Category Archives: Edinburgh

The Problem of Homelessness

Like most people, I used to have very little interaction with the homeless.  I’d see them every now and then on a street corner, or sometimes sleeping sheltered against a doorway if I was out early in the morning or late at night, but that was about it.

A couple years ago I started helping out with an operation that provides a meal for the homeless once a week, run by a local church here in Edinburgh.  They do a fantastic job of providing a really good meal in a nice, warm, safe setting, and the thing I like most about it is they encourage their members to bring their families and attend and eat alongside the guests.  It leads to some really interesting situations where you’re never really sure who is homeless and who isn’t, and it’s a dynamic that I really enjoy.  It’s non threatening and they don’t evangelize, they’re just providing a community and a meal.

One of the things I learned through this experience is that the edge is often very fine – many of us are just a lost job, divorce, or mistake away from being out on the streets, and once that happens, it can be very difficult to get back into normal life.  Another thing I learned is that most of these people are invisible.  I see them a lot on the streets of Edinburgh, and they look like you or me.  It’s quite nice seeing a guest and stopping for a quick chat, even if sometimes it takes a few tries calling their name because they’re not used to being spoken to while walking around.  While the safety net in Scotland is fantastic, particularly when compared to America, there are still people who fall through and there are an estimated 35,000 homeless here.  Often they’re afraid of something, running from something, or have mental health issues.  Providing these people a way out is difficult, and that’s why we’ve been proud to support SocialBite for several years at Administrate – they often provide our weekly team lunch, lunch for our board meetings, and have catered various events for us, and they do so staffed mostly by the formerly homeless.

This year, I’m choosing to join a couple hundred other business leaders to sleep outside for one night in December in support of those of us who often have no choice.  Money raised will go towards the construction of homes for those who have none.  If you’d like to donate to this effort you can do so here, and you can read a bit more about this over on the blog at Administrate.

Thanks!

 

 

How to Ask for Advice / Feedback About Your Startup

One of the things I’m passionate about is helping other startups and the community of entrepreneurs we have here in Edinburgh (and in Scotland).  Since becoming more intentional about “taking the pledge“, I’ve been meeting with lots of folks locally, and been surprised by the amount of requests!

So much so that other team members here at Administrate are helping me shoulder the load, according to areas of expertise (thanks Mike and Patrick!) and time constraints, and I know of many others in the community who are donating their time and expertise.  Helpfulness and support has always been a hallmark of the Scottish startup scene, so this isn’t anything new, but there’s so much more activity now, so many more companies, and so many more entrepreneurs now!  It’s great to see!

I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to expect, so I thought I’d lay out a brief framework to help everyone get the most out of the time.

  1. Remember that most advice is delivered within a context vacuum.  Don’t take my advice (or anyone else’s) without fully thinking things through and satisfying yourself.  Bad advice can come from really great people.
  2. In order to be at all helpful, I need context.  Things I usually ask about are: the problem you’re trying to solve (as a company), your business model (SaaS, etc), your market, some metrics around revenue, customers (people paying you money), team size, how long you’ve been going, growth, and churn.  It’s ok if you don’t have all of this information, but the quicker we can rattle through these items, the faster we can get up to speed.
  3. It’s totally cool if you just want to chat, but I’ll usually ask you what you’re biggest challenges are – we have these at Administrate and sometimes they feel cyclical (first we’re worried about sales, then tech, then support, then sales again, etc.).  Even if everything is going well, the question will often be “ok, how do we double down and make it even better?”
  4. I probably can’t help you too much with hiring (particularly “line” staff) – my network is mainly in the USA (so not local), and we’re in high growth mode here at Administrate, so if I know of any devs or whatever we’re probably going to hire them!
  5. Expect me to be very, very blunt.  If you’re British it may come across as almost hostile sometimes.  Sorry.  When I get into problem solving mode or analysis mode, I tend to interrupt, ask lots of questions, and don’t filter much.
  6. Expect me to play devil’s advocate.  Expect me to really push you on a few things.  Expect to be challenged.  The best advice I’ve ever received was from someone telling me they thought I could be a lot more ambitious, which annoyed me at the time, but really made a difference.
  7. One thing you won’t get from me is griping about raising money in the UK, finding a team, or complaining about Scottish Enterprise or Scottish Development International.  If you’re annoyed about these things, fine, but expect an argument from me!
  8. I’m not going to be very helpful to you with introductions to angels, VCs or syndicates.  These people all make their own decisions and won’t look at you in any different light if I make an intro for you.
  9. I won’t share anything about our conversation unless you specifically tell me you don’t mind.  I also expect the same in return.  This means I don’t mind if you want to ask me about challenges I’m facing now, etc.  We like to be transparent, and often it can be comforting to hear that someone else is going through something you’re struggling with.
  10. The majority of my experience and expertise is in high growth Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service.  So be aware I’ll bias towards that style of company.  I don’t like most B2C ideas because they are riskier, require more funding earlier, require a lot of traction to be successful and are often harder to build and/or monetise.
  11. A couple of times things have gotten emotional (really!).  That’s OK! Building a business can be really hard.  Relationships are involved. It can feel overwhelming.  That’s normal.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not the first time.
  12. Unfortunately, you may have your appointment changed around a few times.  Sorry, but Administrate comes first!  Also, it may be awhile before we can meet, and depending on what you’re looking to talk about, we may provide someone else from our team to give you a better perspective.

