Trump’s early days: any clues for startup industries?

As the vast majority of non-Russian news media on the planet has been quick to point out in recent weeks, President Trump’s early days in office have been notable for his numerous idiosyncrasies (yep, let’s call them that) in almost every aspect of the role.

But behind the headlines and endless think pieces focusing on his handshake, hair situation and habit of tweeting ‘alternative facts’, another strong tendency is beginning to emerge: he’s incredibly keen to be viewed as someone who does what he says he’ll do. Indeed, just this week, his chief strategist referred to him as being “maniacally focused” on fulfilling his campaign pledges; while we’re not sure that will rank among Steve Bannon’s greatest ever choice of words, Trump does seem to be going all-in with his effort to shape – for better or worse – an America that genuinely reflects his campaign rhetoric.

It’s probably time we checked back on exactly what the implications of that campaign rhetoric were on those of us in the startup world.

The first thing to note is that the overall picture in terms of business and finance policies remains very cloudy at present. To date, analyst predictions regarding likely future policy moves in this area – even on the cautiously optimistic Wall Street – have been based entirely on conjecture at this early stage. They’ve had to be, since very little concrete information has emerged yet. (To be fair, between bickering with the world’s media and tweeting breaking news stories as confirmed facts, POTUS has been plenty busy.) However, by returning to a couple of his key campaign pledges and unpacking them in terms of startups, we can make a couple of reasonably confident predictions.

In the run-up to the election, Trump’s views on immigration formed arguably the clearest (and most divisive) area of his entire platform. While any sweeping policies regarding hiring and employment legislation are clearly set to focus primarily on non-documented workers, their impact could well affect much large numbers of people. Foreign-sourced staff, legal or otherwise, are thought to make up over 16% of the US workforce in total – and, in particular, immigrants from a huge range of nations are currently reckoned to be at the helm of more than half of all domestic startups (per the National Foundation for American Policy).

Many of these startups are, of course, rooted in the tech industry: Silicon Valley’s longstanding commitment to recruiting the best and brightest from around the globe has been a huge factor in making it such a phenomenal (and, dare we say, quintessentially American) success story over the past couple of decades. Microsoft and Google are both presently headed up by CEOs from overseas; you could scarcely hope for a better illustration of a ‘tip of the iceberg’ scenario than that.

If predictions are correct, one way in which Trump might seek to curtail the hiring of foreign nationals into US jobs is by reeling in the recently expanded H-1B/H-2B visa programmes. This could lead to companies facing a formidable admin gauntlet in attempting to prove that a given position couldn’t adequately be filled from within the domestic labor market. (It could also open the door for similar tweaks to the existing J-1 student visa, which could well dry up a perfectly legal pool of part-time/casual non-citizen workers that many newer businesses – particularly in seasonal or service industries – rely heavily on during their formative years.)

Even if a startup’s workforce is comprised chiefly of full-time registered US citizens, the ambiguity of Trump’s stance on employee rights and benefits means it’s hard to predict exactly how smooth the road ahead will be, especially for new companies looking to formulate a coherent hiring policy. Clinton’s campaign called for an allowance of up to 12 weeks ‘family leave’, aimed at easing the burden of childcare or illness in specific circumstances. When this proved popular, Trump’s camp appeared to echo it to an extent – albeit in a much more watered-down, six-week version that appeared to apply specifically and exclusively to new mothers.

This was met rather less enthusiastically, and it all ended up being somewhat brushed under the carpet. Again, we’re now rather left in the dark as it stands, which is probably why we’re continuing to see a proliferation of state-level arrangements taking shape. The process – one that has already given rise to various beta-phase initiatives like New York’s family leave plan, set for full implementation in 2018 – began in earnest under Obama’s presidency, when increased calls for mandated paid leave met with broad bipartisan support but stirred very little real action in terms of concrete directives on Capitol Hill. The result of that ongoing stalemate has been that numerous jurisdictions, including Oregon, New Hampshire, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, are all now planning or piloting versions of their own paid leave schemes, often based on fractional income contributions.

Ultimately, with no real sign of a decisive stance forthcoming from the Trump administration as yet, the resulting picture with regards to employee rights could become very fragmented in future. A little like the situation that has emerged across Europe, in fact, where national policies differ wildly across neighboring borders and don’t necessarily correlate at all with a given country’s GDP, economic health or trading power. Such a scenario might well add a considerable degree of complexity to the already tricky question for new startups around where they should be based, who they’re looking to hire, and what sort of impact any future growth might have on its ability to manage overheads.

The coming months and years will doubtless bring many changes to policy areas that impact heavily on startup industries. After all, new small businesses are always so much more vulnerable to any choppiness in the waters than their bigger and sturdier rivals, and it’s never wise to expect completely smooth sailing when a whole government switches places.

Moreover, there are some perfectly valid reasons to be optimistic, too. For one thing, Trump’s administration will find it difficult to make wholesale changes to working visa policies when its leader openly makes profitable use of them himself. For another, voter power is still king: while Obamacare was certainly divisive, and Trump has always kept it firmly in his crosshairs, polls show that most Americans (yes, even a majority of Trump’s own supporters) would prefer whatever he replaces it with to look pretty similar in most key areas.

All we really know at this point is that, here in the startup world, we’ll need to stay vigilant. Keeping a keen eye on the stories behind the headlines will be crucial moving forward as we seek to ride out those aforementioned choppy waters: we may not know exactly when they’ll hit, or from quite which direction, but it would certainly be wise to assume they will.