SEPTEMBER 16, 2020 | TREVOR WILLIAMS of Global Atlanta
The particulars of across-the-pond collaboration may look vastly different, but links between Atlanta and London remain strong even as headwinds from the pandemic and Brexit continue to buffet companies on both sides.
Some prominent Atlanta tech executives invested in London outlined how recent changes have disrupted their operations but not derailed their growth plans during a panel discussion Wednesday hosted by London and Partners, the city’s business recruitment agency.
For SalesLoft Executive Vice President Nate Remmes, the move to remote work in both locales has made it tough to hire new staff and keep existing workers engaged, but it hasn’t yet meaningfully shifted the talent balance away from prominent tech hubs.
“You’re paying for what you get,” he said of the general premium in major cities like London, which tend to offer the connectivity, funding pools and innovation ecosystems that draw in top talent. “We have access to talent everywhere now because we’re all equally on a level playing field. That still hasn’t changed where we been finding our talent and that’s still been in Atlanta, London, San Francisco and New York.”
Talent was also key consideration for Atlanta-based Cardlytics, which set up shop near London’s Victoria Station after studying commuting patterns of its younger workers during a soft landing in the U.K. (For a time, Cardlytics worked out of the offices of loyalty brand Nectar before setting up its own shingle.)
Now, the publicly traded marketing technology platform deals with high-level banking executives as it helps them target consumer offers to their account holders.
Maintaining close ties amid a health-related travel ban and building a culture when 20 percent of U.K.-based employees have never been into the office, is a pressing challenge, said Co-founder and Chairman Scott Grimes.
Because of that, he believes that when the pandemic recedes, in-person travel will continue to once again become vital to cross-border business.
“It’s a cost of the world where in right now,” Mr. Grimes said of travel restrictions. “But we want to get back to the point where we can easily get over to London, easily interact with our team and our clients.”
For Joan Thomas, who represents Leeds-based consultancy Resolve Gets Results Ltd. inLondon, the challenge has not so much come with foreign travel but with the inability to hold in person meetings with clients within the U.K.
“Sometimes that is what takes a deal over the finish line,” said Ms. Thomas.
Mr. Remmes agreed, adding that migration to remote working and curtailing corporate travel were simple; the difficulty lies with managing employees differently based on their mode of connecting.
“The thing we fear is when you get into a world where half of the people are remote and half of the people are in the office, and you have to worry about optimizing for two different environments across two different communication chains,” he said.
Whatever happens with intra-company communications, the group suggested that Atlanta continue to having a macro conversation with London about its own advantages.
Mr. Grimes said Atlanta is well-known in London’s fintech and payments circles, but outside of that, knowledge “drops off” drastically. Mr. Remmes agreed, saying he usually has to do some “explaining” to British partners who expect a U.S. software firm to be based in more traditional American tech hubs.
The problem, said U.K. Consul General in Atlanta Andrew Staunton, tends to be one of awareness.
That’s why he has undertaken a personal “Think Southeast” initiative in both directions, prodding Brits to consider the region he covers in the Southeast U.S. while also pointing Atlanta firms to London as a “gateway to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, British companies showed during a second panel that by many accounts Atlanta is experienced as a pleasant surprise, both from cost and lifestyle perspectives.
Ashley Marie Cashion, the single U.S. employee for what3words, reconsidered her move to Silicon Vally after about a year of flights to the East Coast to pitch emergency services, car makers and logistics firms on the product, which assigns a simple three-word label to every 10×10-foot square on the Earth’s surface, enabling more precise location tracking.
Atlanta was a “happy medium” between West Coast and London time zones, plus it offered the world’s busiest airport. That helps the mom of a 1-year-old get back home quickly while also being able to afford the cost of childcare, which she called “basically unbearable” in California.
“In the South, in Atlanta, this is somewhere where family is really important, and that is something that is important for me too. You can go somewhere for a day,” she said, noting frequent consultations with automakers in Detroit via a shorter flight from Atlanta. “In Europe, we were really used to that.”
For Michael Campbell, vice president of sales for API software firm Tyk, Atlanta is an easy place to achieve work-life balance that is in demand among new hires. The University of Georgia graduate said the city’s weatehr and tree canopy are always great selling points for his British colleagues, as well as the fact that many U.K. firms have already seen success here.
“You don’t have to be on the frontier. There are people who have done it before,” Mr. Campbell said.
For Nicole Baxby, Georgia’s university talent is a differentiator. Not only are the state’s schools churning out great engineers in general, but they’ve also embraced fintech as a discipline and are partnering with companies to customize degree programs to ensure a strong talent pipeline in a state known as “Transaction Alley.”
Ms. Baxby is now with Featurespace, an AI-based fraud detection company born out of the University of Cambridge, but before that, she worked with Columbus-based TSYS in the U.K.; the company has now merged with Global Payments, a Featurespace customer. Even her alma mater, Columbus State University in the shadow of TSYS, has as fintech track in its computer science department.
Christian Nelson, chief strategy officer of U.K.-based TruRating, said his company has found great success integrating with key payment processors in Atlanta while still running a global team and connecting with the main user of its feedback-focused product: the restaurant and hospitality sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, has actually helped knit together its offices in Toronto, Sydney, London and Atlanta in new ways, causing leadership to grow even more attentive to the mental and emotional needs of staff during a trying time.
As for hurdles to greater exchange, Ms. Baxby cited communication, a nod to the old adage that the U.K. and U.S. are “two countries separated by a common language.” In general, she said, Brits tend to be less direct than Americans, and both sides must carefully consider the way they deliver words to avoid offense, she said.
“I always tell my British counterparts — sometimes I just need you to just say what you mean. I know you’re being really nice, but just rip the Band-Aid off,” she said.
Still, companies including TruRating and Featurespace have seen success sending over British founders to establish their base here.
As for future challenges on the U.K. side, Cardlytics and SalesLoft are watching closely how the the country hammers out its trading relationship with the EU. Having left the bloc officially in January, the U.K. is in the midst of a transition period through the end of this year.
A potential U.K.-U.S. trade deal now in its fourth round of negotiations, Mr. Grimes and Mr. Remmes said, pales in importance to getting the relationship with continental Europe right.
The U.K. company panel was moderated by Kristin Slink, fintech catalyst at the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Tech.
The London-Atlanta event was sponsored by Atlanta accounting and advisory firm Aprio and U.K.-based Moore Kingston Smith, with which Aprio launched a partnership in August to bring its R&D tax credit practice to the country.