Hopefully that helps you get an idea of what to expect and makes everything run just a bit smoother!  I’ve enjoyed all of the conversations I’ve had and am always encouraged by the amazing people we have in Edinburgh working away on building things and solving problems.

Don’t Miss the Turing Festival

turing

One of the highlights of last year was the Turing Festival, held in Edinburgh during August.  It’s a fantastic event with really great speakers, and it takes place against a backdrop provided by the incredible festivals that all converge on the city.

This year’s program is incredible, featuring speakers from around the world, and the Turing Festival boasts a larger focus on startups, in part due to its close affiliation with the Edinburgh TechCube.  I’m really excited to have been asked to participate on a panel discussing Startups and Entrepreneurship.  Tickets are still available and this is the only tech conference I’m aware of held in the midst of festivals devoted to comedy, books, arts, music, and theater.

Life in the Edinburgh Tech Cube

The company I work for is fortunate enough to have offices in the Edinburgh TechCube, a technology and startup accelerator/incubator/hub that opened in January of this year.  I thought I’d show people what life is like working from the “World Class Startup Space” that we have here in Scotland.  The mission of the TechCube is to be a magnet for the area’s technology companies and technologists, help get startups up and running, see them fail or succeed, rinse, and repeat.

The City

For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a breathtaking city, one of the most beautiful in the world.  The entire downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the incredible architecture (dating from as early as medieval times) that surrounds the iconic Edinburgh castle which is perched atop a dormant volcano.  Known for its festivals and culture, it has the highest resident satisfaction of any city surveyed (by MORI), more restaurants per head of population of any UK city, and a temperate climate that has the same annual rainfall of New York City, Frankfurt, and Rome.  Its compact footprint is small enough to walk across, yet it has an excellent public transport system, a great airport, and convenient rail links to other UK cities. (Source)

The TechCube really benefits from being in such an inspiring and historic city that’s just a short flight from most of Europe.  Just a couple blocks away is the campus of the University of Edinburgh and its excellent Computer Sciences and Informatics department which provides a steady supply of top graduates each year.  There’s a lively tech community that has monthly meetups focused on a variety of technical subjects and several annual conferences that attract technologists from around the world.  I can’t think of a better place to live or start up a business.

Follow the TechCube on Twitter

The Building and Location

The TechCube began life as the Royal Dick College of Veterinary Medicine, and was constructed sometime in the 60s.  It’s an incredibly ugly building from the outside, but the key to ugly buildings (if they must exist) is to make sure that you’re on the inside looking out.  We have offices on the 1st (2nd floor for Americans) and 4th floors which means we have spectacular views of the Pentlands to the South, Arthur’s Seat to the Northwest, and the Meadows to the East.  It’s an amazing sight to see the Scottish weather rolling in from a distance, experience the rain or snow that it brings, then have a crystal clear view of the sun as it breaks through, all within a couple of hours.

