Brexit survival guide for start-ups and small businesses
Brexit has happened, and the UK is out of the EU. Well, kind of. Find out how to prepare your business during the transition period, and discover just what is likely to happen from 2021.
Officially, the UK has now left the EU – but the one-year transition period means that everything is going to more or less stay the same until 2021.
Next year though, a lot will change. A new immigration system designed to slash unskilled migration has already been announced (and roundly criticised by much of the business community), and an intense period of negotiation will decide issues like customs tariffs, data flows, and taxes.
All of this has the potential to have a massive impact on your small business, so like every good scout, you need to be prepared.
This survival guide will explain exactly what the transition period is, break down the ramifications of the new UK immigration bill, and offer expert insight into how your small business should be preparing for Brexit proper in 2021.
We will cover:
What's going on?
Big Ben may not have bonged, but the UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020.
You could be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – the withdrawal agreement signed by the UK government and the EU committed to a one-year transition period.
This basically means that for 11 months after Britain leaves the EU, it essentially operates as if it were still in the EU, with no trade tariffs, visa issues, or anything else to worry about.
Indeed, the biggest change during the transition period is probably that if you get a new passport, it might be blue instead of burgundy.
The date small business owners really need to worry about is 1 January 2021.
Provided the UK sticks to its guns and refuses to extend the transition period, this is the date that Brexit starts feeling like Brexit – the UK either leaves the EU on whatever terms are agreed during 2020, or crashes out in a no-deal scenario.
Before that happens, there is probably the most important period of negotiation in the history of the UK.
The main issue that needs to be decided is the terms under which the UK and EU will trade with each other – but other key areas include freedom of movement, how data flows between the UK and EU will be treated, and how taxes like VAT may be affected.
So, let’s dive straight in, starting with workforce and recruitment – including that contentious new immigration system.
Workforce and recruitment
Throughout the Brexit process, small business owners have been understandably concerned about how Brexit would impact their ability to attract and retain EU nationals.
Here, we take a detailed look at this issue, looking at the situation both for the current workforce and potential future arrivals.
As with so much of Brexit, drastic changes are not expected in the short term – the main thing UK small business owners need to worry about is ensuring that all employees who are not already UK citizens register for UK settled status.
Those who have been continuously resident in the UK for five years or more by 31 December 2020 can apply for settled status.
Anyone who has been living in the UK for less than five years and arrives by 31 December 2020 can apply for pre-settled status, and then apply for settled status once they have lived in the UK for five years.
Settled status gives your employees the same rights as UK citizens, and the right to remain after Brexit.
The scheme has been open since 30 March 2019, and the deadline for applying is 30 June 2021.
During the transition period, no changes will be made to the UK’s employment regulations.
Robert Bates, employment expert at Jordans Solicitors, says that workers in the UK will therefore continue to be entitled to the rights that they have under existing UK law.
“This includes those laws that originate from EU law, such as the working time regulations, family leave entitlements, and legislation to prevent discrimination.”
Moreover, as this employment law analysis from law firm Brodies demonstrates, any future changes to these regulations depends on the trade deal struck between the UK and the EU.
Additionally, in many cases, UK laws are either in line with or exceed EU regulation – meaning major change is therefore unlikely.
Recruitment - the new immigration system
There’s a lot we don’t know about the post-Brexit UK.
However, the new immigration bill announced on 19 February gives us a very good idea of what the country’s immigration system will look like from 2021.
The old process has been done away with entirely, and in its place comes the long-discussed points system.
To be able to work in the UK, a person would need to score 70 points and fulfil three essential criteria.
The points are broken down as follows:
A full list of designated shortage occupations can be found on the gov.uk website.
The central point is clear – freedom of movement as we know it is over.
This landmark policy was complemented by other changes to leave a substantially different UK immigration system.
Analysing the bill, Jennifer Pinder, a senior associate in the employment team at Capital Law, identified four key areas where the new immigration system differs from the current one:
- Job offers – The new system is a genuine points-based system, in a way that our current system is not. Individuals need to reach 70 points to be awarded a visa, and whilst some points are tradeable, other criteria must be met in order for the visa to be granted. Most importantly, individuals will continue to need a job offer before they come to the UK.
