Adbrain, one of the most successful companies to come out of Campus London to date, attributes its achievements — which include attracting over $8 million in funding and partnerships with some of the biggest names in advertising — to having a diverse international team. The adtech company’s 30 employees include 12 different nationalities, many of whom are non-European. “We live and die by the strength of our product,” says Gareth Davies, CEO of Adbrain, a company that helps clients develop ads targeted to clients across multiple devices.
That’s the company’s strength — hiring the best people globally — but it comes with its own issues. One of its co-founders risks having his visa application denied on a technicality. While Davies says he is “confident we will get this resolved,” the issue has cost the company precious time and “a fortune in specialist legal fees.”
If London truly wants to be a global tech hub it will need to revamp its immigration policy to allow more talented, highly-educated foreigners to stay in Britain, says Davies. “It is critical for our country and our economy.”
The UK government has responded. Having opened up visas for overseas entrepreneurs, the government announced in March an expansion of its “Exceptional Talent” visa to include for the first time “exceptional talent in the field of digital technology.” Tech City UK will be able to endorse 200 applications.
To date the number of people able to stay in the UK under the scheme has been extremely limited as the qualification criteria were so stringent. Only 60 were issued in 2013 said the Home Office.
“A lot of what the government has done has been excellent,” says Dan Crow, CTO of Songkick, which operates a database of concerts, pointing to earlier policies like the entrepreneur and investor visas, and making it easier for companies to sponsor a small number of visas, effectively fast-tracking employees through the convoluted system.
But that is not enough, says Hussein Kanji, partner at London’s Hoxton Ventures, a new fund focused on early-stage investment. While it is too early to say what effect the expansion of the “exceptional talent” visas will have, Kanji says the government’s efforts to date rate an “incomplete.” To get a passing grade it will need to focus on the roles that will make the biggest impact. “Where does job creation come from? It comes from start-ups that begin small and scale up rapidly. Look at Google; it went from nothing to 20,000 jobs in five years.”
For London start-ups needing to scale there is a missing person, someone you can’t find in Europe — product managers. “Most products in our industry are bad — product management is a poor profession. But the ones who are good are consistently good. Why is this? Product management is not something you teach at business school. It is an apprentice-driven industry. You can trace back the good product managers in Silicon Valley. Every product he or she touches is a good product. All of the people who get trained underneath him or her know how to do it.
“These people don’t exist here in London because we don’t have the guys here who have done it who can teach the next generation.”
But there are fears that the UK’s increasingly hostile political climate towards immigration is going to make it harder to recruit. “The rise of UKIP makes a difference,” says Crow, referring to the anti-European Union political party that is predicted to do well in the May European elections. “That is having an effect [on recruiting]. We as a start-up are having to work a lot harder to open the conversation with candidates.”
"Try telling them that rising immigration is good news"
A February poll conducted by YouGov found some 70% of voters said they want immigration reduced (49%) or stopped completely (21%).
Nor is it just opposition parties. Home Secretary Theresa May told an audience in 2012: “It is not a choice between wealth and poverty, but of the sort of country one desires to inhabit.”
And earlier this year, in a hard-hitting speech, the junior immigration minister said immigration “puts pressure on social cohesion, on public services and infrastructure …
“The people who lose out are from working class families, they’re ethnic minorities and recent immigrants themselves. Try telling them that rising immigration is good news.”
Even if the economic argument can be proved, persuading a skeptical public of the benefits may prove a lot harder, meaning things could remain difficult for start-ups with culturally diverse teams like Adbrain.