significant challenges ahead. With the exception of the economic benefits around a weak sterling, the prognosis was not good; the three panelists from Ireland, Greece and Finland suggested they would probably not have located to Scotland had Brexit been in place at the time.

During a fireside chat, Mike Welch, chair of Full Circle Partners and start-ups including fashion site Atterley, recommended getting great advisers on board as soon as you can. “Surround yourself with people you admire and trust,” said Welch, who persuaded former Tesco chief Sir Terry Leahy and Kwik Fit Finance Director Graeme Bissett to join Blackcircles in the early days of the business.

FutureX knocked it out of the park again at Startup Summit 2018 and the team’s spirit of collaboration – exemplified by Dr Steve Ewing of EIE and Brian Corcoran of TuringFest being given prominent slots in this year’s programme – should also be applauded.

- Nick Freer is a founding director of the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners.