Filling In The Gaps With Tim O’Reilly

Halloween EyesTim O’Reilly is a guy that you should really pay attention to. He’s been a leading commentator around key technology areas such as publishing, Web 2.0, open data and the burgeoning Maker movement for a number of years. The organisation he founded, O’Reilly Media, lives by the mantra of ‘changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators’ and he’s viewed as something of a master at both identifying trends and amplifying them.

Despite this reputation, he claims that he’s not very good at predicting the future. Instead, he simply talks about things that are happening today that seem interesting to him. As William Gibson once said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed” and O’Reilly’s mission is to help smooth that process.

He recently gave a talk to the Stanford Technology Ventures Program which is well worth checking out. Here are a few key themes from the talk:-


The importance of mobile computing is clear to anyone looking at website analytics. Yet we’re still very much in the early days of mobile and the change that’s coming is much more fundamental than simply a shift in the way that people access your website whilst on the move. Why? It’s all down to that piece of technology that you carry in your pocket which increasingly knows more – and better – information about you as an individual.

Why do applications like Foursquare or Runkeeper, for example, still need us to take an active part? Why do you have to check-in or click a button to tell your phone that you’ve started running? It already knows this information. There’s a revolution coming as businesses get built on the foundation of information that individuals don’t even have to go to the effort of submitting themselves. It’s all being done for them.

You’ve probably heard of Square. Set up by Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, it lets users accept credit card payments on their mobiles. But the clever thing is that if you have the App open on your mobile, you can walk into a shop that’s using it and the cash register already knows that you’re there. That connection’s already been made – it’s live and waiting, ready for you to use it.


Too often, we’re still thinking about software as being something that lives inside a device. A good example is Linux. For many, it’s at best some kind of mysterious operating system that tech folk discuss and has no relevance to the laptop they use for work. Yet if you’re searching on the web, the chances are high that you’re using Google – which is powered by Linux.


Think about how to update the work of employees to make use of the fact that individuals will increasingly be connected with the internet in more powerful ways in professional settings.

Who doesn’t love the videos of skydiving prototypes of Google Glass? But whilst the current excitement (and concern) is currently focused on the consumer applications of this technology, once you start thinking about  how these technologies could potentially impact workflows, a new picture emerges. Give people ready access to the indexed knowledge of mankind and it’s fairly easy to imagine how certain low-level jobs can be turned into high-level jobs. After all, why train for years to learn something when you can simply follow live instructions?


The phrase comes from a 1960 research paper by JCR Licklider that foresaw the development in cooperation between men and computers. The technology businesses (such as Google and Amazon) that survived the crash before moving on to further success did so, at least in part, because they worked out how to get their users to contribute to what they did. Take a bow, Web 2.0.


Peter Norvig, Chief Scientist at Google once said: “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data”. Look at Google’s self-drive car. In 2005, the winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for American driverless vehicles, drove 7 miles in 7 hours. Yet only six years later, Google has designed an autonomous car that has driven hundreds of thousands of miles in ordinary traffic. So what changed?

Google had access to the data behind Google Street View. Or, to put it another way, the recorded memory of humans who drove those roads, stored in a global brain.


Investor Chris Sacca has been quoted as saying “What I learned from Google is to only invest in things that close the loop”. That is an incredibly important principle for startups who should always be trying to discover the loops in the world that their business can close.

For example, Uber is a taxi business that connects individuals with luxury cars for hire. The app knows the location of both the passenger and the driver and makes the connection so that you always know precisely where the vehicle is. Uber has closed the loop.

Think of just how powerful the business becomes when combined with the rating mechanism that I mentioned in an earlier post has been integrated. A relatively small change now has the potential to completely disrupt the traditional regulation of taxi cab services. No longer does a cab driver just need to be trained and certified. In the modern world, he or she must also display social validation in the form of positive customer feedback – a bleak future no doubt for those drivers who drive carelessly, treat customers rudely or even play music too loudly in their vehicle.


O’Reilly argues that the concept of a business that exists solely for the purpose of making money for its shareholders is fundamentally flawed. Every business has an obligation to create value.

Current high-profile tech businesses (see Etsy, airbnb and Kickstarter) are successful precisely because they’ve focused on building an economy around their business. It is not simply about making money for themselves – they want other people to succeed on the back of what they’ve created in building an ecosystem.


To paraphrase a poem by Rilke:

    What we fight with is so small that when we win it makes us small; what we want is to be defeated decisively by successively greater beings.

Find hard problems. Take the example of a guy who quit a well-paid role with a hedge fund to work for a high-altitude (and high-risk) wind energy company. When asked why, he had one simple answer. He’d wanted to work for the startup was because ‘the math is harder’.

People who want to work on a hard problem are the types of individuals you want with you in a startup. If you can get people to work on things that matter and inspire, it will carry far more weight than being driven by simple monetary gain.


So – how hard can it be?

Simplify, move to the cloud, automate, enhance intelligence, collect better data, help other people succeed and set goals worthy of your efforts.

There has to be a business idea or two in there, don’t you think?

(photo credit: Patrick Hoesley via photopin cc)

Welcome To The Internet of Everything

RobotIf you held a gun to my head and forced me to make a prediction about the shape of our future society, the one forecast that I could make today with absolute certainty is that I’d end up rambling on about the possible impact of technology until you were either bored or agreed. However, it’s a safe bet that almost every issue duking it out at the top of my list would relate in some way to the increasing impact of the deepening networks between people, objects and ‘big data’.

