Our colleagues at Startup Digest and Social Penguin recently posted a call to action for the Scottish startup community, in which they identified the failure of universities to promote entrepreneurship, a disjointed startup community, and the predominance of risk-averse investors as obstacles that must be overcome before entrepreneurship can flourish in Scotland.
I appreciate the sentiment of this post and kudos to them for speaking out about something that’s obviously important to a lot of us. But while Scotland could certainly improve in these areas, I’m tired of pessimistic talk about Scotland’s weaknesses, and fear that we hold ourselves back from greater success with a self-perpetuating myth of inferiority. Scotland is already a vibrant entrepreneurial hub, enabled by our universities, our strong communities, and investment networks. Here’s why.
Firstly, universities are currently suffering from the conflation of three formidable forces: the pressing need to create better job/employment prospects for graduates in this downturn, changes to university funding which prioritise commercially relevant research, and increased demand for universities to provide exceptional student experiences (a.k.a. value for money), as a result of rising tuition fees.
The consequence? Scottish universities are pumping out more and better entrepreneurs than ever. University of Edinburgh students now start more companies than almost any of their peers in the U.K., and earlier this year, the University launched a £2M fund to invest directly in its own startups and spinouts. While the level of entrepreneurial activity varies from university to university, Scottish universities as a whole were recently recognised as outputting more spinout companies than any other region in the U.K. Universities definitely have a role to play in promoting entrepreneurship, but the good news is they’re already aware of it.
Secondly, Scotland’s startup calendar is chock-a-block full of events like Tech Meetup, Entrepreneurship Club, Elevator, Edinburgh Coffee Morning, and Lean Startup Circle, as well as Culture Hack Day, Launch48, Social Innovation Camp, software-specific meetups, and conferences. This August also marks the launch of the Turing Festival, which aims to become Europe’s answer to SXSW. And that’s just what’s happening in Edinburgh. With so much going on—the majority of which is powered directly by the community—we can count the connected and outgoing nature of our community as one of Scotland’s clear assets.
Finally, on the point of money: the availability of startup funds in Scotland is a contentious question, with many well-informed people coming down on both sides. It’s worth thinking about, and deciding whether you couldn’t do better elsewhere. But fundamentally, lots of good business propositions are finding the resource they need, or else are finding ways to reduce their need for external cash.
Scotland isn’t the best place in the world to start a business, and startups here face plenty of challenges. But let’s not play the underdog too much, nor confuse standard obstacles to entrepreneurship with serious institutional flaws. Such thinking undermines our ability to be successful. Let’s continue to support universities as they try to instill an entrepreneurial student culture, to have substantive discussions about the gaps in our entrepreneurial community, and to demonstrate demand for more and bigger investment partners. But let’s do it in the context of Scotland’s relative—and increasing—entrepreneurial success. Ultimately, if opportunities aren’t as bright in Edinburgh or Glasgow as they are in London or California, let’s make sure it’s not us that held us back.