Buzzing with energy:
Clients and other business associates gathered to mark the official opening of Andrew Duncan’s latest technology adventure perhaps not realising that it was never meant to be like this.
As a young boy at Glasgow High School, Duncan had prepared himself for a career in law, though at university he went off that idea and studied business and management. His real interest, however, lie in something entirely different.
Computer science may be an academic pursuit for some, but for the young lad from Drymen near Glasgow it was a passion.
During family holidays he read books about coding, teaching himself to become a programmer, and for his school project he designed a content management system. Still only 17 he worked with the community council to install a series of wifi hotspots around his village.
By the time he was in his early 20s he had written two text books that became IT ‘bibles’ and had built a worldwide fan club of blue chip software firms regularly logging on to his must-read blog.
“Yes, I am a geek,” he says. “I just love it.”
It was becoming clear to him while working as a software engineer for the NHS by day and writing his blogs at night that he would one day run his own business.
Swarm Online (the term used to describe a collection of computers) was first entered in a university entrepreneurship contest. Now it’s a thriving company producing a range of specialist apps for industry that has just opened its second office, a refurbished block in Edinburgh’s Dean Village.
Duncan has plans to grow the six staff in the capital to 16, adding to the 18 at its head office in Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, and one in London.
Getting them, he admits, will be a challenge, because he needs individuals with specific skills. He believes, however, that Edinburgh is a more likely source of the talent he is seeking.
“In Glasgow you find JP Morgan has such a hold on the market that it is hard to get people,” he says. “All the grads coming out of Strathclyde [university] will end up at JP Morgan.
“In Edinburgh, there are more smaller companies and start-ups which makes it a better place to find recruits.”
To make doubly sure he is able to get the people he wants he has installed something in the new office that might just make Swarm Online an attractive proposition.
“We have a bar. It’s permanently stocked. Of course we expect staff to use it sensibly and to see it as a good place to hang out and meet clients.”
Notwithstanding his comments about JP Morgan soaking up staff, he knows that Edinburgh has created its own tech stars that feature on many graduates’ go-to lists. It’s why he believes that a good working environment is important.
“FanDuel and Skyscanner have created terrific environments for their staff and we are competing with them for people,” he says.
The Edinburgh office has actually been open since last August, but the official launch was delayed until this week to fit in with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who was due to perform the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It’s been a troubled engagement.
First there were doubts she could make it after the General Election was called, then the Manchester terror attack meant she cancelled all engagements on the day she was supposed to be at Swarm’s new office.
“It’s a shame, but it’s quite understandable,” says Duncan who reverted to Plan B by inviting his mother Janina to stand in for the SNP leader and perform the official duties.
Duncan is already turning his sights on a bigger representation in London and is in talks with Duncan Logan’s Rocketspace accelerator about taking rooms in its offices and possibly raising finance.
Thus far Swarm’s growth has been largely organic, with some help from the likes of Par Equity, but Duncan has his eyes on growing turnover from £1.6 million to £10m by 2020 and that may mean more VC help, perhaps bank funding. He thinks a move to something like the Alternative Investment Market is further away.
Clients are a mix of financial services and energy companies such as Aegon, Clydesdale Bank, E.ON, ScottishPower, Scottish Widows and Shell. The board was bolstered earlier this year with the arrival of former SSE directors Ian Marchant and Nigel Ellis to help give the move into energy another push.
When he’s not at his desk, Duncan is a regular speaker at tech conferences around the world and believes he takes the message about Scotland’s tech sector with him.
“SwarmOnline represents the Scottish tech scene on the global stage and we have a burgeoning international reputation,” he says.
He also has one other important engagement in his diary, which he announced to those gathered for the official opening.
“I’m getting married on Saturday,” he said. Loud cheers all round for a young man who clearly has more than one passion in his life.
Education: Glasgow High School; Glasgow University
Career Highlights: NHS (software engineer); founded Swarm Online
How did the business idea first develop?
While I was a student I worked in an O2 shop and they taught me a lot about selling.
Any other interests?
I play curling for Glasgow Academicals
My parents are professional musicians. My mother is half Polish, my father half German. My younger brother Chris is a budding pop star calling himself C Duncan. He was short-listed for a Mercury Prize and has been on tour with Elbow.