The Growth Of Networks

The increased power of connectivity has been most visible to most in the explosive growth of social media. Most of us are gradually realising that individuals are increasingly being tracked whilst simultaneously being presented with greater opportunities to make a significant impact by presenting themselves favourably online. But to my mind, simply taking offline communication and rehousing it on a digital platform has in many ways simply been a diversion so far (albeit incredibly an powerful, and essential, one).

It seems to me that networks are only now starting to show what they can achieve – both at scale and (just as importantly) at high speed. Not agree? Just have a think about the impact over recent times in areas such as file sharing, user-generated content, communicable diseases, the wisdom of the crowd and financial contagion.

The chances are good that you will have heard the growing buzz around the ‘Internet of Things‘. If the phrase at least is new to you, here’s my (very) simple explanation. The internet to date has relied on humans to input the necessary data. But, as Kevin Ashton, the RFID pioneer once wrote, “The problem is that people have limited time, attention and accuracy”. The answer? Let the computers find out everything that they need to know about things in the real world by gathering data directly without the input of humans. Let them then use this increased and continual tracking for the benefit of all, whether it be to reduce waste, loss and cost.

(Aside: I’ve just realised that I’ve used the word ‘let’ above twice, unintentionally implying that computers are somehow sentient beings… that’s another post entirely …)

Connections Are Everything…

It’s not a new idea but it’s gathering pace like never before. Millions of new devices are regularly being connected to the internet and the potential for advancement goes far beyond simply having a Robonaut sending tweets from space.

So what could that mean in practice? Well, Evrythng is a company that I mentioned in a previous post – here’s a quick example of how their business fits into the picture:-

Let’s just think about this for a second. Connecting things that were previously silent within a network of networks with billions (or trillions) of connections on a global scale? The potential impact of this is so significant that it is guaranteed to eclipse even the massive disruption that the internet has already caused within the worlds of communication, education, business, entertainment and simple information retrieval amongst others.

The ‘Internet Of Everything’ Economy

So I was intrigued to read Cisco’s new report in which they have re-branded the concept into ‘The Internet of Everything Economy: How More Relevant And Valuable Connections Will Change The World‘. With a vast subject, they’ve helpfully split the concept into four separate areas:-


Currently, we mostly just connect to the internet via devices and social networks. In the future, people will connect in far more flexible ways – think of the implications for healthcare where a pill or clothing sensors will report back on your vital signs directly to your doctor via a secure internet connection.


We’re used to devices gathering and transmitting data somewhere for analysis. Increasingly, the ‘things’ will combine and analyse that raw data before transmitting far more valuable information, which in turn enables us to make faster, more intelligent decisions.


Sensors and devices will be able to sense more data and increasingly understand the possible context in which that data can be useful.


Critically, processes are still to develop which will add value – effectively working to ensure that the right information is delivered to the right person at the right time in the appropriate way.

Clearly, whilst we might initially moan at the loss of sleep, few of us would refuse an alarm clock that wakes you up ten minutes earlier on a morning when the traffic is congested. We may even be increasingly interested in being able to track our groceries from field to table, if only to guarantee that our meat hasn’t had a past career in racing.

But once we start to apply this understanding at a greater scale, we have the potential to discover a means by which we can monitor, understand and manage our environment more effectively. Saving energy, regulating and distributing agricultural output and helping to provide access to clean water starts to tick a lot of boxes which bluntly need massive action given the current challenges that we are all facing.

The Internet Of Everything: Tomorrow Starts Here.

Clearly Cisco have a business point to make here also and I recommend reading the blog by Cisco CEO John Chambers which makes a number important points about the economy that is predicted to grow around the Internet of Everything. After all, there are some chunky numbers involved in the predictions (which they are, it should be said, in a great position to capitalise upon commercially).

Increased Connectivity Comes At A Price

But let’s not be naive. It’s not going to be plain-sailing all the way home in our automated cars to our self-filling fridges. If developments continue – and there’s no reason to think that we will face anything other than developments occurring at a rapidly accelerating pace – we could soon be facing challenges in relation to security and privacy that could place us in a very dark place indeed within society.

Governments, businesses, organisations and individuals need to get involved – and quickly. Not to slow it down or even simply to prevent any mistakes being made – there will always be wrong turnings in any attempt to innovate. But to ensure that we use the unprecedented opportunities that we will soon be faced with for the most effective purposes for us all – in business, in our communities and on a global scale.

Think it’s all pie in the sky? Or are we walking blindly into disaster by arming inanimate objects with the capacity for (limited) intelligence? There’s a sci-fi plot or two in there, that’s for sure. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have any thoughts about future developments.

(photo credit: B.Romain via photopin cc)

And The Final Scores Are…

Exit SignI came across an interesting article by Om Malik earlier this week that’s worth checking out entitled, ‘Uber, Data Darwinism and the Future of Work‘.

The founder of GigaOm is known for his incisive writing in the tech field but this post caught my attention in particular, as it flags up just how far-reaching the potential impact of increased connectivity could be as it spreads across all levels of society.


Om’s thoughts are provoked by a recent story involving Uber, the US-based startup that lets customers book private cars with drivers via a mobile app. It’s a hot startup in the US and for good reason: it’s genuinely disruptive.

