‘Scotland needs to grab this man’s attention’


In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt in February following a ‘Townhall Q&A’ meeting in Berlin, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg discussed his views on tech startup capitals, in particular how Berlin stacked up against Silicon Valley.

Zuckerberg referred to US publication Business Insider which rates Berlin as the 9th-ranked hub for startups and Montreal in 20th place (there are only 20 startup cities listed) just ahead of Amsterdam in The Netherlands and London coming in at 6th, in what is unsurprisingly a North America-weighted league table. It kind of begs the question how our fast-growing startup capital, that is Edinburgh, matches up. Back of the fag packet workings complete, a few thoughts on the subject…

At last count, Montreal has no billion dollar valued tech companies. We have two; Skyscanner and FanDuel. The one million plus person metropolis that spreads out beneath Mont Royal in Quebec has highly-rated informatics and business schools although Edinburgh’s School of Informatics is streets ahead in 5th place globally. So, on these measures, Edinburgh can’t be too far off the top-twenty as a tech hub – a similar spot to where the University of Edinburgh ranks in world terms. Happy days then right? Not entirely, because unlike Montreal we’re not likely to see Scotland’s capital up in the firmament of global tech hubs as reported on by international media outlets. I’ll come back to this point shortly.

Back to Zuckerburg. He says a big factor in Silicon Valley’s success is the foundation of chip companies that came before the Apples and Googles; the thinking being this foundation of technology groups produced the best possible environment for startups – an environment rich in tech skills, people talent and smart money to help fuel rapid growth. No arguments here. Back to the fag packet – didn’t we produce a global leader in chip manufacturing in the form of Wolfson Electronics? We did. Some of the tech know-how from that company transferred skills in the form of people and money into the next wave of Scottish technology companies, like Skyscanner. This shows we had the foundation of technology companies that Zuckerberg talks about and this foundation has helped the ecosystem to evolve and thrive.

So why doesn’t Edinburgh get listed in these kind of rankings? The first thing would seem to be that we’re relying on a primarily US-centric media to report on our tech scene to gain truly international profile and in spite of the successes of Skyscanner and FanDuel, we’re not as firm a fixture on the international map with tech journalists as we should be. I know about this first hand because I spent months, literally months, emailing and phoning London and then US news outlets trying to ‘sell in’ Skyscanner as a story several years ago, then University of Edinburgh spin-out pureLiFi in more recent times, before either company was that well known outside of Scotland.

Having said that, The Next Web’s UK editor attended EIE14 and revered tech news outlet Venture Beat is in attendance at EIE16 – small, but significant victories on the press front. The role of our own media in Scotland, including one of EIE16’s media partners, The Scotsman, should not be underestimated either when you consider their not inconsiderable international readership.

“There’s a lot of happy-clappy stuff going on – but it’s mainly coming from ourselves”

Selling or marketing, whatever you want to call it, can be hard when you have to knock on the door a hundred or even a thousand times before anyone wants to listen. We need to sell our tech scene harder to the rest of the world, sell it harder to the places that matter – the US, Asia and Europe. Why? Because everyone else is and they’re selling hard, really hard. We’ve now got some great success stories to sell but we’ve got to get them told in more of the right places. That might be an annual tech festival in Texas, an international media conference in Amsterdam, London or New York or an investor gathering in Shenzhen. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

I’m not saying we’re not trying hard, whether it’s the enterprise agencies or the private sector there are now a number of excellent initiatives happening – not least Informatics Ventures and EIE – but we need to have more of the very best people – the people that have been there and done it – leading the charge in foreign fields. We need to be more clever by doing a ton of market research on how we get Scotland’s tech brand to hit the right spots.

If that means having a giant, inflatable whisky bottle hanging over a stand that has people from Skyscanner, FanDuel and the Informatics school standing underneath, Mogwai strumming their tunes or Calvin Harris spinning them, BrewDog beers in an oversized ice bucket and Banchory-born Mashable founder, Pete Cashmore, as guest of honour drawing in the crowds then let’s do that. And okay, that’s back of the packet (last use of term) marketing but there are brilliant marketing people in Scotland that could be brought in to add real expertise to an admittedly crude sketch.

It’s not that we’re not doing some of the right things, just not enough of them. I guess I’m making a case for a bit more collaboration from the people that could really make a difference to the future success of Scottish tech. I reckon we are going to need public and private money and support to begin with. I think we need to rip up the plans (although I’m not really convinced we have that many plans in the first place) and bring cutting edge talent to the table – founders, academics, marketers, investors and government – and get a real and accountable plan of action on the go.

There’s a lot of happy-clappy stuff going on at the moment when it comes to Scotland’s tech scene but it’s mainly coming from ourselves – and I’m a big proponent so hardly guilt free – when what we really need is the rest of the world talking about us and how great we are when it comes to tech. So it’s time we shook it up a bit and make sure we’re not resting too much on our nicely woven laurels. Has anyone had a word with Mark Zuckerburg to see that he thinks about all of this? You know what, there would be worse places to start from than that.

Nick Freer is managing director and founder of the Freer Consultancy @freerconsults