A sip of a ‘new and different’ beer propelled Rising Star Tech Nation finalist John Robertson from working for Kingfisher lager in London to approaching Innis & Gunn founder Dougal Gunn Sharp for a job in Edinburgh. He always knew he wanted to set up his own business, and working with an owner founder and a small ambitious team at Innis & Gunn, where the business doubled in the three years John was there, whetted John’s entrepreneurial appetite further.
Four years on, studying in the States as a Saltire Fellow at the world’s best entrepreneurial institution Babson College fueled his entrepreneurial ambitions further. There, John saw the ‘big and crazy’ ideas that people had; the passion to pursue your dream and the belief that failure was to be celebrated as learning, not something to be ashamed of.
The States also opened his eyes to industries beyond drinks, in particular tech. He saw the potential to combine tech and drinks and in exploring further, how an American business had done just that.
He set off home to see if a similar model could be replicated in Edinburgh, and the idea for Drinkly, a one-hour chilled drinks home delivery service, was born. The timing was right, with Uber and Deliveroo opening up the logistics and the appetite for home delivery for the time-poor consumer.
Fortune would have it that he came across Leith-based tech incubator Seedhaus, a community of entrepreneurs (including Chris van der Kuyl, Robin Knox and Rob Dawson) who invest in pre-seed founders. They provided funding and office space.
The eco system of support for entrepreneurs in Scotland is tight-knit, as is the business community, particularly in tech. You have access to incredible people that you just wouldn’t have if you were in London.
It wasn’t easy to begin with. For nine months he was the sole employee making the deliveries himself seven days a week. It was hugely insightful though, and he knew he was onto something.
“Having that expertise to navigate contracts, hire staff and to learn from has been hugely beneficial. Until 18 months ago, it was just me. Now we’ve a core team of five, supplemented by freelancers, and seeing people having the belief in the idea and the business to come and join me has been incredibly rewarding.”
That desire to learn as much from others as possible to benefit himself and his business set John on the Unlocking Ambition path. He joined the £4m Scottish Government programme in 2018, which offers intensive wraparound support to help high-potential entrepreneurs in Scotland scale-up their businesses and develop their leadership skills. “I’d already had huge help from Entrepreneurial Scotland through the Saltire Fellowship and loved how the cohort there of like-minded people pushed your mindset and view of life.
If you think you’ve got an idea just do it. What you end up doing may be totally different to what you set out to do but just take something out to the market and test it.
“The eco system of support for entrepreneurs in Scotland is tight-knit, as is the business community, particularly in tech. You have access to incredible people that you just wouldn’t have if you were in London. For instance, Stuart Middleton of Skyscanner and James Watt of BrewDog have added huge value to Drinkly. I’m not sure I would have had that access in London. While other entrepreneurs may have ready access to more capital, our capital here in Scotland is in our people, our size and our desire to help one another. It is the envy of many a London-based tech business that I’ve come across.”
One of the standout moments of Unlocking Ambition for John was a masterclass on understanding personalities and skill sets. “The session showed my strengths and weaknesses. I’m great on ideas and making things happen but I’m not a detail person. The session made me hire someone with a totally complementary skill set and that combination has worked really well.”
John also returned to Babson College with Unlocking Ambition last year as part of a programme that saw him develop advanced leadership skills and receive business growth training.
By the end of this month, John will have rolled Drinkly out to 30 new locations using a new tech platform and app that the business developed at the back end of last year. Scaling the business rapidly in the UK is his first aim, then he will change the focus to international markets.
John concluded: “If you think you’ve got an idea just do it. What you end up doing may be totally different to what you set out to do but just take something out to the market and test it.”