The company hit the news recently when a number of drivers were ‘let go’ as a result of customer feedback. To be clear, the drivers are self employed and following each trip, both passenger and driver have the opportunity to rate the other. Losing your livelihood because you failed to deliver your side of a deal is hardly new. But the concept of a company acting on the basis of unvalidated low ratings does introduce a new dynamic into the equation.


We’re all increasingly happy (and in some cases incentivised) to rank, rate and share our experiences in the digital world. This means that we’re starting to build a ‘Quantified Society’, where each individual is being assessed and scored. Fine. But who judges what is a good (or bad) score and how does the law back that decision up?

For example, what is the magic customer score at which you can ‘sack’ a worker fairly? And, however it might be assessed in the future, what can an employer do if the score that represents an individual’s reputation takes a hit? The rules of society are going to have to try to keep up with the allocation of points when the rules are unclear.

You also have to wonder how individuals might modify their own behaviours as they become increasingly aware of what the potential impact might be of the scores that they allocate. Will feedback be restrained for fear of someone losing their job? Or, instead, will people hide behind their perceived online anonymity in order to criticise aggressively simply because they can?


It might be the future and driven by technological advancement but, as Om writes, the range of challenges within a Quantified Society are likely to be “less technical and more legislative, political and philosophical”.

The human race evolved over time to reward the fittest with survival. Society then developed to ensure that other more desirable attributes were sufficiently rewarded. We’re now moving into the next stage however which introduces another form of competition. The only thing that’s clear at the moment is that the rules haven’t been set – and are unlikely to be for a long time yet.

(Photo via: konstriktion under 2.0 Creative Commons Licence)

The Making And Breaking Of The Creative Industries

Making & Breaking The Creative Industries

Any event that sets out to discuss the opportunities and challenges that creatives face in digital production and distribution is guaranteed to do two things – attract my attention and court disaster by attempting to cover a subject so vast that a week-long conference might struggle to do it justice.

Yet I’m happy to say that Thursday’s event organised by Creative Edinburgh, ‘The Making and Breaking Of The Creative Industries’ managed to achieve exactly what it set out to do. By balancing a fascinating range of speakers, each holding significant sector experience, the event successfully provided the attendees with a broad overview of how ‘digital’ is currently affecting the creative industries, a summary of the key themes and a glimpse into what the near future might just look like.

Whilst each speaker focused mainly on his or her different area of expertise (including gaming, publishing, music production, film distribution, advertising and product design amongst others), common themes emerged throughout many of the talks. So, rather than breaking the record for the world’s longest blog post in detailing each talk in great detail (which I’ll happily do if anyone really wants me to), here are my takeaways from the event:-


Whether it’s with your colleagues, customers or, in some cases, even your competition, continue to look for ways to collaborate. Or, in the words of Andy Payne (@PercyBlakeney63), 1 plus 1 always equals more than one – just ensure that you collaborate with the right people.


Don’t resort to simply cold-selling to customers. As Seth Godin says, “The idea that someone can program our consumption is becoming obsolete, and fast“. The driving force behind the explosive growth in social business has been the simple fact that a business that understands – accurately – what its potential customers need will (all things being equal) always be better placed than its competitors to deliver something of value that people are willing to pay for. There are very few business ideas that are truly unique – it’s often the delivery of that idea alone that makes the difference between success and failure.

My view is that there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with simply producing what you feel driven to create for artistic purposes. However, if you’re looking to monetise that into a viable business model, then you still need to understand where the demand lies – in other words, track down and delight those 1,000 true fans.


In the pre-digital era, most of your time and money would be spent in preparing the perfect product or service for launch. Nowadays, driven in part by the developments from the Lean Startup Movement, the luxury of front-loading that expense on the basis of assumed demand is increasingly unsustainable in a competitive environment. The digital world provides you with analytics as to what works and what doesn’t – if you want to be successful, the onus is on you to use them and effectively.

Regardless of the nature of your content, get it out into the marketplace, seek immediate feedback and be prepared to put the majority of your efforts into analysing and reacting to the response – whether this is in gaming, advertising or product design.


An oxymoron perhaps but ‘closet anthropologist’ Stephanie Rieger’s (@stephanierieger) point about the speed of technological advancement in society was well-made. Change is occurring so quickly today that a ‘generation gap’ no longer refers to the relationship between parent and child, but in many cases to the relationship between siblings within the same family. In other words, devices are advancing so quickly that people two, three or four years apart in age are having completely different experiences with technology.

The power of the crowd is now so great that you can’t assume that you know how people will use your products. The way that you intended your product to be used might simply be ignored by the consumer – from the comical example of one mother using her Kindle as a bookmark to the slightly-more innovative ideas for enhancement, such as the camera button for the iPhone .

I didn’t catch who the quote was by but it was mentioned that “the best product designs should merely set the stage whilst always falling short of fully setting the experience for the user”. The age in which a business could set the agenda for its customer has long since passed. That privilege now belongs to the ultimate consumer who has in many cases the ultimate power in the digital world – the power to simply delete your content whilst instantly moving on to a better (or more convenient) alternative.

Aside: I feel compelled to mention Larry Lessig’s ‘Remix’ book here for anyone who wants to get into this subject more deeply – a fascinating examination of how the law is struggling to keep up with the speed of technological advancement (and a topic for another post – or series – here in the future, I suspect).


