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Behind the scenes of Brexit: our approach to hyper-uncertainty

By Ahmed BadrApr 20193 min read

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one” – or so said the French philosopher Voltaire.

Uncertainty in business is to be expected. But for many UK-based businesses with global reach, the hyper-uncertainty caused by Brexit over the last three years has been particularly uncomfortable.

As a business with 37+ nationalities, a strong European employee base and an international outlook, the decision to leave the EU came as a surprise to many here. But come 24 June 2016, we set to work researching, scoping and contingency planning.

From the start, our guiding principle was to prepare for leaving the EU without a deal – to ensure no disruption to customers, while continuing apace with our international expansion.

The UK’s political ties to Europe may have been slowly unravelling, but we stayed resolute in our belief that connectedness is the way forward for GoCardless and our customers.

Ensuring zero disruption

It quickly became obvious that the only way we could guarantee zero disruption to our customers, was to acquire a second licence to provide regulated services in another European Member State.

We researched options for the licence – assessing countries on over 30 dimensions including cost, regulatory requirements and speed of setup. We consulted law firms, regulators and consultants – and ultimately decided on France.

France represents our largest customer base outside the UK, and is the home of our first international office. Having made our decision, in the summer of 2018, we began our application for a licence with the French regulator.

Adapting our product

We realised early on that we would need to make a series of changes to our product in order to manage our customers’ money differently. In particular, to meet the regulatory requirements of providing services under two licences to a set of customers that was, up until then, served under one licence.

Our product operates on top of a number of bank payment schemes, including Bacs in the UK, SEPA in Europe, PAD in Canada and BECS in Australia. Over the last decade, we’ve been on a mission to join together these schemes into one network for our users. Building a new scheme is a sizeable piece of work for our banking operations, product, development and support teams. In some cases, it can take years.

Planning for a no-deal Brexit was like building a completely new scheme on steroids, knowing we may never have to use it.

We also started work to guarantee we could continue to process payments using the European Direct Debit scheme, SEPA, by integrating with Barclays’ European Hub bank in Germany. Some of this work turned out to be unnecessary, since on 7 March this year, the European Payments Council (EPC) ruled that the UK could remain in SEPA, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.

Pushing the button

The hardest business decisions we’ve had to make around Brexit have been around timing. After an initial period of intense research, the work we had to do was relatively clear; knowing when to press the button was anything but.

From one day to the next, the likelihood of a no-deal scenario appeared vastly different. Deciding when to schedule the work, among the long list of other priorities, was a continual challenge.

Prepared for whatever’s next

Three years on from the referendum and we still don’t know if, how and when we’re going to leave the European Union. Thankfully, whatever happens, GoCardless is prepared.

It’s taken 20+ people in seven different teams, working more than 4500 hours – over 2 years in working days – to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. In the process, we’ve learned lessons about being more forward-looking, and some of our teams have worked more closely together than ever before.

The work we’ve done may never see the light of day. But ultimately, like many other service businesses, we just couldn’t take the chance. We had to make the uncertain, certain.

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