Why I'm Moving My Company From the U.K. to the Continent
Born in Germany, I dreamed of living in "cool Britannia" since I was a teenager. I studied German and English literatures and linguistics and was looking forward to British citizenship from the day I arrived. Up until 2016 or so, this seemed to be the land of milk and honey -- all my teenage heroes came from here; the atmosphere was international and "can-do"; and, crucially for a writer, I enjoyed the British playfulness with words.
Should I stay or should I go?
I started my business less than a year after the fateful "Brexit" referendum. At the time, I didn't really think that much about the potential consequences of Brexit on a new B2B startup like mine -- I was too keen to make my mark and do some exciting work with multilingual customer care teams.
Today, I share projects with localization partners, web designers and coaches all over Europe. Half of my clients are based in the European Economic Area or EU, and the other half respond to Brexit with fury, desperation or sadness.
As I approach my first business anniversary, the looming March 2019 deadline and lack of clarity force me to consider my options.
A hostile environment?
The U.K. contact center scene is strong and varied: One in 25 U.K. jobs are in this industry. As of this writing, Indeed has more than 370 vacancies for multilingual customer service jobs. Many international companies have bundled their European customer service here because they're able to attract native speakers of pretty much any language. Those native speakers tend to be young, university-educated millennials looking to "get a foot in the door" with a large corporation and work their way up. It's how I started, too.
Since the referendum, like many fellow Europeans, I feel that the atmosphere has changed.
On the one hand, some of the media relentlessly campaign against European "migrants." Friends in and around London tell me about violent attacks from strangers who heard them speak a language other than English in public.
On the other hand, almost every British citizen I know has been extremely apologetic over the whole thing. Some even told me they're ashamed of the vote and the talk of extending the "hostile environment" policy to continentals settling in the U.K.
Nevertheless, it seems that "environment" is working. More and more European citizens are leaving the country, and fewer are looking to build their homes here. This is causing problems for the kinds of companies I work with, as they struggle to attract and keep the talent they need to keep contact center operations going reliably in the long run.
New European hubs
Some clients and prospects are already making preparations to relocate their customer service teams to the Netherlands or Germany. Vibrant, multicultural cities like Amsterdam and Berlin are very attractive for the kind of innovative, responsible companies I work with. Meanwhile, Lisbon is attracting creative digital nomads from all over the world. Traveling to those places can be a refreshing eye-opener: On the continent, people don't seem talk about Brexit all that much. Except when I tell them where we're based, or when they spot the U.K. license plate (I usually drive my electric car to the continent to reduce greenhouse emissions). Then, I get the feeling that the on-going uncertainty of "Brexit means Brexit" makes it harder for prospects to commit to long-term cross-border relationships.
All of this makes me rather pensive. What's happening to my relationship with this scepter'd isle? Does it matter whether I'm in the same country as my clients?
Yes, it does.
My work depends on my happiness, and the current situation here is too full of heartache. The U.K. bears the mark of 10 years of austerity, and there's not the right light to infuse the scene with a romantic feel. I'd rather spend a month translating websites in sunny Portugal than in rainy Portsmouth.
Besides, traveling is time-consuming and bad for the environment. A lot of my work involves training customer service teams face to face at their normal place of work. So, if Amsterdam and Berlin are growing innovation hubs, I'd rather live around the corner than cross the channel for each training session.
On a personal level, I've decided to relocate to the Netherlands later this year. The atmosphere and proximity to exciting companies with a need for communications expertise exert an irresistible pull. Things seem easy there, and I feel part of a generation of hungry Europeans, keen to make the world a better place. At the moment, I'm learning about setting up a Dutch branch to my existing U.K. company. That way, I can continue to cultivate the relationships with my clients here. Which would mean that I can have my cake and eat it too.