This can’t be overemphasised enough. Unsurprisingly, every single talk focused to some extent on just how important data is becoming to the modern business, regardless of sector. The digital world has afforded us all with an unparalleled opportunity to research, monitor, analyse and improve every aspect of our businesses. As a result, the businesses that will succeed are those which are able to maintain high quality and relevant data and use this vital information as the foundation for designing the content of the business.


Jim Wolff (@jimwolffman) of the Leith Agency wound up the day with a hugely entertaining talk about further themes for all creatives to be aware of in the future, including the growth in visual content, the demand for personalised content, the development of the Internet of Things (see Evrythng which lets you tag real items to make them smart by being able to ‘talk’ to each other) and – surprise surprise – the growth of social business.


I understand that the talks will be going online soon (I’ll add the links just as soon as they’re available) and I’d encourage you to take a look at that stage. Hopefully however the summary above has given you a flavour of the sort of discussions that took place. Of course, the conference couldn’t answer questions about what the future might bring in great detail. But, then again, the one thing that is certain is that that accurate predictions are for the most part impossible – and I guess that’s exactly what makes it all so much fun…!

The key instead is to:

  • Adopt an agile approach
  • Be passionate about discovering developments (wherever they occur in the world)
  • Connect and engage with the growing online social community in which your customers are active
  • Equip your business (creative or otherwise) with the tools and capacity to become as responsive as possible to your potential customers

All in all, a fantastic event and a list of brilliant speakers – well done to Creative Edinburgh for bringing it all together. If you were there, or have any thoughts on any of the points raised above, please do let me know in the comments below.


Andy Payne – AppyNation
Stephanie Rieger – Yiibu
Brendan Miles – The List
Hannah Rudman – AmbITion Scotland
Peter Gerard – Distrify
Devon Walshe – The Journal
Dougal Perman – Inner Ear
Jim Wolff – The Leith Agency
Murray Buchanan – Cargo Publishing

PS A different presentation but I’m a sucker for a good show – and Yiibu’s ‘Everything Old Is New Again’ is exactly that, well worth a look

How Influential Are You Going To Be?

Gathering Moss?
Gathering Moss?

Influence has always been an important factor in society. From our romantic notions of the ever-present skullduggery deep within the smoke-filled corridors of power to the simple mobilisation of support of numbers in order to maximise donations towards a worthy cause, the influential can and do wield their power for any reason along the spectrum from good to evil.

And it is precisely this relationship with power that continues to fascinate me as I watch digital networks continue to strengthen, increasingly coalescing around all manner of personal interests, both personal and business. Some people clearly understand the way that the world is moving. Others don’t. Yet both groups are experiencing the effects, whether they are aware of it or not.

Today’s interesting read comes from Mark Schaefer who is well-known for writing two recent books in particular (The Tao Of Twitter and Return On Influence). If you are interested at all in the notion of how individuals are extending their influence on a digital level, I’d recommend reading the second in particular.

I’m in no doubt that this issue is going to become increasingly important. We can’t second-guess the way that search algorithms will develop over time of course. But the move towards personalisation of your search results shows that the Google(s) of the future will increasingly take account of a range of other signals that you leave in your forays on the web. Bluntly, if you leave a significant digital footprint and can command plenty of engaged ‘social’ followers who freely share the content that you create, search results will increasingly view you as ‘high quality’. Meaning? Your face will pop up more frequently in th search results that other people carry out.

Rolling stone gathering lots of moss, anyone?

I’m not going to debate the merits and weaknesses of Klout, Kred, Social Authority  or any others at this stage. But I do agree with the point Mark makes about the fact that we are in the early days of understanding how things are developing – which invariably means startups will get it wrong at times.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

photo credit: aurelio.asiain via cc

Global Ambition: 10 Lessons For Entrepreneurs

Ken Morse_Global Ambition

It might sound great to say that you have global plans for your business. But what does global ambition actually mean?

Last Tuesday, 200 members of the local high-growth startup community congregated at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Gogarburn Conference Centre for the ‘Global Strategies for Ambitious Entrepreneurs’ workshop in order to delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of growing your business to the next level.

Speakers Joe Lassiter of Harvard Business SchoolKen Morse and Joe Tree, CEO of Edinburgh-based photo-sharing website Blipfoto took to the stage during an afternoon designed to spark a healthy discussion amongst those in attendance.

Focusing initially on the early days of disruptive business Airbnb, it was no surprise to find a variety of conflicting opinions around the room in certain areas. It’s impossible to completely remove any knowledge that you have, either of a business that has been shown to be an outlier or the development of the business environment over time, when assessing historic decisions made by the founders.

But whilst the lens may change, most agreed that there are valid lessons for us all from recognising common patterns from companies that will all face similar challenges at an early stage.

On that basis, here’s ten lessons from the workshop that you might find interesting:

  • 1. To be globally ambitious, all you need is ambition.

In a nutshell, for most businesses, your current location doesn’t matter. Clearly, for those home-grown entrepreneurs based in Scotland must both have a passport and be willing to use it. In some industries, consider establishing a second base in a key location. But…

  • 2. Don’t rule out relocating entirely.

