Interview: Alan Faichney, serial tech director
They say that investors ultimately back the people in a business, because a great idea rarely works out well with the wrong people in charge.
Alan Faichney would concur, and has been known to dispense with those not suited to the challenge ahead. However, he admits to being more of a numbers man when it comes to working out if he really fancies the challenge on offer.
“My passport would describe me as a company director,” he says, “but if I’m asked over a pint [which he was] I’d say I’m a mathematician.”
Not only a mathematician, but one who says he spends much of his spare time writing code. He’s also one of Scotland’s most successful tech company turnaround specialists and, probably, one of its least well known.
Faichney is a serial director, a go-to ‘fixer’ who has been brought in by numerous investors and advisers to re-boot startups or just give them the extra juice that will get them back on the road to growth.
For someone who’s expected on occasions to put his figurative boot into those not performing he speaks gently about the current tech outlook, reflecting on where Scotland might have done a little better if the stars had been properly aligned.
His tousled hair and beard are aptly professorial and his kaleidoscopic outfit of yellow corduroy trousers, blue waistcoat and brown jacket suggest that he likes to do things his own way. He certainly has firm views on the need for a gear change in the tech sector and how, finally, if might be happening.
It’s been a long journey since he joined Ferranti as a software analyst in 1978 and began his management tour of familiar and not so familiar early stage firms such as Geofix, Concept, Dem Solutions, Pufferfish and Edinburgh Instruments. These days he has three jobs, one of which is CEO of UnikLasers based at Ratho, having been interviewed about the chairmanship and then offered the job which, as chairman, he was expected to fill.
His experience has earned him a place at the top table for angel backers seeking the answer to a problem and making him well-positioned to judge what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be done.
He describes ex-Skyscanner excecutive Mark Logan’s report for government on building the tech ecosystem as “excellent” and believes government is serious – at least to a point – about taking his recommendations forward. He says ministers will need to commit more funding to ensure the plan gets put into action.
“It is exactly what Scotland needs. But £4 million for the first five tech incubators? It will not get us very far,” he says.
Aside from that, he believes the report’s proposals are fundable and, more importantly, achievable, not least by the fortunate timing of the Scottish Investment Bank’s metamorphosis into the Scottish National Investment Bank, due later this year.
“It is a happy coincidence,” he says, with a knowing smile, and noting that the SIB generally co-invests alongside others who’ve done the searching and diligence. The SNIB will be more pro-active, charged with putting money behind those it seeks out for itself.
Should Scotland have a minister for technology?
“I am encouraged that Kate Forbes [the Finance Secretary] is responsible as she has control of the purse strings,” he says. “A technology minister would be banging on her door and might not get the desired answer.”
Much now rests on the minister fulfilling her commitment to the 34 Logan recommendations, but Faichney says a cultural change still needs to take place in Scotland. Investors remain too coy about backing real prospects, and even the country’s billionaires are more interested in other sectors, he says.
“Most of the billionaires have money in transport, property and oil… people are putting money into that development in Princes Street [he means the St James Quarter shopping centre]. It will be a white elephant, like Ocean Terminal.”
Controversial stuff, but an indication perhaps of the change of focus that he feels is needed to get Scotland challenging in the big tech league.
Much is made of Scotland’s achievements in the sector, and a new report from Tech Nation this week highlighted that a fifth of the workforce in Edinburgh and Glasgow work in technology, though the figures needed to be treated with caution as they were pre-pandemic. Even so they showed vacancies are rising. Faichney says Scotland is still off the pace compared to some rival areas, such as Cambridge. Back to Logan.
Faichney believes the technology route map is do-able but that it will take at least five years to get to the first iteration of creating enough startups.
‘I could give you a list of a dozen companies in Scotland which could have been more successful, and much faster if their investors had had deeper pockets’
“Everyone has been agreed for years that Scotland needs a self-supporting eco-system [Logan’s chief target]. At the moment it is too narrow. Take Scottish Equity Partners which has been marvellously successful but now invests in London and Cambridge because there just aren’t enough suitable prospects here.
“People talk about Scotland being a new Silicon Valley. It is just shorthand for becoming self-supporting, as Cambridge has become and where it is a lot easier to get VCT money.”
The holy grail is seeking out and building more companies that can become the next unicorns – the billion dollar businesses. Scotland’s well-publicised, but rather short list, includes the search engine company Skyscanner (now owned by a Chinese firm), the fantasy sports company FanDuel (now part of PaddyPower in the US) and the brewer and pubs group BrewDog (still independent).
Asked where the next might come from, Faichney pauses, clearly not wanting to betray any secrets. “I could give you a list of a dozen companies in Scotland which could have been more successful, and much faster if their investors had had deeper pockets,” he says. “Three could have done spectacularly well.
“When people investing in you are angel syndicates of moderate wealth you will find they drip feed investment when it is essential as opposed to when it could be used to accelerate growth.
“By that time the companies are stunted. It is holding companies back and very few have realised their true potential.”
Education: University of St Andrews (BSc Mathematics)
Career highlights: Began as an analyst at Ferranti; Concept Systems (managing director); Edinburgh Instruments (CEO); The Pantry (co-founder); UnikLasers (CEO); a number of non-executive directorships and chairmanships. Spent some time in Houston, US, following sale of Concept to ION Geophysical
What keeps you awake at night?
Poor, thoughtless management
What did you want to become when you were young?
Won the Queen’s Award for Export twice
You’ve held a few posts. Any that got away?
I was once offered the chairmanship of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. I turned it down.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party who would you choose?
Nicola Sturgeon, Robert de Brus & James VI for a purely Scottish focus
Or… Vivaldi, Dante Alighieri & Lorenzo de Medici for renaissance art
Or… Marie Curie, Charles Darwin & Nicolaus Copernicus for science
[that’s cheating, but we’ll not quibble]