Gareth Williams has seen his online flights service Skyscanner go from strength to strength since moving from London to Edinburgh in 2004.
‘We had our best ever month in January,’ he says. ‘Although we are definitely seeing an effect on search volumes, as we would have expected to have achieved a greater record in January if the wider economy hadn’t turned. But we still had a record month in relation to site visits and revenue.’
The company didn’t start hiring employees until it moved north of the border (Williams set the company up with friends in 2002). ‘There is a really good, strong tech community up here,’ he comments, adding that today there are 40 employees and turnover is around £5 million.
Upwards and onwards
Brian McVey, director of operational management at Scottish Enterprise, a government agency to help ambitious management teams, says around £30 million is spent a year on direct support for companies. On top of that, there are a number of investment funds, run alongside VCs and angels, which provide an additional £30 million of backing.
Of the 250,000 small to medium-sized enterprises in Scotland, around 10,000 are seen by Scottish Enterprise as growth companies. These are operating in the ‘priority sectors’ of tourism, textiles, energy, digital markets, life sciences, financial services (maybe less so now) and aerospace, defence and marine, and are striving to grow by 25 to 35 per cent a year.
McVey explains that Scottish Enterprise will identify and approach companies that it thinks have high growth potential. ‘For an account-managed company, support is based around an agreed action plan. That could focus on a range of areas, from identifying new export markets to improving production processes. It works best when done on a partnership basis, and that will involve both time and money [from both parties].’
Frank Cooper has seen the benefits of such a scheme with his company, Cooper Software. It is currently receiving 20 days of sales and marketing experience, which is to be delivered over a 12–month period. ‘We work through a scorecard, so every quarter we go back and see our areas of improvement.’
Cooper says the practical sharing of knowledge has had a positive impact on the company. ‘We have been learning how we can position ourselves. This means analysing the market and building a sales and marketing campaign,’ he says. The company is about to launch a new product in the UK and Cooper has no doubts that Scottish Enterprise’s Commercial Breakthrough Service (CBS) has been instrumental in winning new business.
Mark Ramsay, the founder of accounting specialist Infoplex, has found the ‘CBS programme useful because it is hands-on and proactive’. Like Cooper, he says the company has benefited from being able to take a strategic view of how it can promote its products. ‘The scheme gave us two experts in sales and marketing on a semi-hands-on basis. Typically, we tended to be a bit too focused on the techie stuff before, as opposed to matters like branding.’
Evidently, priorities have shifted as businesses seek to beat the recession. Scottish Enterprise’s McVey says ‘there is a huge amount of uncertainty out there and we are focusing to look beyond the recovery. The companies that tend to do better in these circumstances are the ones that think about what they do when the market recovers. The danger is to be passive. Unlike previous recessions, a good company can be hit just as easily as a weak one.’
At Cooper Software, it’s been a case of adapting as IT budgets shrink rapidly. ‘We’re having to innovate to see how we can deliver our service in a slightly different way,’ says Cooper. In practice, this has meant addressing one particular client need as opposed to trying to sell a broad-based project or service.
The challenges for businesses in Scotland shouldn’t be airbrushed out. In the third quarter of 2008-09, there were 166 compulsory liquidations, compared with 122 for the equivalent period in 2007-08. That figure will only rise.
With a focus on renewable energy to offset the dwindling North Sea reserves (still expected to generate revenue of more than £50 billion over the next five years), and encouraging activity in the life sciences and digital technology sectors, there are definite positives for Scotland’s businesses, both large and small.
‘Two years down the line, we would like to have doubled or tripled our turnover, but it’s going to be difficult given how unpredictable the economy is at the moment,’ says Infoplex’s Ramsay.