When questioned “Why do you rob banks?”, notorious US criminal Willie Sutton (supposedly) replied, “Because that’s where the money is”. Do you truly want to be dominate your sector? If so, you may have to move to where the action is concentrated in your industry in order to access both the necessary funding and, critically, the talent.

  • 3.  The dream of building the next Google must always be balanced by the need to survive the day.

An entrepreneur does what he or she needs to do to keep the show on the road (and the money coming in). Speaking of which…

  • 4. “I don’t make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures” (Walt Disney)

Be passionate about what you’re doing – making money should never be your primary motivator. If you enjoy doing something, there can be little downside. Only once you’ve finished with a business can you answer the question that acts as every entrepreneur’s own personal metric: was the time you spent worth it? Financial rewards can only ever form a small part of that answer.

  • 5. Observe the Rebel Alliance: hope is important.

In Ken’s view, the number one reason that people give up on their businesses is not because they run out of money – it’s because they run out of hope.

  • 6. Always ask for help and always go straight to the best.

In Joe Tree‘s experience, he’s never been turned away yet.

  • 7. Every investor listens to the same radio station: ‘WIFM’ (What’s In It For Me)

Do your research – in depth – before you contact an investor and answer that question clearly. You only have one opportunity to make an impression. Ten hours of reasearch per investor is not unreasonable given how important they are will become to your business.

  • 8. Understand the differences between incubator models.

There is a tension between those who provide tailored mentoring (such as theTechStars model) and more in-your-face trainers (such as Y Combinator). Joe Lassiter spoke of there being an incubator bubble and that it’s now more critical than ever for any aspiring entrepreneur to research the value of the network of a potential incubator before committing your time. After all, time is the only resource, according to Stephen Hawking’s view, that is ever truly irreplaceable.

  • 9. Never bounce ideas around in a vacuum.

Test everything that you develop on your cohort. You can never speak to too many customers (actual or potential) to get feedback on your product or service.

  • 10. Remember the lesson of the pig and the chicken in the kitchen.

Question: in making a ham omelette, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? Answer: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

The crucial turning point in Airbnb’s history was when the founders committed to throw everything into making the business a success. Commitment is non-negotiable for entrepreneurship (defined by Prof. Howard Stevenson as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond the constraints of the resources currently controlled”).

So there you have it – ten takeaways that I hope at least give you some food for thought if you couldn’t make it along. I’d like to thank Andrew Mitchell, for expertly arranging yet another valuable event and also for inviting me along. He consistently brings speakers with world-class entrepreneurial knowledge to Scotland and we all get the benefit of his hard work in doing so.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the workshop and found any other points more useful than those I’ve summarised above? Or perhaps you disagree with some of the observations – if so, what’s your experience? As ever, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comment section below.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog. Ignoring the SEO implications, I wanted to post it here also as the session raised a number of lessons that could be useful for entrepreneurs.   

Scottish Startups: A Great 2012 – But A Better 2013?

Hogmanay Firelight

With normal service resumed following the festive break, I wanted to take a couple of minutes to reflect on some of the highlights of 2012 from the startup community in Scotland, and within Edinburgh in particular.

2012 was a busy year with some headline high-profile events taking place – in particular, the official launch of TechCube, the second Turing Festival and the Startup Summit 2012, organised to tie in with Global Entrepreneur Week. Back in July, it was great to see the local startup community turn out en masse for the Edinburgh leg of the European Pub Summit web crawl, as a pre-cursor to the massive Dublin Web Summit, a key event for many who travelled across the water to the conference.

Meanwhile, the EClub continued to run a consistently valuable series of events up at the University of Edinburgh Business School – in my view, essential events for anyone involved in starting businesses here, both for the quality of speakers and, just as importantly, the network of attendees. Particular favourites that stand out for me during the year include the talk by the entrepreneur and conqueror of Everest Justin Packshaw (‘Five ingredients for extreme startup success’) and the informative Funding Ladders conference that was held back in May (‘Funding Ladders: How to Fund Your Business As It Grows’).

Here at MBM, as ever, we’ve continued to run events, including our popular ‘Meet The Entrepreneur Events’, with the first talk being given by PJ Darling, the founder of Spark Energy (the next event is on 23rd January with Sandy McDougall) whilst we also worked with the Business School to arrange what turned out to be a standing-room only debate ‘An Independent Scotland: What Do The Entrepreneurs Think?’. It’s worth mentioning that our Chair for that event, top journalist Bill Jamieson also launched a new website last year to focus on the startup business sector, Scot-Buzz.

On a personal note, I’ve been enthused by regularly meeting even more of the individuals who have taken the decision to make things happen. I really enjoyed being on the judging panel for the annual Innovation Cup Finals 2012 organised by SIE back in June and relaunching the ever-popular Tech Law For Startups towards the end of the year which we tied in with the launch of free Equity Guide for startups in association with Salient Point.

Further (!) afield, Michael Hayes and the Rookie Oven team continued to work hard at promoting entrepreneurial tech startup activity in the West of Scotland, with regular meetups and an active blog. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of events within the wider environment that took place in 2012 that have a direct impact on the startup scene also – the rebranding of the British Business Angels Association to the UK Business Angels Association earlier this year tied in with the important launch of “Be An Angel”, created to attract more business angels into early-stage investment – more than ever, a critical issue in 2012 with thetime-limited Seed EIS benefits available.

So – a pretty busy year! But how do we top it in 2013?