- Salary and skill – The skill level for the jobs being filled must be A-level or above. This is a relaxing of the current immigration system, which only allows non-EU citizens to enter the UK to do degree-level roles. Similarly, the minimum salary levels have been reduced to £25,600 (or £20,480 if you can gain extra points elsewhere).
- Cap on visas – There will no longer be an annual cap on the number of visas issued each year, which has caused serious difficulties for employers in recent years.
- Removal of the Resident Labour Market Test – This is an onerous process that employers are currently obliged to go through before recruiting someone from outside the UK. The removal of this requirement will be welcome news for employers.
The reaction from the UK business community was largely negative, with many fearful about the impact that the drastic reduction in low-skilled EU migration could have on the UK economy.
Tom Hadley, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, was particularly critical, arguing:
“Jobs the government considers ‘low-skilled’ are vital to wellbeing and business growth. The announcement threatens to shut out the people we need to provide services the public rely on. This would increase the likelihood of illegal working and exploitation. In the US, more than half of farm workers and 15% of construction workers are unauthorised.
“Nobody wants the UK to be in this position due to the lack of an official low-skilled immigration route, where vulnerable workers will suffer. We need access to workers that can help us look after the elderly, build homes, and keep the economy strong.”
Industries that employ a high proportion of EU workers were understandably concerned, with Paul Thrupp, Chairman of the British Cleaning Council, saying that “these proposals would strangle our industry by cutting off easy access to the lower skilled, lower paid, overseas workers we rely on.” He added: “With the lowest UK unemployment for years, there is no chance of UK-born workers being able to take up the slack and fill the vacancies.”
Hospitality would be similarly affected. Johan De Jager, UK country manager at hospitality recruitment company Brigad, stated that “limiting the ability of foreign nationals to work in the industry risks draining the pool of talented professionals who show tremendous potential.”
And Shara Pledger, an associate at immigration specialists Latitude Law, reflected the views of many when she argued:
“The government’s immigration plans are at best short-sighted, and at worst, an extension of the hostile environment we have seen develop over the last decade of Conservative rule.
“Many sectors and industries will be disproportionately affected by the updated points-based system, including agriculture, hospitality and tourism, social care, retail, food production, and food services.
“The government’s suggestion that these industries should simply “adapt and adjust” to what is likely to be a significant skills shortage illustrates just how little attention it pays to the significant concerns raised by business leaders across the UK.”
However, Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, was more positive, commenting:
“We see the benefits of a points-based model, so long as it’s one that’s easy to use and affordable for small businesses – almost all of which have no experience of using our current immigration system.”
He also noted that the cost of the Tier 2 visa needs to be reduced (it can currently cost a small employer over £3,000), and argued that “typically small firms that recruit from the EU do so into medium or high-skilled roles.”
Overall, the impact of these changes on small businesses will depend on two factors:
- The number of EU nationals regularly recruited
- The skill level of roles filled by EU workers
According to David Kelly, General Manager at workforce management specialist Deputy, those companies that are likely to be badly affected need to re-examine the way they operate.
He identified the following priorities:
- Be smarter about how many staff you need at any one time – use simple software to link your sales data and other useful information to inform who you need working, where, and when.
- Automate employee onboarding through dedicated software that teaches new employees about areas like workplace health & safety, data handling, or customer service policies.
- If you’re operating in the hospitality sector, consider investing in eMenus and self-order systems that require no waiting staff to take an order.
- Workforce management apps can help any business operating on a shift system by auto-generating staff schedules, tracking employee time/attendance, and maintaining accurate payroll and holiday entitlements.
- If targeting younger workers, flexibility is key. Systems that allow staff to submit their availability to work, mark themselves available for more work, and propose shift swaps between themselves will help with hiring and retaining staff.
Regardless, being aware of this new immigration environment will be crucial for small businesses going forward.
The new system will be open for applications from autumn 2020 for applications to work in the UK from 1 January 2021.
