UK: Scotland Can Follow Seattle’s Example As A World Leader In Business
Last Updated: 6 December 2017

By Ian Ritchie, founder of Office Workstations Limited, investor, mentor, and business angel

Every year, Deloitte celebrates the UK's fastest growing companies in the firm's Fast 50 awards. With the competition reaching its 20th anniversary, some of its most iconic Scottish entrepreneurs relive their experiences and share advice with those looking to start out today. In the first of the series, Ian Ritchie, founder of Office Workstations Limited, and now an investor, mentor, and business angel offers his thoughts.

Scotland's entrepreneur and tech scenes have been absolutely transformed over the past 20 years or so. When I set up Office Workstations Limited (OWL) in 1984, entrepreneurism was a relatively new concept, emerging with the liberalisation of the economy in the 1980s and beginnings of venture and other forms of risk capital. There was little for us to build on, so we did a lot of it ourselves – in many cases, we were winging it. 

Still, despite a solid entrepreneurial infrastructure, Scotland is often thought of as a peripheral location – up in the north west corner of an entire continent. But, we only need look across the Atlantic to find inspiration for what can be achieved. Seattle, occupying a very similar position in America as Scotland does in Europe, is home to some of the world's leading businesses, including Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon.

To make that happen, I believe the next set of Scottish entrepreneurs and start-ups will need to share some characteristics. Below are a few of them:

Be different

Starting a hi-tech business is one of the most difficult things you'll ever do. There is massive competition out there, thousands of people all over the world trying to do the same thing that you're doing: develop something new. If you're going to go for it, then you need to seriously consider how you're going to get noticed and do something spectacularly different: find a piece of technology that has a significant potential market; yet, is currently too early stage and small for the big technology players to look at.

Tackle a specific area

When we were building our software product at OWL, computers were nothing like they are today – they were essentially just text on a screen. But we could see the way computers were heading, displaying graphics, pictures, and images. We had the skills to take that on, but we had to ask ourselves which particular bit of this trend we wanted to develop. We initially went with document processing, but when we realised that so many others were already doing that we switched to an innovative new way of presenting documents on a screen, an implementation of hypertext technology (a forerunner to the World Wide Web).

Turn challenges on their head

In August 1987, Apple launched its Hypercard programme. It could do most of what our product could, and, to make matters worse, they started giving it away with their new computers. To promote it, they produced a 12-page supplement in the Wall Street Journal. This was huge publicity at the time and, luckily, we'd had the foresight to develop a version of our Hypertext product for Microsoft Windows. Something like 95% of the market was IBM PCs, which meant that everyone was talking about what we were doing – our competitor had just become our biggest salesman. We were able to use that in a big way.

Be where the industry is

We opened a Seattle office in 1985, taking space in the same building that Microsoft started in. It was a game changer for us. The new office exposed us to the West Coast US software industry – where it was all happening at the time. It had all the trade magazines, the shows – it was buzzing and way ahead of the rest of the world. Essentially what we were trying to be was a West Coast software business, so we had to take what we could – we had all the US trade magazines shipped to the Edinburgh office and tried to bring as much of that atmosphere into what we were doing. It's crucial to set up sales and marketing where the market is.

Take all the help you can get

One of the biggest things that helped us along the way was the support we received from a variety of people. We went to SDF, then the investment arm of the Scottish Development Agency, and they were very good with us. They put us in touch with the right people – the heads of banks, law firms, and accountants in Scotland, which for a company of our size was a real coup. And, despite being investors themselves, the SDF also let us practice with them and gave us advice before we went to others, which helped us secure funding from three venture capital firms. These funders ultimately helped us a lot through the years, particularly the latter two when we needed some unexpected additional funding at a sticky time.

Network... a lot

If I have one piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs it's this: get networking. Find people who have done similar things, take them out for a coffee, ask them how they built their company or got into new markets – it's something I make time for every week with a range of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and anyone with an interest in Scottish technology. The most successful people network and talk to people all the time. It's one of the huge advantages of Codebase – on Thursdays, Skycanner makes its people accessible to anyone who has questions. People are surprisingly generous with their time and it's unlikely other Scottish start-ups are your competitors. Whatever you do, don't sit in a room on your own!

There's no reason why the next generation of household names can't be based in and grown from Scotland. I was in Codebase the other day and I was encouraged to see around 100 companies in there, many of which are doing incredible things – there are a host of businesses going places, building on what the likes of Fanduel and Rockstar have achieved over the last few years.

None of that seemed conceivable just ten years ago. Yet, these businesses are taking on the world and, in many cases, succeeding. Our universities, support infrastructure, and access to risk capital make this the ideal place for entrepreneurs to thrive – even if we are in a rain-soaked, far-flung corner of an entire continent.

Ian Ritchie is chair of iomart plc. and several other computer and learning businesses, including Computer Application Services Ltd., the Interactive Design Institute and Caspian Learning Ltd. He is co-chair of the Scottish Science Advisory Council, a board member of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and the chair of Our Dynamic Earth, the Edinburgh Science Centre. 

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