The Edinburgh tech scene has come on in leaps and bounds in the 12 years since I decided to leave Scotland to help my startup, Elgg, survive. Back then there was no support, and a persistent negative attitude towards anyone who was trying to build something for themselves. I heard “it’ll never work” a hundred times, and saw it in peoples’ faces a thousand. When we tried to engage the university, they told us that social media was for “teenage girls crying in their bedrooms”.
Perhaps understandably, I was glad to leave. Elgg now powers the intranets for the governments of three nations, as well as Fortune 500 companies and thousands of other private networks. I left in 2009 and the platform is doing just fine without me.
These days, Edinburgh is a very different ecosystem. It’s genuinely impressive that Skyscanner and FanDuel have hit valuations of over a billion dollars. Here’s my observation: those companies are outward-facing. While they’re taking advantage of the benefits of living in Scotland, they’re not trying to sell to Scotland; their Scottishness is incidental. They understand that to be a real internet company, you have to identify a market and address it meaningfully. In an age where almost half the world’s population is connected to each other, you have to be able to think globally. Honestly, I think Edinburgh still thinks too much about Edinburgh.
Addressing a problem meaningfully at scale requires a shift in thinking. You have to deeply understand the people you’re solving a problem for, and address their unspoken needs on their terms.
You’re absolutely right to say that every part of the business has to be geared towards growth. Building an internet business is not about product; product serves the greater business mission. That’s never been clearer to me than it is right now, sitting in a San Francisco startup office with engineers, designers, product managers, marketers, copywriters, strategists, salespeople and more all pulling together as a team to build a business together.
Part of the problem is education. Here in the Bay, we’re swimming in companies, and it’s understood that the story being conveyed by a tech giant is not the underlying truth. The beautiful design of a new tech darling may be the first thing we notice, but it wouldn’t be possible without a team behind the scenes making deals, testing, selling, obsessively monitoring data and creating processes for success. Crucially, the ideal of a couple of hackers getting together to build something and making a billion dollars is (more or less) a lie. Tech is an industry, not an arts field. From a distance, that truth becomes less obvious.
Funding has always been an issue in Scotland. This is an opportunity to differentiate, and isn’t something to worry about. Even here, bootstrapping is gaining traction. Check out Indie.vc. There are other ways to succeed. Investment shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for stoking a tech ecosystem.
Scottish salaries certainly hurt your ability to hire outside talent. Google tells me that a developer can expect to make £30K — that’s around a third of what a Silicon Valley engineer will bring in. (Of course, what’s not factored into that calculation is the difference in cost of living. Update: Kate Ho, a PM in Edinburgh, says it’s more like £45K). The money matters: in San Francisco, British people, lured away from even London by more money and better weather, are everywhere.
The good news is that the University of Edinburgh, and many of the surrounding institutions, are some of the best CS and AI schools in the world; the task is convincing people to stay. Sure, a high standard of living helps, but better yet is having great career prospects. This is yet another thing that marketing will help with: having a world-class startup brand on your CV never hurts. Having an ecosystem full of them becomes exciting. Again, that means looking outward. Not just by marketing, but by using business thinking on a global scale.
I love Edinburgh for many things, and have lived there twice. I think about it often, and I might live there again. But it can be very parochial, and if there’s one thing the internet is about, it’s making networks and reaching out.