Any employer that wishes to sponsor a worker will need to first apply for a sponsor license. Full information on how to do this can be found on the gov.uk visa sponsorship page.
What will happen from 2021, though, is still up in the air – and resolving this is a key part of the negotiations taking place during the transition period.
For its part, the UK has stated that there will be import controls on EU goods, with Michael Gove – the de facto deputy prime minister – warning that traders in the EU and UK will have to submit customs declarations and be liable to goods checks.
This could be interpreted as a negotiating position, but a key notion in the Brexit ideology was always “taking back control” and leaving the single market, so it will take an awful lot for this idea to be given up.
It therefore seems likely that UK exporters to the EU will need to make customs declarations, with customs checks at the borders potentially causing major delays.
With this scenario now seeming probable rather than possible, businesses should be discussing future arrangements with their international clients, and implementing contingency controls in their supply chain.
This is particularly the case for small businesses, who often don’t have the same visibility and information regarding their supply chains.
Indeed, research by Aldermore found that 59% of SMEs don’t fully understand their supply chains, and one in 10 believes they would not survive disruption to their supply chain.
Businesses should also be preparing for the potential introduction of new tariffs that could affect the pricing and supply of goods, and cause confusion over who should be responsible for shouldering the burden of increased costs. You could also consider switching to a UK supplier to remove uncertainty and lessen the potential impact of any changes.
Providing you have the space – or the means to access more space – stockpiling goods may also be a good idea. Of course, the number of industries able to employ this approach is limited – perishable goods, for example, are obviously not suitable for long-term storage.
Cato Syversen, CEO of global intelligence firm Creditsafe, offers the following advice:
“While a no-deal Brexit may look unlikely, SMEs should still prepare for extreme changes in trading processes. For instance, applying for an EORI (Economic Operators Registration and Identification) number is an advisable course of action.
“This identification number is required for businesses outside the EU wishing to lodge a customs declaration, or an Entry and/or Exit Summary Declaration [essentially if you want to trade with non-EU countries and potentially EU countries from 2021]. You can apply via the gov.uk EORI number webpage and receive it instantly, or within five working days if further checks are required.
“Moreover, as we still do not know the terms of the UK’s eventual exit from the European Union and its impact on the movement of goods and services across the border, small businesses should look into hiring a customs agent to streamline the process as much as possible when the UK exits the transition period.
“Navigating the customs processes can be extremely complicated. A good customs agent can ensure that all the necessary taxes are paid and that every rule is followed properly, so that goods can be imported and exported without unnecessary delay.
“Many entrepreneurs and SMEs will be tempted to deal with the new rules independently to save money in the short term. However, this approach can quickly become a false economy when the upfront cost of specialist software and the financial cost of simple mistakes are taken into account.
“These times of change are also a stark reminder that business leaders should utilise all the information and data at their disposal when it comes to making informed decisions.
“At a time when markets are likely to be volatile, taking the time to fully vet the financials of any potential business partners you decide to trade with has never been more important”
Adam Ewart, the founder and CEO of Send My Bag, notes:
“Many courier companies now tend to have paperless customs solutions – meaning you can add additional information as part of the shipping process, rather than printing and attaching extra pieces of paper to the shipment.
“It’s essential to get this process right; failing to follow the correct customs process – even under a free trade agreement – could result in your shipment being held by customs, causing delays and additional costs for the business or your end customer.”
Finance, payments & currency
Access to finance
There are numerous ways that Brexit could impact access to capital. Some of the primary risks include exchange rate volatility, reduced investor/consumer confidence, and cashflow issues.
The UK will also no longer be subject to EU Withholding Tax treaties. This tax is deducted from interest, royalties, or dividends earned by EU residents on their investments made in another country, and is deducted by the state in which the investment is held.
Currently, two EU directives (the EU Parent-Subsidiary Directive and EU Interest and Royalties Directive) allow EU countries to make these payments without tax needing to be withheld.
When the transition period expires, these reliefs may no longer apply, potentially leading to cash flow issues for businesses reliant on them. However, the precise arrangement depends on the tax treaty agreed between the UK and the country in question. There is also the potential for this situation to change during the negotiating period.
