After the jubilation and inverse disappointment of the Brexit vote in June last year, the much-debated Article 50 has finally been triggered. Just when many started to feel some confidence in the Tory leadership, the results of a miscalculated election have left the UK with a hung parliament. Whilst the immediate financial and economic Armageddon is yet to be (if at all) felt, we discussed the views on the sustainability of the growth of the FinTech industry in London, the UK and, the threat of competition from Europe as a result of Brexit, with key players of the London FinTech ecosystem. They also shed light on the strategies and tactics they are using to cope with the uncertainties Brexit brings about.
Jourik Migom, Mentor at TechStars and VP Digital Strategy at Endava, believes that unless the market concentration shifts location, people and businesses will not shift either, preferring to be close to the ecosystem rather than being isolated from it. In the short-term, London is still the top location in Europe, however, in the long term, this is yet to be confirmed. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron has launched an eager campaign to attract competition from London and Berlin, he has recently been quoted saying that he wants to turn France into a “startup nation”. To the extent that a new four-year French tech visa has been launched to attract tech founders, employers and investors.
In the short-term, London is still the top location in Europe
London has long been an attractive centre for trade and investment and as such, has become a hub for the startup community, in particular for growing FinTech firms satellite to the wider financial services industry. The startup ecosystem draws people to London both locally and from all over the world with its close proximity to industry, mostly concentrated in the UK. Government incentives like the tax optimised enterprise investment scheme (EIS), the entrepreneurship visa and an active angel landscape compounded with a stable economy, access to global talent and support from HMRC, the FCA, the PRA, the Bank of England makes a friendly and fertile ecosystem for entrepreneurs.
For Janina Lowisz, CMO at Cashaa, (Auxesis Group) London has a friendly atmosphere for startups, which makes it easy to find resources. So far, Brexit has had little impact on Cashaa, who do not feel nervous as their business model focuses on transfers between markets with a high Bitcoin spread, which exists between the UK and emerging markets such as India and Nigeria. The diversity of nationalities and backgrounds concentrated in London, therefore, provides demand from communities that are prevalent to sending remittances to their home countries.
The attractiveness of London for FinTech firms has many levels.
The attractiveness of London for FinTech firms has many levels. With access to capital markets worth over £600bn, FinTech startups want to stay near the ecosystem where it is easier to raise finance and investment. Whilst France and Germany are the next attractive locations based on market concentration and market liquidity, they have a number of structural issues, such as difficulty in raising money in those markets, which still makes London the most attractive option.
Although this is a clear move by Emmanuel Macron in the right direction, Nektarios Liolios of Startupbootcamp FinTech, strongly believes that for any real alternatives to emerge, other European countries have to replicate the infrastructure that the UK is so famous for. Triin Linamagi, also from Startupbootcamp echoed this opinion, adding that whilst investment in French startups has seen a steady rise, culturally there are still barriers to entry because of language barriers and the reluctance of government support for entrepreneurs. Many French startups come to the UK because it is easier to raise money and there is tangible proximity to other industries. Policies must change and hopefully, the new government in France can improve their situation but it will not have an immediate effect, after all, changes do not happen overnight.
For any real alternatives to emerge, other European countries have to replicate the infrastructure that the UK is so famous for
Looking at the other European alternatives, Berlin has a strong startup ecosystem but lacks the numbers of banks and FinTech startups on the scene, mean whilst the banking sector in Frankfurt is very mature on the corporate level but still in its infancy on startup level. So, Germany as an option for FinTech is currently disjointed. Estonia and the Baltic states have strong technology and computer scientist talents and, government support. Estonia is actively trying to expand its global footprint, furthermore with its E-Residency scheme, which is a scheme that offers the freedom to easily start and run a global business in a trusted EU environment. Barack Obama was the first person to be presented with the sample of the Estonian ID card. There are already some big FinTech names going global from Estonia such as TransferWise, Monese, Leap-In.
