Tech entrepreneur Abakar Saidov tells Charlie Conchie why the UK is the place for him
Billion-dollar artificial intelligence (AI) firm Beamery is not the Saidov brothers’ first business venture. When the pair left Russia in the mid-90s with their parents, they lied about their age to get a paper round before investing the profits in a black market school sweetshop. As those profits rolled in, they turned their hand to importing and selling electronics from Japan.
“It wasn’t called entrepreneurship, it was just called hustling back then,” Abakar Saidov tells City A.M. in an interview.
The Dagestani Saidov brothers fled Russia amid the collapse of the Soviet Union but, as sons of a theoretical physicist father and a neurologist mother, had enjoyed an affluent life in their homeland. After their arrival in the UK, that all changed.
“When we moved to the UK [my parents] couldn’t get work with the skill sets they had, and my mother ended up working in a shop,” Saidov says. “We went from being comfortable as a family to being quite poor as a family.
“I remember having a £28 food budget for the week, which you know, as a 10 year old, it’s an interesting thing to know.”
Saidov’s childhood hustling might seem a far cry from his role at the helm of talent tech firm Beamery now, but he says the two are more closely connected than they seem.
The London-headquartered firm uses AI to help firms map out their talent needs and plug the gaps before they appear. He says it helps shift the focus of hiring away from CVs and onto skills, essentially broadening access to jobs into groups that might be shut out by more traditional restrictive hiring
Had the same sort of technology been available when his parents migrated to the UK, he argues they might have been able to readily slot in to jobs in line with their actual expertise.
“The passport lottery is real,” he says. “Where you’re born has the biggest impact on your livelihood and earning potential.
“And so it kind of created a driving force within me and my brother probably from that point – this is the thing we wanted to do in the world.”
And the brothers and their co-founder Michael Paterson seem to be on their way to doing it.
Beamery has attracted big name investors from around the world including the heavyweight tech backer Ontario Teachers Pensions Plan, and in December shrugged off a funding downturn to raise $50m (£39m) at a valuation of over $1bn.
Upskilling and reskilling
But outside of Saidov’s mission, Beamery’s hefty valuation points to a more pressing issue facing firms in the current climate as well.
Companies globally are grappling with a historically tight labour market and struggling to both hire the talent they need and keep the talent they have.
He says the landscape has shifted talent conversations into the boardroom and chief executives are taking control of the issue themselves.
“Almost every CEO under the sun is talking about upskilling and reskilling. And so how do you do that?” he says.
“From my vantage point, in the UK, the US and Europe, the demand for what we’re doing has been growing rather than shrinking,” he adds.
Even with growth the firm has not been immune to the economic slump of the past 12 months. Just one
month after its latest funding round, Beamery was forced to lay off a chunk of its workforce in January, a sharp about-turn for a firm that sells itself on helping firms “future proof” their workforce.
Even as Saidov’s firm is buffeted by economic headwinds in the UK, however, he remains staunchly committed to it.
Beamery’s investor base largely hails from across the Atlantic and he says they have “very much urged” him to shift their operation to the states and follow the talent and money.
“That’s where the skills are and everything else, and they were not wrong,” he says.
“But our approach was – maybe somewhat in a meta way – if everyone believes that, this will never change. And given we are a skills technology company, we decided to be hard-nosed about it and say no, we will do this in the UK.”
That commitment comes despite evidence and incentives continually pointing him towards other shores. The government deploys “great rhetoric” in its aims to create the next Silicon Valley, he says, but it is ultimately rhetoric.
“You need tax incentives, you need visa incentives. You need the ability for entrepreneurs to feel like building a business here is in their own best interests and easier than elsewhere. Right now, it’s harder.”
Without reform to the visa system, he says, we are limiting the flow of talent to only the very top universities and could be in danger of losing the next Saidov immigrant entrepreneurs.
His comments point to concerns that are rippling across the tech sector in the current climate as both the government and Labour mount offensives: that the UK is losing its appeal for tech firms.
Calls are growing for greater and faster reform, and Saidov is one of many in that regard. But for the moment, he’s issuing no threats of leaving.
“The UK is what changed the course of our lives. And as a place and as a country, maybe we feel a lot of belonging here,” he says.
“We want to – and maybe this is some sort of national pride – be part of what makes the UK great at technology.”