By Steven Heddle, Chair of the Business Gateway Board

Many visitors to Scotland are often somewhat astounded to learn that inventors from our country have created some of the most important developments to improve our life in the modern age… the telephone, television, pedal bicycle, refrigerator, penicillin and MRI scanner to name just a few.

ingenuity however will not be surprised to learn that our country is continuing to innovate and, as a result, businesses are continuing to successfully carve out leading positions for themselves as national and globally competitive players.

Despite the economic and political challenges, Scotland’s entrepreneurial spirit is shining through as is evidenced from the latest figures from the Scottish Government’s annual Business in Scotland report which provides information on the number of businesses operating in Scotland.

The report showed that as at March 2019, there were an estimated 356,550 private sector businesses operating in Scotland – the highest level since 2000. In addition, the estimated number of businesses rose by 2.8% between March 2018 and March 2019 while SMEs accounted for 99.3% of all private sector businesses, 55.4% of private sector employment and 41.5% of private sector turnover as at March 2019.

It is a strong indication of Scotland’s resilience. Perhaps one of the most telling findings was that a considerable 4.3% rise in the number of unregistered businesses – those not registered for VAT and/or PAYE – was the major driver of the overall increase in businesses. The number of unregistered businesses increased from 170,500 in March 2018, to 177,770 in March this year.

The latest figures are reflected in Business Gateway’s most recent Quarterly Report for October to December 2019 during which the number of new start-ups increased by 13% compared with the same period the previous year. The figure rose from 1,998 to 2,252. The number of firms growing their business also increased year on year by 9.2% from 87 to 95 while the number of visitors to Business Gateway’s website rose by 12% from 107,005 to 119,413.

Of the more than 2,500 firms that Business Gateway helped to start up in this quarter, 52% were female led. There also continued to be a healthy proportion of new businesses being established by young people with an increase of over 16% from 280 to 327.

Both the Scottish Government and Business Gateway reports paint an encouraging picture of Scotland’s business scene with a diverse mix of new starts and businesses scaling up across the length and breadth of the country. In the face of political and economic unrest, innovation and entrepreneurship is riding the wave of uncertainty and it’s happening throughout a number of key sectors from food and drink, energy, and technology – creating exciting new manufacturing, employment and export opportunities.

Kelso-based thermal image analysis software firm, ThermaFY, is just one company flying the business flag for Scotland. Within four years of being established, the specialist company has not only expanded across Europe but its founder, Amanda Pickford, has received wide industry acclaim including being selected to join one of the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) programmes of its kind run by Microsoft.

It’s a far cry from when Amanda first set up the business in a kitchen cupboard at her home. Through Business Gateway, Amanda refined her business offering and completed a strategy workshop through Scottish Development International. She was also successful in being awarded a Make It To Market grant which allowed her to recruit while, through Scottish Enterprise, Amanda managed to get an innovation grant of £96,000.

Perthshire chef Praveen Kuma boosted production of his Authentic Indian Cuisine ready meal range by 400% and expanded into two new premises following the launch of his business less than 12 months ago. After carrying out a review of his business plan, Business Gateway advised Praveen on funding and provided access to intellectual property and marketing specialists. The significant growth of his firm has resulted in up to 50 jobs being created in Perth.

Praveen’s ready meal range, which boasts complete traceability, is freshly cooked with locally sourced ingredients, grown in Praveen’s Perthshire market garden, or imported from the family’s farm in India. Each authentic dish is prepared by hand then blast frozen to seal in flavour and sold online to customers or via high-end retailers.

The nimbleness and foresight of growing Scottish businesses as well as new starts is underlined by the common themes of support being sought from Business Gateway – access to funding , understanding investment opportunities, strategic planning, people development and building effective teams, as well as new markets, digital strategies and skills development, and the implementation of management systems.

Growth companies tend to have further, much more defined and bespoke needs such as advice on cash flow and maintaining a competitive edge, staff retention and development, business premises, regulations for expanding into new markets, and IT and marketing.

Central to helping businesses succeed has been Business Gateway’s ability to listen to what businesses need and then deliver the right support and connections for them. This is underpinned by regular research and surveys to ensure we continue to listen to our clients, be responsive and deliver added value.

In many ways, we are at the forefront of the evolving business scene across Scotland and experiencing first-hand the new trends, disruptors and opportunities that are emerging.

As Scotland continues to work to ensure its future prosperity, emerging pioneers and talent are performing a key role in helping to tackle key issues like the ageing workforce and the drive to increase productivity by identifying and capitalising on gaps in the marketplace.

Providing support is crucial to helping them stand on their own feet, grow and realise their full potential – while assuring that entrepreneurial spirit continues to be the globally-renowned backbone of Scotland.

*Please note this piece was written in February 2020 (pre-lockdown)