In March 2019, Barclays announced a £14.7bn lending fund for small and medium-sized enterprises to help them “through turbulent times as Brexit looms”. To apply, visit the Barclays Business Banking website.
John Atkinson, Head of Commercial Business at Hitachi Capital, states:
“Deal or no deal, Brexit is a good opportunity to make sure your business is in the best shape possible as we head towards this period of economic uncertainty.
“We advise many small businesses to make sure their finances are in good shape, and would make this the top priority. Small business owners should look to focus on cutting costs, improving cashflow, and getting better finance deals.
“We would also advise that businesses review their funding solutions and look at cashflow finance as a credible solution for boosting cashflow.
“It can definitely be viewed as a huge opportunity for many small businesses. For businesses already operating in the EU, they can look to expand their offering to new markets. Research has shown that this is already happening with many small businesses.
“To support this expansion, businesses should look to invest in new equipment and/or technology to support their proposition, and hire staff to help them deliver this to their customer base.
“To help SMEs expand into new markets, it really is important they have the right funding solution to support this growth.”
Payments & currency
Research conducted in 2019 by ecommerce and digital design agency Visualsoft found that 81% of the UK’s top 250 retailers offered the option to pay in non-sterling alternatives like Euro or USD. This represented a 19 percentage point increase over the previous year. The same research found that there was also a significant rise in the uptake of innovative payment methods, such as Amazon Pay and retail finance.
Sarah Webb, President of UK and Europe at international payments company OFX, warns that businesses need to consider the impact of currency volatility:
“The UK business clients we work with at OFX are particularly concerned about current uncertainty and the impact a no-deal outcome could have on the pound, and speak to us daily about what this could mean for their international trading strategies.
“Importers are likely to be most exposed. Any swings in the value of the pound could have a serious effect on their supply chains and profit margins, as the cost of overseas goods becomes increasingly unpredictable.
“We recommend that businesses take steps as soon as possible to put a currency strategy together, which will help manage risk whilst protecting their profits from any currency fallout.
“Forward contracts, which lock future payments into today’s exchange rate, are a particularly powerful risk management tool, as they ensure businesses are shielded from volatility for up to 24 months.
“If a business locks in rates for 70% of all transactions, it can still benefit from any positive exchange rate movements that happen in the meantime.
“It’s important to have a flexible strategy in place not only to take advantage of beneficial market shifts, but also to protect your bottom line from currency exposure.”
GDPR and other data issues
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed that regardless of what happens with Brexit, GDPR is here to stay.
However, maybe that’s good news …
Although it’s caused a lot of aggravation for legal departments, not to mention slashed email databases, it’s also left companies much healthier. Your marketing efforts are now actually going to people who want to hear from your business, resulting in much better open and click-through rates.
As Jonathan Plummer, General Manager of Electronic Manufacturing Solutions, points out:
“GDPR offers a framework for building trust and being more transparent. It doesn’t stop companies working with personal data – it just allows them to redefine their relationships with customers, employees, and suppliers.
“As a result, companies which work to gain the proper consent and demonstrate they are using the data properly will be rewarded with customers that are willing to consent to their data being used.
“This will enable companies to continually improve and personalise the services they deliver.”
Matt Lock, Technical Director at cybersecurity company Varonis, offers the following technical guidance:
“Amongst the many scenarios we need to prepare for, there’s a GDPR equivalent to a ‘no-deal’ Brexit for data that will likely have repercussions for UK businesses. When the UK leaves the EU, it becomes a “third-country” under GDPR rules. That means no personal data can be transferred to the UK.
“The result of this is IT chaos, and heavy fines for companies that send data to the UK.
“However, if the EU Commission decides the UK’s data security rules are “adequate”, then data can be transferred freely. Not surprisingly, the EU Commission has not yet handed down a decision. The EU has already declared, most notably, that Japan, the US, and Switzerland have adequate security and privacy laws.
“There’s a ray of hope, since the UK’s Data Privacy Act is at least as tough as these – it is, after all, based on the GDPR language.
