Scotland needs more Mark Logans, not unicorns
Kate Forbes and the Scottish Government recently commissioned Mark Logan to conduct a review of the Scottish tech sector and its role in the post-pandemic economy. The ex-Skyscanner COO was the perfect candidate to examine our tech ecosystem, given his experience and well-earned reputation among the Scottish tech community.
The Logan review made some incredibly well-considered proposals for helping Scotland’s tech ecosystem to thrive, a good mix of ambition and pragmatism. Refreshingly, the report focused on education, infrastructure and community. The review calls for computer science to be elevated within education, ensuring it was on a par with maths, science and English. Mark Logan also champions new incentives for universities to develop more software engineers, for more tech communities across the country, and better access to funding.
However, for all the good in the report, I wish we could move past the language of 'unicorns' (£1bn+ businesses) and stop chasing this as the ultimate outcome. The review does make the point that non-unicorns are important too, but achieving this status is frequently presented as the end goal.
We may want Scotland to nurture its own Google, Facebook or Microsoft, but measuring success in terms of whether a business is in the 0.00001 per cent of revenue generators is setting businesses up to fail. If this is our mindset, we risk ignoring or undermining all the great tech success stories that are not the right size or shape – yet contribute greatly to the economy.
The reality is that we need to focus on finding and engaging more Mark Logans, not unicorns. If Scotland can prioritise tech education and nurture potential tech industry leaders (as Mark does also suggest), the creation of sustainable and profitable businesses and a more valuable technology ecosystem will follow.
The primary issue with chasing unicorns is that companies are forced to choose too early in their journey into taking this path. This means they raise money early and scale too quickly without the proper leadership and business fundamentals. In the world of tech startups IPOs and big funding announcements are both glamorized and normalised. We condition business founders to see VC funding as an end goal – rather than a tool for them to create successful, functional businesses. This dynamic can also create businesses that are propped up by venture capital funding in order to scale, which don’t ever become viable businesses. This hurts all the angels that helped them get started, and disincentivises angel investment in the first place
For me, a better measure of success would be to see more companies reach 100+ people. This marker is an extremely positive sign that we have organisations that can scale and grow in the internet economy, as well as the leaders to get them there. I would rather this was given more attention in future reports, moving away from venture funding and billion dollar valuations being seen as the holy grail of economic technology growth.
I wholeheartedly agree with the reports numerous proposals on education, especially that Scotland should reconsider the standing of computer science in schools. It is currently a subject that some schools spotlight while others do not (or cannot), and the divide risks growing larger not smaller.
Given its importance to future careers in almost every industry, Scotland would benefit greatly from more consistency in computer science teaching nationwide. This means teaching it from a younger age, giving it the same focus as science and maths, and more extra-curricular support.
As for further education, the Logan review rightly points to the need for extra incentives for universities to produce more tech talent, specifically software engineers. Although Scotland is already home to some of the best universities in the UK for STEM subjects, there is still a huge skills gap in the workforce that will only be fixed if we produce more tech talent. This would all contribute to what I believe should be Scotland’s main tech aim, to produce and support more tech leaders capable of creating the next Skyscanner. The alternative being to focus efforts working the other way, answering the question “how do we create the next Skyscanner”.
I’d also like to see our universities funded to employ more “entrepreneurs in residence”, bringing in talent from the global market for guest lectures and seminars. I believe the funnel should work in reverse too, meaning people who have already achieved success giving back to those just starting their journey in tech. We need more people like Mark Logan and Gareth Williams to become the educators and the mentors we’re badly missing at the moment.
The technology ecosystem in Scotland is thriving, and its importance to the economy cannot be overstated. When attending tech events, there’s always a Scottish presence, no matter where I am in the world. We punch above our weight on the global stage but we need to take the steps suggested in this review to ensure the sector continues to flourish. We must develop the tech skills and the tech leaders that every country needs. They will be responsible for building Scotland’s top tech businesses of the future, creating jobs and supporting the economy along the way. Whether they are unicorns or smaller beasts, both play an important role.
Colin Hewitt is CEO and founder of accounting software company Float