As a Scot working in the United States, Steven Morris’s American colleagues assumed he would be an ace golfer. He tried his best to explain that he was learning the game, but was nowhere near scratch standards. They brushed his excuses aside, continuing to insist that the man “from the home of golf” should come out and play.

“I eventually did, but it was a massive disappointment to them,” he says. “They soon saw what I meant – golf is not a game you can pretend to play.”

Mr Morris is founder and chief executive of the ESM syndicate based in Stirling, a group of 85 investors including a network of ex-pat Scots that Mr Morris met during the earlier years in his career when he travelled extensively. ESM has invested more than £13 million across 16 early-stage Scottish technology companies since it was set up in 2012, most recently contributing the lion’s share of the £350,000 raised in May by Edinburgh’s Time for You Care, followed by Glasgow-based Bellrock Technology’s £1m fundraising in June.

He set up ESM four years after selling ETV Interactive, a provider of digital business systems used by the world’s leading hotels. Most consumers would recognise this as the personalised “welcome” message that appears on the television screen immediately upon entering their room.

The sale of ETV to iBAHN, a global provider of information and entertainment systems headquartered in the US, generated “healthy returns” for ETV’s investors and paved the way to the formation of ESM Investments. It also set the stage for Mr Morris’s less than prodigious American golf outing, which occurred during the four years after the sale of ETV when he was working as head of global product management for iBAHN.

But it could have been very different. In the months following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there were serious questions whether ETV would stay afloat.

Mr Morris was in the final stages of sealing a key deal with the worldwide Hilton Group when airplanes hijacked by terrorists flew into the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and the Twin Towers in New York City, leading to a temporary closure of US and Canadian airspace and a prolonged downturn in air travel amid fears of further attacks. The shock was a predictably powerful drain on demand for hotel accommodation globally.

“Those aircraft slammed into those buildings, and all of the world changed,” Mr Morris said. “I thought our business was over.

“I can tell you we had a lot of soul-searching to do at that time.”

With business and leisure travel severely curbed, ETV was stuck in limbo for months after the attacks. But in the end, the hoteliers decided to take advantage of their largely empty rooms by bringing forward capital spending on upgrades, and the deal between Hilton and ETV came to fruition.

Based on this experience, Mr Morris is keen to emphasise to young entrepreneurs that they mustn’t lose faith in today’s tough climate. While Covid-19 has undoubtedly thrown a brake on economic activity, it will also create new opportunities.

A graduate of Graeme High School, Mr Morris went on to the local Falkirk College of Technology where he studied engineering. He then joined BP at its facility in Grangemouth but soon thereafter decided on a change of tack and re-trained in business and finance.

He was appointed in 1989 to design and implement a quality management system across all the operations of London-headquartered Industrial Control Systems, a two-year project that allowed the company to achieve ISO 9001 registration. He then joined independent certification specialist BM Trada as a consultant in charge of developing new business in Scotland.

During this period, he spent as many as three days a week “living in hotels”, which is when he began developing the idea that would lead to setting up ETV in 1999.

“A lot of us had three, four or five email addresses we used,” he recalls. “But that was back when email access wasn’t the norm – Google wasn’t even around at that time.

“But I had a vision that sometime soon that was going to change, and there was going to be a need for internet access all throughout hotels, from the lobby right up to the bedrooms. We were going to have to transform the way that guests could use the internet.”

He started out with a mix of money from bank loans and family members which was bolstered in 2001 by a relatively small equity injection from two private investors. Unlike today, there were very few investment groups around in Scotland at that time.

ESM is one of about 40 syndicates in Scotland, though not all are active. Reports on their investment levels vary widely, though Mr Morris prefers the figures collated by Young Company Finance (YCF) which show a total of £27m spread across 30 deals in Scotland during the first quarter of this year.

Figures for the second quarter will be crucial in gauging the pandemic’s impact on the sector. If levels remain in the ballpark of the £48.5m YCF reported for the second quarter of 2019, then the damage to start-up sector funding could be relatively limited. But if that number crashes – or if the ratio of successful applicants falls from the usual one out of 10 – then young growing firms look set for financial handicap over the longer-term.

“If the numbers are as bad as one out of 25, then you are in the entrepreneurial bunker,” Mr Morris warns.


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

China. I visited Beijing, Shanghai and worked in Hong Kong extensively between 2005 and 2012. The sheer size and volume of everything in Beijing is on a scale not seen in many other cities globally. The cuisine and overall experience in Shanghai was impressive and sobering in equal amounts.

I also visited Japan on business. Tokyo is a feast on the eye and it’s a city that affects all of your senses.

I visited the RSA a few years ago on holiday and spent time in Pretoria, Krugar Park, Durban on the Indian Ocean and Cape Town on the Atlantic Ocean. Again, the sights, the sounds and the smells made a big impact. The simplicity of life in certain places is very humbling.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted a career in telecommunications technology in the military. I wanted to learn a trade, travel, meet people and see the world.

What was your biggest break in business?

When I established ETV Interactive Ltd in 1999, my local bank manager approved a bank loan of £35,000, matched with equity investment from an early stage investor to assist the company achieve its business plan and growth aspirations. We believed that this sum of money would last the business forever! Of course, the reality was this capital sum didn’t last long at all. We sold the business in 2007 after a very successful period in building the value, however none of this could have been possible without our local bank manager and our investor putting faith in our venture.

What was your worst moment in business?

My business was supplying premium end technology solutions to 5-star hotel operations globally when 9/11happened. Circa one week after that ill- fated day, we believed that our customers would slow down due to people being unable to travel and stay in hotels. Fortunately for us, our customers found time to take a breath and consider how they could use the down time to best effect. We were there and ready for them.

Who do you most admire and why?

Anyone striving to make a difference in society, helping and inspiring others. There are innumerable examples with us now.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries.

Amy Macdonald