View of Arthur's Seat from the TechCube

View of Arthur’s Seat from the TechCube

The Techcube is just a few steps from the University of Edinburgh, is located on several bus lines, and within walking distance of most of the city centre, the Waverly train station, and airport shuttle.  There are also several excellent cafes, sandwich shops, pubs, and eateries within just a few minutes walk of the building.

The Team

How many times have you been happy with the landlord of your office? It’s rare enough that it warrants mentioning  that one of the things that sets the Techcube apart from other office buildings you might consider is the team that manages the facility.  Composed of managing director Jamie Coleman and his intrepid team, they make being a tenant here completely hassle free, really fun, and they’re very aggressive about consistently improving the facilities and public profile of the building.  Running a startup can be quite an emotional roller coaster, particularly for early stage, pre-revenue startups that need an environment like the TechCube to get launched from, and my guess is the cheerful words and laughter upon entry and exit of the building from the front desk staff are a special kind of therapy to many founders within the building.  It’s really hard to overstate how great the crew behind the TechCube is.

The Resources and Facilities

While the building may be ugly, the facilities available are top notch.  The entire building was renovated from top to bottom and each floor includes ample meeting room space as well as a kitchen.  Access to each floor (as well as 24 hour access) is controlled by RFID proximity cards that make the environment informal yet much more secure than your typical office space.  High ceilings and the freedom to paint and decorate as desired is another major plus.  While the windows look small from the outside, they provide plenty of light, and all outlets and ethernet ports (of which each room has dozens) are located at desk height.  Thanks to a generous donation from Skyscanner, there are free, high quality desks available to tenants to save on office costs.  Offices are well lit, well heated, and quiet (you can’t hear other tenants).  The offices available range from the very small (2 man teams) to very large with space for 20+ bodies.  Electricity is included in your monthly rent and internet is priced at a flat rate per head.  Leases are available for periods as short as 6 months, and all leases allow a break with 2 month notice.

administrate-techcube

Pricing for office space depends on the stage your company is at, with price hikes occurring at important financial milestones such as break-even and profitability.  The goal that later stage companies eventually find space elsewhere to make way for newcomers.

The TechCube is part of the larger Summerhall complex that caters to the arts and creative community in Edinburgh and enjoys the benefits of several shared facilities:

  • The Summerhall Cafe serves coffees, sandwiches, snacks, and provides a great “offsite but not” meeting location.  There’s an outdoor deck for seating during the summer.
  • The Royal Dick brewery and pub is located across the way and serves their onsite-brewed Ale along with other bites to eat, and makes a nice place to have a meeting as well.
  • Summerhall boasts some extremely unique meeting rooms that can be rented as required for larger or more formal functions.
  • There is a theatre in the basement of the TechCube for presentations to audiences up to roughly 150.
  • The ground floor of the TechCube includes a just-completed hot-desking environment which can double as a meet up space or be used for hackathons/special events that require desk and network connectivity.
  • There’s a massive boardroom/meeting room still under construction also on the ground floor.

Another resource that’s connected to the building is a pool of early stage funding currently being raised by the building to have for those companies that meet their (yet unannounced) criteria.  Expect this to be broadly patterned after well known incubators like YCombinator or Techstars.

The Neighbours

While the building is still very new, it’s already almost filled with technology companies that range from product companies to consultancies, pre-revenue to post break-even, funded, bootstrapped, and everything else you’d expect from assembling a wide range of tech companies.  There are still two floors to be renovated, and as companies succeed and fail, I’d expect the range of companies to always be in flux.  There are plenty of opportunities to bump into others in the halls, and everyone operates an open door policy for visitors.

The Intangibles

Most accelerates/incubators/hubs really sell themselves on the intangible benefits they provide such as proximity to other likeminded companies, access to the broader technical community, ongoing events, and the possibility of funding.  TechCube is no exception as all of these things are squarely on its radar and if not already available, are in the planning stages.  Already I’ve been to a few meetups and events held in the TechCube that I normally might not attend as we can just walk down after work, and that is a huge benefit.  Even if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of how much an incubator like the TechCube really matters, right now there are more than enough tangible benefits to make the building a no brainer decision, even if the planned items never materialise.

The Bottom Line

Great people, great culture, a great location, great resources, and a cadre of peers who are all at different stages in the startup journey conspire to create a place that is greater than the sum of its parts.