Well, the major event on the horizon in May is Engage Invest Exploit 2013 – remember that applications remain open for companies wanting to exhibit at Scotland’s premier annual investor event. Before then, the monthly iVTuesday events organised by the team at Informatics Ventures continue whilst the burgeoning Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Inovation will make its move into impressive new premises in order to continue to support the growing demand from entrepreneurs who want to build the green sector. In the meantime, we’ll continue to run Tech Law for Startups together with a series of other events aimed at engaging the entrepreneurial community within Scotland and beyond. If you have any ideas for events that you might find useful, just let me know.

One thing’s for certain: 2013 is unlikely to be any quieter than 2012. But there’s no doubt, with the closer connections continually being forged across the startup communities, driven by digital engagement, between the universities, the incubators (such as TechCube and ESpark), Informatics Ventures, the Entrepreneurship Club, the ECCI and the BioQuarter amongst others, there’s plenty of progress on the horizon over the coming twelve months.

How much can be achieved in twelve months? You can either create it or watch it happen – which one do you prefer?

Have a great 2013.

(Photo: Hogmanay Firelight via pjhunter under 2.0 Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog.

Startups Central: TechCube Edinburgh Opens Its Doors

TechCube launch

As 2012 draws to a close, I’m convinced that we’re now witnessing the start of a period of unparalleled development in the startup scene within Edinburgh. And no single event highlights this development more accurately than the events of last Thursday night when pretty much the entire startup community from near and far descended on Summerhall for the launch of TechCube

The event had generated a fair amount of press interest, with publicity building from well before the visit of Alex Salmond last month and culminating in recent articles in the Wall Street JournalThe Next Web and Creative Boom, amongst others. Having been in the building a number of times over the past few months, I’ve also previously written about TechCube on this blog (such as here) and it’s been heartening to see move ahead in leaps and bounds between each visit.

As MD Jamie Coleman stepped on stage to declare “We’ve finally got there!”, there was a palpable sense of optimism and, undoubtedly, relief within a room packed with the great and the good of the local entrepreneurial tech community. The origins of the facility lie in the hard physical labour – literally – of local startup community members who donated weekends over a number of weeks to work together voluntarily in ripping down walls and ceilings in order to create something of lasting value to all. So – mission achieved. And, with that ethos in mind, the formalities of the evening were thankfully kept to a minimum but it’s worth mentioning a couple of points from the talks if you weren’t there.

Nigel Eccles from FanDuel, one of the launch sponsors and a significant new tenant of TechCube, with the company having chosen to use the building as its global HQ by basing its 28 UK staff there, started by giving the audience a potted history of the journey that he, and his co-founders had taken to arrive in TechCube.

His comments on the local startup ecosystem itself were the most telling, as he ran through how he and his five co-founders had spent a significant time around five years ago discussing the type of company that they wanted to work for and the culture that it would have within it. Looking around Edinburgh, it was clear that it didn’t already exist so they decided to create it. Too early for these discussions when your business has a grand total of zero employees? For many perhaps. Yet, the reality was that the founding team went through the complex process of reaching agreement on critical business issues before significant decisions actually arose, leaving them with a clear (albeit just as challenging) path forwards.

Nigel stressed the importance of creating a hugely successful business. Why? Success begets success. Instead of simply bemoaning the lack of available startup capital locally, success is crucial in helping other local companies attract investment and, even more importantly, talent. I particularly liked his definition of success as being framed by whether ex-employees subsequently go on to create successful businesses of their own – effectively a validation of business success by the recycling of talent amongst the local startup community. That’s the approach that is required, in my view, to build an effective and efficient entrepreneurial ecosystem. And, in keeping with this, it was great to hear that Nigel intends to set aside a regular time slot each month to meet with local entrepreneurs to share his experiences.

This is exactly why this event marked such a significant point in the development of the local tech startup system. The level of support and potential for cross-fertilisation between highly talented and motivated groups of people has just been increased exponentially by having a physical location for such serendipitous exchanges to take place and this should never be underestimated. Indeed, as Plan For Cloud – a TechCube business that was unusually acquired within only a few months of existence – was told by its US acquirer RightScale, Edinburgh currently has the feel of Berkeley some 20 years or so ago. “Why not Edinburgh?” indeed.

Finally, Robert McDowell, owner of the entire Summerhall Arts venue (of which TechCube is a part), took to the stage to explain a little more about the vision. Stressing the need to strive continuously for innovative and creative solutions when solving problems, the Summerhall venue as a whole is dedicated to Arts, Research and Education – with Entertainment coming in a distant fourth place in the list of priorities. Everyone is encouraged to think broad and deep in working towards building something really quite special. With Polly Purvis of the ICT trade body,ScotlandIS reminding everyone that the estimated 100,000 people who work in ‘tech’ in Scotland generate around £4 billion-worth of value to the Scottish economy annually, no-one should ever underestimate the power of collective action within a sector.

And so, onto the rest of the evening. After another tour of the building, the event neatly segued into the annual Edinburgh Startups 3rd Annual Christmas party, this year hosted in the old Dissection Rooms, with live bands, a trapeze artist, free beer and a seriously tasty selection of food, washed down by smoothies from the ever-reliable Hula Juice Bar.

