Edinburgh may be a relatively compact city but what it lacks in scale it makes up for in depth of talent, excellent transport links, an enviable quality of life and all-round ingenuity – factors essential for a fruitful and prosperous tech scene.
It’s no surprise then that European Business Magazine recently voted Edinburgh as the best place to set up a tech business in Europe. What’s more, the capital was named British Entrepreneurial City of the Year at the esteemed Great British Entrepreneur Awards in November, beating Cambridge, Leeds, London and Manchester to the top spot. These are just two of several accolades the capital has received in recognition of its burgeoning tech industry and the ecosystem that supports and facilitates it.
At the centre of the city’s tech boom is Informatics Ventures, a pan-Scotland programme operating out of the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh that aims to connect, educate and support tech entrepreneurs and start-ups. Established in 2008, it brings young entrepreneurs together with investors in order to help them secure the investment they need, ultimately allowing them to grow and expand in scale.
Informatics Ventures’ Director of Operations, Dr Steve Ewing, says that they were at the “genesis” of the tech scene in Edinburgh in 2008. So what are the biggest changes he has seen over the last ten years? “The ecosystem has become much richer and we’ve seen companies develop and grow considerably from very small beginnings. A case in point is Hubdub, which pitched at the first of our Engage Invest Exploit (EIE) investor conferences in 2008 and then went on to become FanDuel.
“It’s a virtuous circle whereby the stronger Edinburgh becomes as a tech scene, the more attractive it is for tech entrepreneurs to base themselves here” Dr Steve Ewing of Informatics Ventures
“The ecosystem is also much more engaged; companies mutually support one another and there are many other organisations now in existence which we complement, such as Converge Challenge, Scottish EDGE, Entrepreneurial Scotland, the Scottish Business Network … and several more! There’s a more dynamic environment too: experienced entrepreneurs are returning to Scotland and getting involved in what is a very open and cooperative tech scene.”
Steve now believes that the city is on the cusp of something spectacular: “We have built critical mass over the last ten years and it’s going to really take off in a big way in the next ten. It’s a virtuous circle whereby the stronger Edinburgh becomes as a tech scene, the more attractive it is for tech entrepreneurs to base themselves here.”
Capital and a wealth of talent have built this city, while Edinburgh Airport’s increasing international connections and the city’s cost-effectiveness compared to London have helped in transforming the capital into an entrepreneurial hub. Yet, there are still further enhancements that can be made, says Steve: “There are a limited number of venture capitalists here so we ideally need to see more investors, either inwardly investing into Scotland or establishing presences here. We do interact and engage with international investors and those based in London but they are currently more likely to invest in companies that are on their doorstep.
“What we would like to see in the future is companies like Appointedd, Mallzee and Administrate continuing to grow and develop and scale like Skyscanner and FanDuel in terms of revenue and the number of employees.”
As Steve mentions, Mallzee and Administrate are two of the city’s fastest growing tech companies. We now hear from Mallzee’s founder and CEO, Cally Russell, and Chief of Administrate, John Peebles, about why the companies were established in Edinburgh and how they think the city can continue to be a magnet for tech start-ups.
When a small training company in the Highlands couldn’t find an online product to help them manage their operations, they decided to build their own. The product soon caught on with other training companies and Administrate was born. The company was spun out and moved to Edinburgh to access new talent.
How would you describe the business’s mission?
Our goal is to reduce and automate administration work as much as possible for educators and trainers so they can focus more time on their students, updating their content and getting the word out there about what they do.
When did you join the business?
I was working in the US at another tech firm when I heard that Edinburgh was a source of really great developer talent. We looked at opening an office here; it didn’t work out for a number of reasons but through that process I learned more about the city and its ecosystem. The opportunity with Administrate came up and I moved here in 2011. It was a great fit as my father ran a training company and my mum and sister were schoolteachers so I knew the challenges that those delivering education face.
How has being part of an incubator like CodeBase helped Administrate?
It is a fantastic magnet point. A lot of tech companies are clustered in CodeBase and to be able to see other founders on a regular basis is valuable. Another point is that when you enter a high growth scenario, you really need flexibility. For example, it’s often difficult to forecast how much office space you will need. At CodeBase, we play what is known as ‘company tetris’: a small company will move to a different floor and a bigger company will push out.
What other benefits does Edinburgh have for tech start-ups?
In order to have an attractive environment for start-ups you need access to good talent and there are a number of universities in the city limits. You also need a vibrant investment community and Edinburgh has local angel syndicates that can help in the early stages. I think London is the only place in Europe that could hold a candle to Edinburgh but the fact that there have been a couple of big success stories here including Skyscanner dispels any fear that we are not in the right place.
How can Edinburgh continue to be a magnet for tech start-ups?
We have challenged other founders to take a pledge and donate 30 minutes of their time each week to helping start-ups. Going forward, we need to be more mindful about giving back to the community. Most local entrepreneurs are first-timers but as Edinburgh continues to become a hotbed of activity we need to focus on donating our time to people who are behind us in the journey.
Find out more at getadministrate.com
Dubbed the ‘tinder for fashion’, Mallzee was founded in early 2013 by 28-year-old Cally Russell who spotted an opportunity to ‘fix’ the broken experience of shopping on mobile. Mallzee is now the leading personalised shopping app, helping users to shop, save and buy clothes, accessories and shoes from over 200 high street retailers all in one handy location.
What inspired you to launch the business?
I was trying to find a pair of black jeans and felt that there was something broken with the process – you had to enter each different retailer’s site separately and were then faced with hundreds of products to choose from. Just because you can have all these products and have the ability to showcase them doesn’t make the shopping process any easier for the consumer.
How does Mallzee help users?
Mallzee makes shopping fun and helps users save time and money via fully personalised custom feeds (based on previous swiped likes) and price drop notifications when an item previously ‘liked’ drops in price. Mallzee also offers data insight packages to partner retailers showing how their products are being engaged with in real time.
Why did you decide to set up your business in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh combines a great quality of life, fantastic transport links, amazing views and great people – why would you go anywhere else?
What makes Edinburgh such a great place for tech start-ups?
Our universities are producing some of the best tech graduates so there is a readily available and talented workforce, good transport links, and the fact that we have a vibrant and thriving tech ecosystem – from established corporates to our ‘unicorns’ Skyscanner and FanDuel to younger high-growth start-ups. Mix this in with a growing mindset of optimism and it makes for a great place to start a business.
How can Edinburgh continue to be a magnet for tech start-ups?
The one area where Edinburgh could still improve is in access to finance and investment. There are some great investors here but there is a gap at a certain range which needs to be filled to ensure companies can achieve their goals. In terms of retaining digital talent, I think the more universities and start-ups work together, the better for everyone involved.
What would be your advice to start-ups in Scotland today?
Think big and go for it; the most successful start-ups believe that anything is possible and aim to change the world or shape an industry. You need to go all in…