The start-up policy landscape: Building your agenda and team

DEC 15, 2023

Balderton HQ recently welcomed a group of experienced start-up policy experts for a discussion on the changing tech policy landscape in the UK, and how best to work with stakeholders to shape future policies and legislation.

We were joined by Sarah Gates, Director of Public Policy at Wayve, Tom Burton, Director of Public Policy at GoCardless, Niamh Sweeney, Director at Milltown Partners and former Head of Policy at WhatsApp, and Dom Hallas, Executive Director at the Startup Coalition.

It was a wide-reaching conversation, underpinned by one key question from the founders in the audience: When and how should I begin investing in policy?

The truth is, identifying the right moment to build your policy function and engage on key issues will depend largely on your product and business. If you operate in a highly regulated sector, particularly one that’s evolving at a fast pace, then this will be a critical, early hire. But in sectors where regulation plays less of a role in your success, you can get to a pretty big size without getting too involved.

To determine if, when and how to invest in policy, start by asking yourself:

  1. How much will the policy environment impact our business and product?
  2. How important is it that we play a role in shaping the policy landscape?
  3. What are our competitors doing on this front, and how much of a leading voice do we want to have?
  4. Could our approach to policy be a competitive differentiator?
It really depends on what roadblocks you’re going to experience as a business. In new, highly regulated markets, such as Wayve’s [AI-centric self-driving technology], you’re going to have to have rules in order to be able to effectively deliver, so you have to build that into your timeline as you grow as a business. In the case of fintech, you’re operating in a highly regulated landscape from day one, so it’s a question of how you shape and influence those rules over time as you grow.

Dom Hallas, Executive Director of The Startup Coalition

The right time to hire in-house

You’re unlikely to be ready to hire a policy pro at Seed or Series A. This stage is focused on developing your product and business model, so you won’t have the resources or capacity to build out a thoughtful, strategic policy approach.

Sarah joined Wayve on the day the company announced its Series B, which felt like just the right time. There was already a great deal in the works, and many different regulatory spheres to consider - including existing automotive regulation, AI, data, and multiple jurisdictions - so slightly earlier might’ve been helpful, but all things considered the timing worked well.

It wouldn’t be right to say you need to have a policy person there right from the beginning. At the beginning you need to be focused on building the product.

Sarah Gates, Director of Public Policy at Wayve

As Dom mentioned, it’s also worth considering the broader impacts a policy function can have, beyond the specific agenda you’re pushing. For example, having Sarah’s team in place has been hugely beneficial to Wayve with regards to issues such as R&D tax credits - which would otherwise be a huge drain on founder time and resources.

Finding your voice within the industry

You don’t necessarily have to have a dedicated policy person in-house in order to start engaging on key issues. External support - for example through trade associations such as the Start-Up Coalition - can offer a highly valuable, lighter touch alternative.

Whichever way you look at it, policy work is all about conversation and collaboration. Understanding the wider landscape, and the perspectives of your competitors and other key players, is key to selecting the best approach for your business.

If, actually, you find that you and your competitors are aligned on the key issues and the path to solving them, then collaborating through a trade association would make sense.

But if you’re a market leader, and having a very distinctive voice is important to you, then you’re going to have to invest more internally, sooner, in order to establish a leadership position.

You have to have a sense of where you sit in the market. How deep is your understanding of what your competitors are doing? If you’re a market leader, that’s going to come with certain expectations - so there’s a calculus you have to do to figure out your level of investment.

Tom Burton, Director of Public Policy at GoCardless

The importance of prioritisation

As Niamh stressed, effective policy work is all about focus. The list of issues your start-up could potentially engage with is as long as a piece of string, so it’s vital that you are able to pinpoint the issues that will really move the needle for your business, and where you have the opportunity to play a leading voice in the ecosystem, and invest heavily in those.

You can only focus on the things you can achieve. Rather than looking for meetings and spending too much time speed-dating politicians, put pen to paper and come up with something solid and data-led to work with.

Niamh Sweeney, Director at Milltown Partners

It would be simply impossible for Tom, a team of one, to engage deeply with every single development in every market GoCardless operates in (across the UK, US, Europe and Australia). Identifying the jurisdictions that are most critical, the issues that are most impactful, and connecting them back to commercial metrics, is key to determining how and where to spend his time.

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