This article follows Rob Fahey's recent editorial regarding the potential impact of Brexit on the UK industry, and specifically responds the potential best-case scenario of a system in which "visas for skilled staff will be fast and easy to apply for."
I spent 11 years of my life in Silicon Valley. I'm very familiar with startup environments, and of what visas and associated processes truly mean for game developers and SMEs.
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I'm the CEO of Polystream, a business I co-founded a couple of years ago with Adam Billyard to build a streaming platform that enables publishers to instantly deliver games from the cloud. We've taken VC funding and currently have a team of 14. Within that team and their families, as well as an assortment of Brits, we have people from Portugal, Norway, Slovenia, Romania, and France. We're pretty diverse.
"New startups and small-scale studios don't hire people on visas, ever"
New startups and small-scale studios don't hire people on visas, ever. Not here in the UK, not in Silicon Valley, and not in Europe. They don't hire people on visas because of the length of process, the cost, and the requirements involved; it's time consuming, financially draining, and in the case of an early stage startup in the UK, you're not even eligible.
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We recently looked into hiring a Russian mathematician, but Polystream - or indeed any early stage startup - doesn't qualify to apply for a visa employee because we would need to become a "Licensed Sponsor", the full requirements of which can be seen here. I recently talked to a founder of a mid-stage company, five years in, growing and with revenue. It took them 13 months and a considerable sum of money to process a tier-2 visa employee, which is a luxury most of us don't have.
Successful growth environments rely on either access to a broad range of talent, or they focus on a very small subset of industries in which their local market can fulfil the skills and talent. The UK rightly considers itself a technology leader in everything from fintech, cloud, streaming, video, voice, media, games, robotics, medical, and on and on. We couldn't do that if we reduced our hiring pool to just those in our own country. We must be open in discussing and acknowledging that, for the UK games industry as a whole, there are too many specialist skills required that are currently not on our own doorstep.
To start the visa process, a company must first demonstrate that they have spent time and resources attempting to recruit from a local talent pool before looking to hire from elsewhere. This does not work for startups or small studios that have to move quickly on small budgets in order to survive.
"Specialist visas by their very nature are intended to provide a checkpoint"
Silicon Valley doesn't hire visa employees into early-stage companies as there's a population of 350 million permanent residents in its local employment pool. Europe doesn't hire people into early-stage companies for the same reason, it has a local population of more than 400 million at its disposal. Visa employees go into established companies that can afford the process and time taken to get them there.
But there's a second side to this: visas are by their very nature tied to the company that applies for them. Any prospective employee must have a reasonable expectation of employment security before picking up and moving their entire life and family to a new home in a new country, one of the many reasons the aforementioned process for becoming a licensed employer exists. Visa systems and offers from many studios and startups simply don't support that.
Taking a role with a studio that has a development road-map planned for only a few months, or a start-up with six months of funding, and hoping they make it is a bad model for both parties - the employer and the employee. Are we as the leaders in the games industry really expecting visa employees and their families to contractually agree to finding new places to live, new languages to learn, new schools for their children to attend, knowing that in a few months there might be no job for them if the risk involved with our business doesn't pay off? Culturally, and responsibly, I hope not.
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Specialist visas by their very nature are intended to provide a checkpoint; a method for bringing in unique, hard to find skills, only when you have exhausted local hiring options, and that same checkpoint does not work for fast moving, early-stage startups or small studios. Telling Polystream that we will be able to hire someone from only the UK or, using a visa, we can look to Australia or Brazil just as easily as Norway or Portugal is completely missing the point. None of them will be viable options.
As we enter turbulent political times in the UK, I think the unspoken truth about visas is something we should be making part of key conversations and decision making processes. As we look towards the future, there is no such thing as a truly fast-track visa for the UK games industry.