“To play it safe, EU companies can set up special standard contracts with each of their UK importers.
“In practice, it means companies will need attorneys to set up special contracts. It’s less expensive to do business that way. Any UK company that receives data from an EU company – and which big UK company doesn’t? – is an ‘importer'. Maybe eventually they’ll work out an acceptability arrangement, like they did with the US.”
As it stands, VAT will remain the same unless there is a no-deal Brexit.
In this case, the situation is unclear. While the UK previously announced that it would introduce postponed accounting – meaning there’s no need to pay VAT at the border – the focus has now shifted to getting a trade deal with the EU, and preparations for a potential no-deal are no longer being openly discussed.
However, given the previous stance, it seems likely that measures designed to ease the shock of transition (like postponed accounting) would be implemented if there was no deal agreed at the end of the transition period.
The current rules are:
- If you are based outside the UK and sell parcels to UK buyers worth £135 or less, you must pay import VAT.
- If your business holds stock in an EU country that it sells to EU customers, you’ll need to register for VAT in that country.
With the UK’s determination to leave the single market, it seems likely that EU VAT simplifications (such as triangulation and distance selling) will no longer apply in the UK from 2021, which could result in more registration and reporting obligations for UK businesses.
UK firms may also have to appoint a fiscal representative in certain EU countries, to offer expert support with local VAT queries and filing.
Alison Horner, indirect tax partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson, offers the following expert tips:
“To avoid paying duties unnecessarily, manage increasing costs, and navigate the new administrative burdens, startups must think ahead.
“The first action is to register for an EORI (Economic Operator Registration and Identification) number, the unique identification number required to trade with the EU.
“You then need to ensure your business has the correct commodity codes, and any export licences you need in order to trade.
“You can then explore applying for tax reliefs. There are customs procedures which may provide relief from duty, such as use of or approval to operate a Customs Warehouse facility, Temporary Admission, or Inward or Outward Processing Relief. The challenge is to establish if you’re eligible, but it’s essential to investigate.
“Setting up an overseas subsidiary in the EU won’t always be necessary. You can still export and import without one, and it’s not necessarily advantageous, in tax terms, to set one up.
“To get on top of the new administrative and legal hurdles, you need a strong understanding of customs arrangements, and a willingness to explore all the options.”
What are UK businesses saying? Top tips for preparing for the end of the transition period
The UK has now left the EU and, from 2021, the operating environment for UK businesses will change significantly.
To prepare for this, businesses need to adapt and put plans in place that recognise the new opportunities and challenges that will result from the UK no longer being in the European Union.
Moreover, many of these tips are also just good business sense, no matter what environment we find ourselves in once the transition period is over.
We’ll start with key advice from Mark Wright, Apprentice winner and founder of Digital Marketing Agency Climb Online, who said the following in our original guide:
“If you have a good enough product or service that solves a problem for your target audience, you will succeed in business. Brexit or no Brexit, Deal or No Deal, there are always going to be challenges when starting a business and building a brand. Only the entrepreneurs and business owners who put in the work, and a lot of it, will ultimately succeed.”
These comments still ring true.
Here are some other steps you can take to futureproof your business:
Push your marketing efforts
Charlie Worrall, from marketing agency Imaginaire Digital, urges businesses to prioritise their marketing efforts:
“Obviously it’s in our interests to suggest small businesses should invest in marketing, but we say this from a truly objective stance. Saving your money at this crucial point won’t help your business – you need to pour money into marketing, and ensure that your brand is as strong as possible when we exit the transition period and the quantity of sales leads may decrease.
“During this period of uncertainty, we are pushing for more of a focus on our own marketing, while still maintaining our client campaigns. Through this approach, we will continue to build our brand and develop our marketing portfolio, and we’ve also had feedback from clients that they are surprised the number of enquiries/leads stayed more or less the same during the Brexit saga.”
Ott Vatter, the Managing Director of Estonia’s e-residency programme, discusses the benefits of the pioneering scheme, and how it could help UK businesses:
“Estonia has had a digital identity programme for over 15 years – and is the only country in the world where 99% of government services operate online. Now, we can’t imagine doing things any other way.
