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How the Brexit would impact the UK’s tech startup scene

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Husayn Kussai, CEO and co-founder of UK startup Onfido, explains why a UK Brexit would be a disaster for the tech scene and lead to fewer European entrepreneurs choosing the UK as their base.

A UK exit from the European Union wouldn’t just be a blow to the British tech scene, it would effectively be a complete digital reset.

Years of hard work and progress by the tech industry would be thrown away and it’s possible we may never recover.

Ed Vaizey: Brexit would be a ‘complete disaster’ for the UK

The reality is that the UK has a chronic shortage of talent to compete globally without tapping into highly-skilled overseas workers.

In the tech startup world, a quality engineering team is not a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s essential.

Being part of the European Union is an absolute must if we wish to remain competitive and continue to produce world class, billion dollar startups such as Funding Circle or TransferWise.

Foreign talent is vital

At Onfido our 80 strong team is made up of 41 nationalities speaking 35 different languages.

There’s no doubt our diversity brings business benefits – from shaping an open-minded and progressive company culture to making it easier to localise a product or launch in different markets.

Our engineering team has a healthy British contingent, but relies heavily on non-UK talent. Many advocates for a Brexit don’t seem to realise that these highly-skilled workers aren’t taking jobs from native talent, they are occupying roles we can’t otherwise fill and they’re doing so right here in the UK, which creates jobs for local workers

There simply aren’t enough qualified and experienced engineers. Even if tomorrow the government launched the best tech educational program in the world, it would take years to reap the benefits.

The inevitable reduction of overseas skilled workers a Brexit would bring wouldn’t just lead to immediate staff shortages either, it would also remove the knowledge and inspiration up and coming British talent gets from working day-to-day with international developers.

Europe, not London, would become post-Brexit base

Such is the scarcity of engineers in the UK, Onfido already has an office in Lisbon to help address the shortage.

But what’s currently a foothold in Europe to help us source talent would likely become our main base should the Brexit nightmare come true. The complications and uncertainty that would arise from doing business in our sector from outside the EU would probably force our hand.

I’ve little doubt that the similar workforce DNA that makes up many tech firms in London and the UK would see a similar decision being made by countless startups. And as for those wishing to launch a startup in the future, it would be a sound decision to opt for Europe from day one, bypassing places like Tech City from the outset.

In such circumstances, it’s hard to see how another billion dollar tech company could come out of London.

UK owes Europe a lot for its US success

One of the reasons for the great success that UK tech companies have found in the US recently is the flexibility being part of Europe offers.

There’s a massive amount of tech talent in the States, but the vast majority are sucked up by the powerhouses likes of Google and Yahoo. That leaves the startups priced out of the market and fighting over a relatively small talent pool or having to employ many remote workers (which is often far from ideal practically).

The freedom of movement in the EU allows the UK to quickly draw upon a wide talent base. We are always racing against US tech firms to recruit and the less you need to get involved with the headache of complicated visa applications the better.

More visas means more red tape

A common argument among those wishing for a Brexit is that preferential visa rules could be further refined so that the UK can still access top talent when needed with little delay.

It’s a nice theory, but in practical terms visas and red tape are always combined as a package – one that usually comes with lots of fees and very little speed.

Never underestimate how much ease of migration plays a role in a person’s choice of where to live and work, especially for those with family.

Leaving Europe would, ironically, see a major rise in the type of administrative hassle Brexit supporters claim to disdain.

We can’t afford to voluntarily handicap ourselves like this. Removing ourselves from Europe is giving up one of our main advantages in the global recruitment market.

A disconnected UK must be avoided

Migrant workers add so much to the UK both economically and intellectually. Cutting ourselves off from Europe would be a disaster for British tech.

After years of benefiting from the knocking down of barriers to exchanging talent, deciding to raise them back up again would be a costly mistake.

The chances of us producing another ‘unicorn’ outside of Europe would be slim.

The UK is already physically separate from the European mainland, there’s no need to disconnect ourselves digitally too.

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