But rather than chief executive officer, Duffy prefers the self-titled role of ‘chief executive optimist’ to describe his work. Here he shares his thoughts on jobs for life, why Edinburgh’s start-up community is booming, and why independence isn’t such a big deal.
Q: You’ve had quite a colourful career. How did you manage to go from school teacher to police sergeant to entrepreneur?
A: I made the wrong career choices basically. I think families always push you towards a job for life with security and a pension. But it took me till I was in my 30s to realise that this just didn’t fit with my personality or DNA. I knew that if I didn’t do something, I’d be sat doing the same thing for the next 18 years so I left my job as a police officer the very next day. I had nothing to go to but knew that’s what it would take to ring the changes. Before long, I bought a car valeting franchise and invested in a further five. I worked at it and sold them and now I’ve moved into social entrepreneurship. E-Spark is my whole life.
Q: What were the challenges you faced in setting up your own business?
A: I think that when you work for a big organisation, things are relatively safe. Someone works out your pay and holidays, for example. But when it’s your own business, you have to learn how to do everything yourself. There were a lot of things I just didn’t know how to do. But you make mistakes and learn from them.
Q: How did E-Spark come about?
A: I think that once you’ve set up your own business and see how things are being done elsewhere and could be improved, it spurs you on. I realised that the support services available to start-ups in Scotland weren’t very joined up and that other countries which were fostering start-up businesses for the first 12 to 18 months helped them achieve traction more quickly. If you look at the likes of the eco systems in Boston and New York, for example, they have great entrepreneurial hubs in which businesses really look after each other. I saw that similarities could be applied over here in Scotland but you can’t just take a US model and plonk it in this country and expect it to work. I had to look at the business psyche in Scotland and assess the mindsets and perceptions of its entrepreneurs. It seemed to take a lot more over here to make people ‘oven ready’. I had initially planned to launch E-Spark as a private, limited company but I did nine months of research beforehand and went out to Babson College in Boston. When I told them I’d raised a quarter-of-a-million to help fund it, they said ‘don’t do it; go home and start it as a social enterprise instead’. Everything seemed to pick up right away and, before long, Sir Tom Hunter became involved.
Q: How have you seen things change over the last two-and-a-half years?
A: There’s never been a better time to start up a business in Scotland – or in the UK for that matter. There’s a real momentum growing and hatcheries and incubators are beginning to pop up elsewhere. There is a more joined up approach. We have just started working with Business Gateway, for example, and John Swinney has been great at pioneering the EDGE Fund. Everyone has raised their game.
Q: Are the challenges any different?
A: Businesses face the same challenges the world over, whether they’re in Berlin, Johannesburg or London. There will always be hurdles when it comes to talent and access to finance. Scotland is no different.
Q: What are your thoughts on Scottish independence?
A: I don’t think it’s such a big deal for businesses at start-up level or those turning over up to £1 million. I can’t say that it’s been a concern of any of the 280 enterprises I’ve encountered. The story may be a little different at corporate level.
Q: How is Entrepreneurial Spark funded?
A: Well, I’m sitting in the Sir William Haughey OBE building in Glasgow right now and he provides much of the infrastructure while the local authority provides the operating budget. RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) offers the prize money for our large-scale events.
Q: What is the criteria for being eligible for the accelerator?
A: It’s all about the mindset. You must have that spark in your eye and be ready for some tough, rigorous and robust challenges placed on you and your proposition. You also need a good, strong sense of commitment.
Q: What are its success stories so far?
A: We have helped 280 start-ups across Edinburgh, Glasgow and Ayrshire so far and, from that figure, I’d say we have 47 really great businesses. Our aim is to create 50 top businesses. There are no high street names as yet but things are certainly moving in the right direction.
Q: In which of Entrepreneurial Spark’s operating areas have you seen the most growth?
A: We have a new intake every five months and the cycle varies. At the moment, I’d say the figures for Ayrshire are looking really good, Edinburgh is phenomenal and Glasgow is also on the way up. In fact, I’d say that Edinburgh is booming. There’s a real tech cluster there. We’re two-and-a-half years into a five-year plan and our next impact report in December looks set to be phenomenal.
Q: What is your advice to those starting out in business?
A: Make sure you’re in it for the long-haul and that you totally understand both your proposition and your customer. Do lots and lots of research before even thinking about launching a business. Many people just think they’ll open a shop and people will come; they’ll set up a website and it’ll be great – but it doesn’t often work like that.