“To our surprise, six years ago it became obvious that there were many people outside Estonia who could benefit from a digital identity, and who wanted to have companies in the EU without actually physically being in the EU.
“To meet this need, we started the e-residency programme, and we have now helped over 65,000 people to become e-residents and benefit from location-independent entrepreneurship and access to the EU market.
“Though this status does not actually offer ‘residency’ – just a virtual identification – the programme offers a perfect solution for small businesses that have customers in the EU. The application process is easy, and you can quickly create a virtual company for less than €200.
“The UK voting to leave the European Union has already been the catalyst for a dramatic increase in e-residency applications from British nationals, and our research indicates over a third of British business owners are considering moving abroad because of Brexit.
“Our message is simple – with e-residency, you don’t have to.”
For more information, visit the Estonian e-residency website.
Investigate asset finance
Jon Maycock, Commercial Director at Propel Finance, advises businesses to examine the benefits of asset finance:
“If and how market volatility will unfold after the transition period remains to be seen. But small businesses should be vigilant, and take extra care to protect their financial resilience as they navigate this uncertainty.
“Yet it will also be a time of opportunity. Businesses can use asset finance to get access to the latest equipment, and gain a competitive edge.
“With asset finance, you receive your equipment immediately and then pay in instalments, spreading the cost over time and boosting cashflow.
“Leasing in this way enables businesses to future-proof for uncertainty by upgrading simply, quickly, and conveniently, to take advantage of the most advanced equipment and stay ahead of their rivals.
“Asset finance repayments are fixed – giving businesses extra security if interest rates rise – while existing credit lines like overdrafts and loans are untouched.
“As well as enabling businesses to drive strong production and output, asset finance also benefits the overall UK economy. When a business uses asset finance, the supplier of the asset is paid in full immediately, resulting in a faster circulation of cash and helping to foster financial growth across the country.”
John Attridge, the CEO of BBX UK, is bullish on Brexit, arguing that it will open up new opportunities for UK businesses.
He identifies three key benefits:
- Brexit will open new markets beyond the EU – Companies already exporting goods outside the UK, or those eager to explore overseas markets, could receive a welcome boost from Brexit. Any devaluation in the pound could help to boost export sales and investment interest, especially for small businesses.
- Increased demand for local variants of popular EU products – As the cost of imported goods and services is expected to increase, consumers will prefer to buy local products. This is a particularly good prospect for smaller establishments and businesses that pride themselves on British-made produce. Any opportunity to take advantage of this situation within a business should be looked at, as this is likely to thrive in the coming years.
- EU responsibilities will revert to UK operations – After Brexit, it’s highly likely that many of the public sector tasks that are currently handled by EU officials will be handled in Britain. Business owners should make a concerted effort to break into this sector to supply goods and services, as the government will be looking for British firms to fulfil certain needs left open by European businesses.
Staying informed is a vital part of being prepared for Brexit. You don’t need to intricately follow every twist and turn of the high-stakes poker game that is the Brexit negotiations, but you do need to know when new regulations have been agreed that could affect your business.
Here are a few key resources:
As you’d expect, gov.uk is a crucial resource for your Brexit planning. It includes a comprehensive tool that covers everything from personal data and intellectual property to EU funding.
Just answer seven simple questions to receive tailored advice on:
- How to prepare
- What’s happening in your industry
- Rules and regulations specific to your business
Get started by visiting the gov.uk transition check website.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) also has a raft of essential business advice for small businesses.
Founded in 1974, the organisation has been championing the post-Brexit interests of UK small businesses since the EU referendum in 2016. As well as publishing research, the FSB has directly engaged key government stakeholders, including the prime minister.
Whatever your industry, keeping an eye on trade body websites is a great way to keep up with the regulations likely to specifically impact your company. Even if you’re not a member, many bodies send out an email newsletter designed to promote their work, and these often contain great insight from industry veterans who are perfectly placed to advise on thriving in this challenging business environment.