Tech 100: 'Tech start-ups have same vision and expertise as those in the Valley... and can build that from Scotland'
Alisdair Gunn, director and founder of Framewire, on taking Scotland forward into a brave, new digital world
Alisdair Gunn often opens conversations with the founders of tech start-ups by telling them he’s there to make them a millionaire.
That doesn't always happen, he acknowledges, although one imagines eyes widen as those first few words are uttered. “A lot of the companies I work with don’t realise they can be or are,” says Gunn.
In those initial exchanges the former director of Interactive Scotland, a Scottish Enterprise service set up to support small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across the digital media sector, typically picks up on a desire of firms to be located in Silicon Valley.
It isn’t surprising to an individual who spent six years working for Hewlett-Packard, “the first tech start-up” which started out of a garage in California in 1938 alongside contemporaries in the region.
“We’re now in the tech start-up era and what I would say to all tech start-ups is that you have equally the same vision and expertise as an equivalent company in the Valley, and you can build that from Scotland,” says Gunn. “There is nothing to stop you from doing that as we have the best public-funded support networks to start a business.”
Five months ago he founded Framewire, a consulting practice focused on the digital tech sector, more specifically public and private sector organisations as well as tech start-ups. “Trusted, market-focused support” on how to generate revenue from digital services and gain insight on and access to the latest innovations is what’s on offer, says Gunn, who spent the three-and-a-half years beforehand working for PA Consulting Group and has built up a strong global contacts book.
Bridging connections between the three client groups insofar as sitting SMEs around the table with public and corporate bodies forms part of what he has set out to provide. “Many public bodies procure a range of digital services from international businesses and have recognised that some of the latest service innovations are developed by tech start-ups,” he adds.
“We have been contracted to provide direct access to a range of digital tech SMEs who can design and develop great products, but at the same time we qualify whether they have the capacity, capability and longevity to work with a public body.”
Work is currently under way with Scottish Development International looking at international markets and the demands facing leading tech firms with a view to bringing Scottish SMEs into the fold. A global financial services company based in Scotland has also asked his practice to map out the Fintech sector as they attempt to tap into the latest consumer-driven innovation.
As far as the tech start-up scene is concerned, accessing new customers remains the main issue according to Gunn. Traditionally the tendency has been to focus on funding and investment. “In the last five years, entrepreneurship in Scotland has gained momentum including the creation of new support programmes,” he says.
“But equally we need to move the focus of advice towards generating sales and trading internationally. It would be good to see a shift towards holding events that celebrate digital tech companies generating revenue rather than just investment and funding.”
Questions around international trade have undoubtedly been framed by recent political events, namely Brexit and whatever shape it might take.
The first survey of tech start-ups following June’s vote to leave the European Union found nearly three quarters believe the business environment may get worse, with 85 per cent of respondents wanting the UK Government to negotiate to remain part of the European single market. That said, the Tech City UK survey of 1,205 people – 60 per cent of which were company founders or CEOs – found just under a quarter expect to scale back their planned growth ambitions.
“What I would say is we don’t have enough Scottish companies selling their goods internationally over digital commerce platforms,” says Gunn. “Irrespective of Brexit we still have to trade overseas and really sell the services we’re delivering.
"A positive element for Scotland is that the development of our economy is a devolved matter. I don’t see Brexit being an issue because companies have to sell to survive. The question I would be looking at instead is, ‘Are they selling enough internationally prior to it?”
While less than one-third of respondents to the Tech City UK survey published in July said they were likely to slow down hiring, the biggest issue for companies was the hiring and retention of non-UK staff.
“For a vibrant digital, technology and creative sector to grow, we need more high value companies to be created and located in Scotland,” says Gunn. “This simply requires a flow and supply of the right talent to create and grow businesses.
“We don’t know what the final shape of the Brexit deal will be. We just need get our heads up and get on with job of building our businesses. Even before the vote many companies were challenged with a skills shortage. We need to continue to be creative and resource through other channels like collaboration and outsourcing.”
Putting the political realities of the day to one side, Gunn reckons 2017 will see artificial intelligence and machine learning emerge as the major talking point. Evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), with a focus on the industrial and automotive markets, will also feature, he says, raising the prospect of moving beyond the pilot or prototype projects that have tended to dominate up till now.
When it comes to the public sector, though, certain large-scale public sector IT projects have encountered trouble over the last few years – the Common Agricultural Policy Futures Programme and NHS 24’s Future Programme to name but two. Even so, Gunn believes the sector is leading in a lot of areas in terms of moving towards digital services.
“In fact, the public sector is ahead of the financial services sector when it comes to focusing in on digital,” he adds, crediting the Government Digital Service with laying down a creative process for the design and transformation of digital services that others are now relying upon.
“The public sector is doing a good job and to say otherwise is a bit harsh,” adds Gunn. “I know digital skills remains a bit of challenge within the public and private sectors but I think the private sector could do with contributing a bit more into supporting the public sector when it comes to digital skills programmes.”
An initiative such as a skills endowment fund is what he would advocate, allowing employers of those who have passed through various publicly funded digital skills programmes to give something back.
“If there is a bit of investment that can be put back into the public sector from the private sector, it’s the creation of a skills endowment fund that can grow over time and provide a legacy,” says Gunn, who co-founded the annual Turing Festival in Edinburgh. “This would reduce a reliance on public funds.
“If you think about Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, created from the profits from the sale of oil, if a contribution was made to a digital skills fund from having recruited a student from one of these courses, over time the contributions would help reduce the reliance on public funding to support digital skills development. It could even help to fund new tech start-ups and be accessible to all communities.”
After all, Scotland is “excellent at creating digital tech talent” as far as Gunn is concerned. “I know a lot of people believe our talent isn’t retained in Scotland, however we now work in a virtual world,” he adds. “Allowing our technical and science qualified talent to work internationally allows us to seed our talent into other companies.
“However, we should be following the journey of all our tech alumni, not just an exclusive group of leaders. I think you would be quite surprised as to the level of Scottish educated expertise that is developing our leading global tech companies.
"Just look at John Giannandrea, educated at Strathclyde University and is now Google’s head of search. We are doing pretty well.”
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