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First $1bn Scots web firm a shining example to others

The late Peter Drucker, management consultant and author, once described innovation as "the specific instrument of entrepreneurship, the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth."

gareth WILLIAMS: Chief executive of Skyscanner, Scotland's first $1 billion web company. Picture: Stewart Attwood
gareth WILLIAMS: Chief executive of Skyscanner, Scotland's first $1 billion web company. Picture: Stewart Attwood

The late Peter Drucker, management consultant and author, once described innovation as "the specific instrument of entrepreneurship, the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth."

Today, there is evidence all around us of technological innovation disrupting everyday life, business activity and the global economy on an ever-increasing basis. It is also driving economic growth across the world, allowing more value to be created for less input and changing the way we do things. The relentless growth of mobile internet is one example. An estimated 1.4 billion people now own smartphones. Mobile internet use is expected to grow by 70% per annum over the next five years. By 2015, the use of the wireless web is expected to have overtaken wired connectivity.

Mobile internet and other rapidly changing technology trends such as cloud computing, robotics, next-generation genomics, energy storage and renewable energy are hugely challenging for policymakers everywhere.

They are also of great interest to venture capitalists on the lookout for entrepreneurial companies that are ready and able to exploit such opportunities in rapidly growing global markets.

As well as innovation, it takes inspiration and perspiration to build a world class technology company. More often than not, it also takes investment. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are all recent examples of venture capital-backed US technology companies that have gone on to achieve scale at a global level. So, can it be done here?

Amidst all the excitement surrounding London's Tech City, you could be forgiven for thinking that Shoreditch, a short hop from Westminster, was already the UK's answer to Silicon Valley. The enthusiasm for developments at Tech City is perhaps understandable, but it will almost certainly need a few more decades of achievement before a declaration of victory can be contemplated on that front. A typically London-centric perspective makes it easy to overlook the fact that there are many other vibrant technology clusters across the UK. There is increasing evidence too of the growing emergence of entrepreneurial technology companies with global potential.

On our own doorstep Edinburgh-based Skyscanner is a shining example. Already Scotland's first $1 billion web company, Skyscanner is a bright star in the UK technology constellation and the world's fastest growing international travel search company.

Over the last four years, the company has grown more than 100% year-on-year and at the same time has created hundreds of jobs.

It now attracts over 25 million unique users to its website every month, providing them with the most comprehensive and accurate flight information available, as well as instant online comparisons for car hire and hotels.

It is a truly global business, with operations in Singapore, Beijing, Miami and Barcelona. The company's vision is to have the answers for every aspect of long-distance travel and to be the world's best and most trusted travel search platform. All of this in only 10 years from the company starting up, while chief executive Gareth Williams believes the journey it is on is just starting.

Meanwhile, Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, the doyen of US venture capital firms, describes Skyscanner as being "one of the best technology companies ever to come out of Europe" and "already a leading global player".

Skyscanner has shown that the right combination of great entrepreneurship, a super-talented team and an exceptional product, with some help along the way from the right investors, can be very powerful. It also proves that world class technology companies can be created here in Scotland. Perhaps in the decades to come London will become the best place in the world to start and grow a technology company. Whether it should be prioritised by policymakers is debatable.

Scotland has a long and distinguished history of innovation and, as it happens, many potential advantages today as a hub for technology companies.

These include the availability of highly trained knowledge workers, adequate sources of intelligent capital and a steadily improving entrepreneurial culture. There is also a good support network for early stage companies, whether that is through venture capital funds, angel investors, development agencies and business incubators. Making the best use of these advantages should contribute to a more dynamic, innovative economy.

Success can help to breed success. So maybe the biggest reason to be optimistic about the technology sector in Scotland is the success of Skyscanner and other local pioneering companies, which are breaking through into the global stage and doing things differently.

As Peter Drucker also said, "If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old."

Calum Paterson is co-founder and managing partner of Scottish Equity Partners as well as a board director at Skyscanner.

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