Scottish Entrepreneur Interview - You need a lot more than the code to get into Codebase

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Jamie Coleman
Jamie Coleman

To join the tech geniuses working on Scotland’s next billion dollar companies in the unassuming Edinburgh incubator, you must first impress Jamie Coleman.

Fresh from being nominated for Entrepreneurial Scotland’s Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 award, Jamie allowed us access into his corridors of power. He takes me through the unremarkable building into a quite stunning corner office, glass on two sides and an uninterrupted view of Edinburgh castle complete with a rainbow over the top.

“Yeah, whenever I Skype America, I make sure the laptop faces that way,” he admits.

The unexpected view from the 1960s eyesore of a building is an interesting metaphor for what goes on inside. I imagine the audition process that must happen but he contradicts me.

“Dragon’s Den is the most appallingly low-quality TV programme, it just gives the completely wrong impression of what we do here,” he says, shortly after describing himself as ‘like a nightclub bouncer’.

“The reality is that we have to be aggressive about the people who are not for us. We are only interested in businesses that have the possibility of being internationally massive, and that’s what we’re trying to build here.”

The 40 year old is immaculate in a dark, three piece tweed suit, softly spoken and very contained. He speaks knowledgeably and passionately about business and the markets but gives away no personal details.

When he’s not working, he sleeps. He says “we” but is the sole shareholder and director of the company. He admits that the entire private investment that made Codebase possible was his own.

When I ask if he ever invests in the companies he helps to develop he admits he has made sporadic angel investments, but “currently, no.”

“The reality is that mentoring is the most important bit of the job here, to really help those companies to find the true value in what they’re building – and – on occasion, I mean, no one likes to hear their baby’s ugly – but telling them something is just not working,” he says.

“The sensible thing there is that we’re trying to save them money. If they’re going to continue doing something that’s really not going to work, it’s possible to stop that, so that on Monday morning they can start again because they haven’t built a factory, they’re using a computer.”
Codebase came about because Jamie was fed up complaining about what was wrong with building companies in Scotland and the only way to do it properly, he believed, was by not relying on public money.

“It was a huge gamble to do this and there was pain every time I would look at a carpet bill or a bill for new networking,” he says. “There was a colossal cost in trying to make this happen but as you can see it’s worth it. The companies we have in here now have had just over half a billion dollars of US investment, so it’s working.”

He is most proud that this should all be happening in Edinburgh. Codebase is the biggest tech incubator in the UK – and will have more than quadrupled in size inside only two years – proving that Silicon Valley has some competition. He quotes Paul Graham from Y Combinator: “What does it take to make a great tech ecosystem? Rich people, geeks and a city they both want to live in”

“You need more stuff too – you need amazing universities with the raw talent that we just want to vacuum up; multinationals with the circulation of people linking up or outsourcing R&D or people working in a big company who fancy working for themselves and you need entrepreneurial density – enough people trying to build new stuff together,” he says. “Codebase acts as a microcosm, it’s a place for the best developer talent in the country to come together and learn from each other.”

Stories from the carefully protected microcosm include internal M&A – FanDuel’s aforementioned acquisition of fellow tenant Kotikan – and skills sharing that prevented one company going bust. The very low attrition rate – which Coleman admits is partly due to the rigorous entry criteria – hasn’t even left any casualties. Anyone whose company fails is snapped up within the week to work on another tenant’s business. Brainpower is what has sustained Scotland’s success over the centuries, Coleman asserts, and if there is one thing he can’t stand, it’s charlatans.

As a “Hume and Smith not bagpipes and shortbread” Scot, he is frustrated with the country’s lack of confidence. The biggest problem at Codebase, with rapidly expanding companies, is hiring staff. More global talent could easily be attracted, he believes, if only we were better at promoting our achievements.

“Scotland is an amazing place to live, we have utterly world class universities, we are an attractive location, people want to come and live here. We haven’t done enough with that,” he says. “There’s this strange thing where we’re great at building stuff, genuinely important innovation, but we’re not that great at shouting about it. We need to get better at that kind of advocacy.”

That being said, he is very optimistic. He refers to Codebase’s tenants as “cockroach companies” which would survive a nuclear winter. No matter what the investment environment is, he is confident in their success and in the success of the Codebase model.

“I will be utterly shocked if the next two unicorns out of here are not TVSquared and Administrate. Of all the amazing companies that have the real chance of that extreme growth, 2016 is going to be colossal for both of them,” he says.

He predicts five more billion-dollar companies will come out of his doors in the next few years – if he’s right, that nightclub bouncer analogy begins to make a lot more sense.

“We’re not just doing it with a wing and a prayer and jazz hands – we’re always full,” he says. “We’re on the verge of opening up some new space. I am actively interested in other Scottish cities and trying to see what the opportunities are to really do it well. We could radically change how Scotland operates. The stuff we know about reaching out to people who want to buy your stuff and doing it with data and rapidly finding out if you’re doing the wrong thing… those kinds of skills are valuable. Hopefully the market will prove us right.”

It’s hard not to believe him. When we finish the interview and I ask what he’s working on just now, he casually mentions he needs to confirm a million dollar investment before 5pm, but it’s ok, he’s pretty confident.

As we walk to the lift I mention my own small company and that it would never pass his interview. His smile is actually quite kind as he asks about it and then suggests that if I branched into a certain area then that would be the sort of thing that would interest him. Which area? I’ll keep that to myself – I have a billion dollar company to create.

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