John McLellan: Will start-ups match Scotsman’s staying power?

The Scotsman is celebrating its 200th year
The Scotsman is celebrating its 200th year
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Some of the newest start-ups in Scotland could do worse than learn from the brand values of this paper, writes John McLellan.

The evening was given added frisson by the claim that ex-first minster Alex Salmond was apparently fronting up a bid to buy the title, which sounds very like the product of dinner-table talk between journalists and their contacts over one bottle of claret too many.

But there is no doubting the power of its brand. Over its 200 years, The Scotsman has not only built a reputation for quality news and brilliant writing, but also as a technological innovator. It pioneered telegraph communication and at the turn of this century was leading the way with digital developments years before some Fleet Street titles even had websites. You could therefore argue that 200 years ago The Scotsman was not just a newspaper but the Georgian equivalent of a tech start-up.

Although today’s Scottish tech-based media ventures are not concerned with news, they are certainly communicators, and the achievements of digital wizards such as FanDuel and Skyscanner have been widely acclaimed as showing the way forward for the new Scottish economy. In the blink of an eye, the so-called “unicorns” have grown from small bases in Edinburgh to be worth more than $1 billion.

But like that other wizard, the curtain was pulled back a little last week with the revelation that FanDuel has never made a profit and is losing more than £20 million a month. Accounts just filed for the last six months of 2015 showed losses of £140m against revenues of £49m and a company statement confirmed losses had continued.

The company’s product – essentially the same concept as fantasy football but aimed at US markets and applied to baseball, basketball and American football – has run into difficulties with individual US states’ gambling laws and continues to function thanks to extended loans and investments on the basis that more states are accepting that fantasy games don’t break gambling rules.

Obviously it must be hoped that the legal hitches are being solved and the financial faith in the business will soon be repaid, otherwise confidence in what passes for a Scottish industrial strategy could be seriously undermined. Failure does not mean that investment in super-fast broadband and the creation of small, flexible business units should stop, but believing that great oaks will surely arise from little acorns nurtured in a well-connected digital environment needs real evidence of solid growth. Scotland has a long way to go in the ephemeral world of business in cyber space. Never mind its 200th birthday, let’s hope FanDuel has a 20th.

l John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society