In fact, Triin gave us word that Startupbootcamp FinTech is also looking to work more closely with Baltic countries to help FinTech companies land in the UK.
Ireland, The Netherlands are welcoming countries with advanced capital markets, and entrepreneurial environments conducive for startup’s and in the Nordics, Copenhagen has put itself in the big league by launching a big FinTech hub. The most advanced ecosystem is in Luxembourg with its regulatory framework, financial services hub and government support, at the moment, however, they do not make enough noise to attract startup’s. Also, the limited access to talent combined with small national market doesn’t make up for the otherwise very attractive tax environment.
Michael Mellinghoff, Managing Director at TechFluence and Senior Advisor for FinTech Forum, is no stranger to the cross-border activities within the ecosystem in Europe. His observations over the last year since the results of the referendum are that whilst London is huge, it is, therefore, difficult to notice the small changes, such as banks moving their operations, however, for the smaller European financial capitals and cities, a sudden migration of a few hundred bankers from London per city is more noticeable. In the long-term, people may start to question London as a location to headquarter business, especially as a concern for their external/foreign shareholders. This is the first time in decades that London will be questioned in this way. Some Fintech firms will be attracted to other EU cities where the standard of living is much cheaper and therefore they can extend their run rate further, much to the pleasure of their investors. So places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt or Warsaw should start to have more emerging interest, especially from, FinTech startups.
Places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt or Warsaw should start to have more emerging interest, especially from, FinTech startups.
Whilst there are undeniable uncertainties that all businesses, the FinTech industry in the UK similarly has to brace itself for the many unknowns awaiting the transition of leaving the EU. Farid Haque from Asset Vault believes that time spent in uncertainty makes London look less competitive. For example, the uncertainty around the residency status of about three million EU nationals residing in the UK post-Brexit, which for many companies affects the status of their employees coming from the EU, and talent acquisition. Will White, COO from Loot App, gave some reassurance that every business has to face uncertainty at some point, whether that is caused by political, economic or other factors. “As a young company, Brexit is just another hurdle to overcome, but not one that worries us too much. Our view is if companies can’t work with challenges like this, they shouldn’t really be in business.” With that in mind, we asked our contributors to give some useful takeaways that every startup can think about and act upon in these uncertain times.
Useful takeaways that every startup can think about and act upon:
1. Build and keep connections with other EU countries and counterparts
2. Be more attractive to other markets outside of the UK, but, as it is too soon to exclude the UK, it is important to keep your business warm to the UK market
3. Find new markets not only in the EU but globally, such as the US and Asia.
4. Consider starting a subsidiary; many companies already have, or are considering headquarters in the UK and other European countries for access to both markets
5. Mitigate for the uncertainty of employment choices, which could be more difficult in the long run, i.e. costs and financial impact of hiring non-UK talent. Asset Vault increased their fundraising by £100K just to factor in potential costs and set aside £10K for legal costs alone.
6. Financial risk mitigation, it is important now more than ever to plan ahead for financial shocks
7. Despite the political-economic uncertainties, Banks’ abilities to innovate is still an issue. This presents an opportunity for startups to form strategic collaborations and try to solve these problems that banks cannot solve themselves.
8. Review the business model with the view that the political approach may be either a hard or soft Brexit. Therefore, every business must research the consequences of each outcome for their business, review their options, execute and consider closing businesses in new countries
The real options for a FinTech or startup of any nature in the UK are to have some preparedness for the uncertainties that may arise. These could come in the shape of insecurity of hiring talent from the EU or passporting financial products and services to the rest of Europe. It is important not to panic, but rather to strategically review the opportunities that this uncertain environment can bring for a business. Most entrepreneurs are agile risk takers that adapt to new risks. The risks arising from Brexit are therefore an opportunity for startups to create new ideas and gain more market share. Brexit is another barrier to overcome as an entrepreneur, navigating threats and difficulties is part of the business cycle for every entrepreneur.