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5 August 2022

“There’s still not enough focus on the economy,” says Scotland’s chief entrepreneur Mark Logan

The former Skyscanner executive on his battle to change the Scottish government’s mindset.

By Chris Deerin

Your typical tech bro doesn’t tend to quote TS Eliot and Joseph Conrad in conversation, or explain business through its parallels with chess. Mark Logan is very far from your typical tech bro.

Logan, 52, was the chief operating officer of Skyscanner, the flight app company, which is one of only two unicorns (start-ups valued at more than $1bn) to have originated in Scotland. A revered national success story, it was sold to the Chinese company Ctrip, now Trip.com, for £1.4bn in 2016. Logan, who is from a working class background in Clydebank, says that, following years of overwork and stress, it was the first time he’d had the financial freedom to take a breath and think about what he’d like to do next.

To Scotland’s benefit, he decided to put his hard-won expertise and experience to broader use. In August 2020 he published a review of the technology ecosystem for the Scottish government. Such papers are rarely inspiring reads, but this was of a different order: direct, detailed, a straightforward user’s manual for how to boost the nation’s performance in the global digital economy. Far from sticking it on a shelf, Kate Forbes, the economy minister, has said she is set on implementing its recommendations entirely.

Then, in July this year, Forbes announced that Logan would become Scotland’s chief entrepreneur, a new post with the task of boosting start-up numbers and aiding their growth, bringing technology education into schools, and instilling greater entrepreneurialism in the public sector. As things stand, Scotland creates too few businesses and struggles to grow those start-ups that do exist. Its growth and productivity are too low, and there are wide regional discrepancies between winners and losers.

Given the importance of the digital revolution to the future economy, Logan’s role is crucial. With his analytical skills, global experience and commitment to getting things done, he seems made for it. His appointment was widely welcomed by a business community that has otherwise felt ignored and misunderstood by Nicola Sturgeon’s administration.

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His is an impressive, restless mind that is constantly searching for connections. He speaks frankly about the challenges he is facing in persuading the devolved government and the public sector to embrace change and the pace of the modern world, but he is at heart an optimist, and a determined one.

The first concrete evidence of his impact emerged recently, when Sturgeon announced the £42m establishment of seven hubs across Scotland for growing tech businesses. These had been one of the recommendations in Logan’s ecosystem report, and are intended to make it easier for tech founders to scale up their businesses by accessing advice and mentorship. He hopes the hubs will also act as a one-stop regional shop for investors from London and abroad.

A key part of his role is to make the case for entrepreneurialism to the Scottish government, which he says is “still a relatively recent convert to the importance of that”. There are few Scottish ministers with experience of business, and the Sturgeon administration has placed a greater priority on social justice than economic growth. “As I like to point out to people, every job we know of exists because someone started something, and if we want people to flourish we’ve got to be starting things,” he says.

It’s obvious that the rate of change is speeding up, he says, using the film Back to the Future as an analogy. “That was set in 1985. Marty McFly goes back in time 30 years to 1955 and he’s amazed by the fact they don’t have things like Diet Pepsi and skateboards. Now, imagine you had made that film in 2015, and he’d gone back to 1985, what wouldn’t you have had? The internet, mobile phones, social media, extraordinarily powerful computers in your hand, to name just a few.”

Today, constant, quick reinvention is essential, in government as well as business. “If you iterate quickly, even if you’re making mistakes, you’ll get to the right answer faster than if you iterate slowly but well,” Logan says. “Scotland needs to get into that mindset. We don’t iterate quickly, we’re too cautious, there’s too many stakeholders that all need to be happy at once. I think the balance is wrong just now in the Scottish machine because I think we have a culture which tries to cling too much to how things are. We don’t tear things down that aren’t working, we still fund them too long. That means the money doesn’t get to things that should be working. We’ve really got to increase in government the speed of iteration.”

Many people who enter the public sector from business find the experience frustrating, and Logan is no different. “It’s still not nearly as easy to get things done as it should be,” he says. “There’s still not enough focus on the economy.”

As an example of his frustration, he raises the issue of computer science in schools. A key recommendation in his report was that programming should be taught from the first year of secondary school, and given the same status as maths and physics. “Programming computers is as important as writing in English in the age we’re going into. Estonia is a tiny country that’s producing a lot of unicorns, because they have done exactly what I’m prescribing.”

It’s clear from his comments that Logan has run into the McBlob – the amalgam of education agencies and organisations that have blocked meaningful reform of Scotland’s schooling for decades. “I have spent the last two years in this space, and it’s very hard to get things done because there’s no one owner,” he says. “Let’s say I want to do something on the front line with teachers – there’s Education Scotland, there’s the SQA, there’s local authorities, the unions, the headteachers, and all of those groups together have to basically agree on doing something. Now that has frankly become the big excuse – ‘we’d love to do that, but we have to get those other people convinced’. Education has been, relatively speaking, a more difficult area in which to make progress.”

In an attempt to circumvent the bureaucracy, Logan has involved teachers in his plans and meetings. He is working on a pilot programme to properly train computing teachers, because many are not specialists and are co-opted from other subjects such as business studies. There will also be a new scheme to recruit computing science students from universities into teaching. “We’re getting some stuff done in education, but it’s way too slow,” he says. “It shouldn’t be this hard. I’m not seeing enough people throwing themselves onto the barbed wire of that task alongside me.”

He reveals that the devolved government is working on the creation of a Scottish-centred “Series A” public-private fund that will back businesses that are ready to scale up. It would be run by a private venture capital (VC) company, receive taxpayers’ cash and also aim to attract large investors such as pension funds.

Finally, Logan is co-writing a report with Ana Stewart, a Scottish entrepreneur, on how start-ups founded by women can attract more private investment. “Pretty much every country finds ways to exclude women from being entrepreneurs,” he says. “By and large, 1 to 2 per cent of VC money in the UK and Europe goes to female founders. So if you make an inroad in that then you have a dramatic impact on the talent that we have at a foundational level. It also releases energy in society when we stop practising gender ghettoisation, which is what that really is.”

In 1980s Clydebank, when Logan was growing up, he watched the town’s economy collapse as its shipyards, which had produced the Lusitania, HMS Hood, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the QE II, closed. Then the giant Singer sewing machine factory shut down too. As this industrial decline was mirrored across much of central Scotland, he saw the hope knocked out of his parents’ generation. “If you looked across Scotland at that time you could feel the mass lamentation that was going on,” he says. 

“But I always felt that Scotland for too long stayed in that past, in that lamentation, and stopped looking to the future.”

He is driven also by the death of his elder brother, Paul, who drowned when Logan was 17. Since then, he has been determined to make his time count. “If I was talking with my brother now about how I’d spent the years he didn’t have, would he consider them well spent?” he says. It is a thought he often returns to.

Modern Scotland has no choice but to look forward and to get on with things, Logan says, and he wants to play his part. “To me, what matters is that we have an environment in this country where people can flourish. That might sound a bit idealistic but it’s what I believe is important.”

Ministers should back this unusual and impressive man, who represents the best of Scotland in so many ways, all the way.

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