In my experience, few events over the past few years have ever come close to bringing the numbers of people out to mingle from within the startup scene from such diverse backgrounds. There was a real surge of optimism at the event amongst everyone that I spoke to and a shared belief that something special is now getting going. The level of goodwill  is significant and there can be no doubt that everyone is desperate for the venture to succeed. By its nature, it will be an inclusive facility, attracting increasing levels of money, talent and support with each success – and who within the local community of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, advisors, trade bodies and government organisations does not want to support that?

Massive thanks go to all involved in the organisation of the evening. I know for speaking to so many that there was a huge amount of hard graft put in to get to this stage – and it’s still only at the beginning. But the foundations are here. How the story develops, for Edinburgh, Scotland and beyond is now down to all of us.

Were you at the launch party? Or do you agree that TechCube will provide a much-needed level of support and enthusiasm for the local startup scene? I’d love to hear your comments below or let me know via Twitter.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog.

Access to Social Media at Work: Who’s Leading?

Social Media Week Glasgow 2012
It’s time for #SMWGla once again…

Access to Social Media At Work: Who’s Leading?

Who is responsible for pushing the adoption of social media within the workplace? Should you be relying on management to push acceptance down throughout an organisation? Or is the reality that only the janitor can have the necessary passion to evangelise a medium, building confidence at the grass roots which ultimately can’t be ignored? Who can you rely on to push for access at work?

Social Media Week is upon us again and after a packed day, I managed to make it across to Glasgow just in time for the start of ‘Who’s Leading? A discussion panel on access to social media in the workplace’.

Or, more accurately, I was late for the 5:30pm start. A combination of my natural sense of direction (which comes both as default and as runner-up only to Apple’s newfound mapping sensibilities) and a circuitous semi-jog to the venue later (never a good idea when your knees are filing for divorce in the middle of the 5×50 challenge) led me to the McCance Building – following which it soon became clear that it was in fact a 6:30pm start. Hmm. Not ideal. But to be fair the organisers did their best to apologise on Twitter to the assembled grumbling tweeters so no damage done.

After bumping into a few well-kent Twitter profiles in the flesh, it was on to the panel discussion.  If you were following the hashtag (#SMWWhoLeads), you’ll have seen a fairly lively debate around some of these issues:


As much as we love it, Twitter is not yet mass market and there is a risk for all of us that use it regularly that we see this as normality. Figures are more impressive for Facebook in terms of adoption but still it is hard to argue – at this stage – that social media is used by all. The continued growth of smart phones will help to drive the adoption of new communication methods but if we are really looking to discuss digital inclusion, we cannot forget about libraries which to this day remain one of the most trusted engagement points between governments and citizens. Or, to use the words of Louise MacDonald (@Louisemac) of Young Scot, “Libraries are ace!”

Technical issues 

There was much debate about existing technical hurdles, particularly those faced by larger public sector organisations. The issue was amply demonstrated by one member of the audience who admitted that her NHS team were all using Internet Explorer 6. The collective release of air by the audience showed a genuine pain shared across the room – justifying a listen back to the recording of the event alone. It’s clear that logistically and financially there are issues for certain organisations.

I feel there’s still a real danger that by focusing too much on technology, people lose sight of the end goal – increasing effective transmission of information to enable us all to do our business more effectively. This isn’t about technology as much as it is about culture change and willingness to learn. Easy for me to say? Perhaps.

Top-down or bottom-up?

Ah – the old battle of control versus permission. So, where should adoption of social media come from? A healthy debate ensued around this subject, with some clearly advocating the top-down approach for strategic purposes. I have to say that I remain of the view that the reality is that adoption (however unofficial) tends to be driven from a more junior level – the Chris Brogan ‘pirate ship’ model.

Now, I’m not ignoring the fact that permission will be necessary at some stage and that traditional leadership must buy into the process in the future. But I do think that in the vast majority of organisations, waiting for permission is the simplest way to fall behind the curve (hat-tip to Seth Godin’s ‘Poke The Box’).

My – strong – personal view is that you should pursue adoption of social media, with or without management buy-in provided  you can be clear that it is of demonstrable benefit to the organisation that you work for. Years ago the use of telephones was restricted in a business environment. Then it was the internet. Let’s not try to pretend that communication must in some way always be sanctioned by management if it’s beneficial (according to traditional business – and not social media – metrics). Change is happening and the role of organisations is not to waste time and energy trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Their role is to ensure that the necessary risk management procedures are in place to facilitate this.

Cultural change

There is a permanent tension between control and permission. Gordon Scobbie’s (@DCCTayside) popular comment about “You can give a policeman a truncheon but not a twitter account” highlights the sort of issues involved. But we also have to bear in mind how instant communications directly affect existing  communications teams within organisations. We are now moving to a position where they are having to learn that they must be happy to release something publicly which may not be 100%, on the understanding that they expect to receive comments so that the release can be improved. That’s a big change for many.

The Wider Picture = Big Data

There’s clearly a significant tension around the issue of big data and ‘fracking’. Peter Cruickshank (@spartakan) is involved in some fascinating academic work regarding the collision of each individual’s online personas in the digital age.  The topic is huge and could only be touched on in passing – if you’re interested, check out the article by William Wickey in the big data guide on ‘Information Fracking in the Age of ‘Data Grande’ that I stumbled upon after the event. Serious issues need to be resolved here in the near future which will determine how assumptions can be made by organisations who have increasing levels of access to our colliding personal worlds are in association with the growth of the semantic web.

So is this a good thing? At one extreme, you have companies who are using your data unfair (such as Andrew Burnett’s example of the malevolent usage of personal data by a travel site that charged different prices to website visitors according to whether they accessed via a PC or a Mac). At the other end of the spectrum, you have the potential offered by intelligent devices to make daily life easier – such as a message sent directly to your phone to notify you that your  kettle is about to break when you’re passing a kettle shop, for example.


Like it or not, when we look at traditional leadership, there is a need for reverse mentoring in this area. It’s up to all generations to understand that digital licks are required in modern business. If management don’t have them, it’s key that they seek out the people that do. In general terms, there’s an opportunity for younger generations to bring something of real value to organisations that they might otherwise not get the opportunity to become involved with.

A great start to the week and a really solid panel discussion. Great to see every member of the panel involved in following the live Twitter stream during the session and really bringing something of value to the discussion. I have to admit I was very impressed with the Chair, Gordon Scobbie who exhibited an understanding of modern technologies far beyond that which I (no doubt unfairly) had expected to see from a representative of an organisation such as the police force which must have significant hurdles as a result of its size, politics and ownership of particularly sensitive personal data.

There are a few really significant issues here, not least of which is Big Data, that justify a conference of their own. But as an opportunity to get people into one room from a mix of private and public sector organisations, to discuss the opportunities and challenges for widespread social media adoption in the workplace, it was very successful.

Oh, and my answer to the question of who’s leading?

Surely the answer has to be – the one who’s paying your bills.


How Can Hotels Justify Charging For WiFi?

I’m not the type to rant and rave. I tend to look for the positives in most situations and I’m happy to give people the benefit of doubt. But if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get me going, it’s blatant profiteering by a business which is totally unnecessary. So how can hotels justify charging for WiFi?

It’s more important than ever in the current environment for a business to not only provide an excellent service but also to respond quickly and effectively to any dissatisfaction expressed by the people who ultimately pay the bills.

I was down in the South of England last week at a family wedding. Not great timing, coming in the middle of various projects and clashing with the excellent Turing Festival in my hometown. But with a family that’s spread far and wide across the UK and Europe, it was a great opportunity to meet up, despite having some work to juggle during the trip. Of course, given other commitments, the only time that I’d have available for work was likely to be at anti-social hours. But of course the wonder of the modern working life is that time and location are for many projects pretty much irrelevant – provided you have internet access.

But, upon checking in to the Holiday Inn in Winchester, it soon became clear that the hotel didn’t share my view on access to the internet. The policy of that particular Holiday Inn is that it gives each customer 30 minutes free wifi access.

End of.

After that, you are expected to pay £3.99 for 2 hours or £9.99 for 24 hours.  Note: that’s 30 minutes from the first time you check in to your email account. Nice for the irregular Facebook visitor or the once-a-day email checker perhaps. But insane for anyone who has any aspiration of carrying out any form of work which requires internet access.

This sort of attitude from businesses – particularly those that supposedly occupy the ‘luxury’ end of the market (we’re not talking a backpackers’ hostel here) – stinks. I don’t believe that a coffee shop has an argument for restricting wifi access (which represents zero marginal cost per additional user), let alone a hotel at the so-called  premium end of the market where someone has committed to spend a not-insubstantial amount of money to spend at the very least a third of the day. I’m sorry but after looking into the issue a little further, the cost per room when you have 141 bedrooms is negligible.

But of course, in today’s business environment, it’s the responsibility of customers to comment. So I ended up tweeting:

To give them their due, the response from kc at IHG Group was

Great, I thought. A quick response and a real opportunity to show that they were willing to take concerns onboard. Intercontinental Hotels Group are the franchise owner by the way, with the various Holiday Inn hotels being run individually.  Impressed with their responsiveness, I replied:

To which they replied….

Er, no. Actually, they didn’t even reply. Not a peep from ‘kc’ nor any other person behind the @IHGcare twitter account


I followed up with the hotel staff directly in person (again). They finally gave me two hour’s free access and suggested that I simply access wifi within the business suite overnight – not a great deal of help when you’d have to leave kids sleeping in your hotel room.

So, to recap:

  • Zero marks for the hotel for trying to charge customers for something that should be delivered free of charge for all customers.
  • Decent marks awarded for responding quickly when they were obviously monitoring the social networks.
  • But a resounding zero for failing to follow up with an clearly-annoyed customer and for failing to offer a successful resolution to a genuine complaint, despite the fact that it represented zero marginal cost to the business.

It’s time for businesses to realise that for some customers (admittedly not all, but then why piss off any of your customers if you can help it – particularly a group that continues to grow?) these kind of issues are significant. I certainly won’t be booking with them again until the policy is changed.

I should be clear – the staff I dealt with in person were polite and responsive and, to their credit, stated that my complaint was one of many that they had received about their policy. Unfortunately, the failure to follow up on social media left me with arguably a worse impression than if they had failed to respond in the first place.

I’m glad I’m not in kc’s shoes. But the problem goes far deeper I suspect. Unfortunately, Holiday Inn remain in the category of companies who – in my view, for what it’s worth – just don’t get it.

Over to you, competition. If you’re currently losing market share to a hotel that refuses to provide 24-hour wifi access, let me know. You’ve just got a potential new customer.