Having just started a new year, now is an excellent time to reflect on the past and envision what we can do to make a better future. Over the past several years, Armenia has seen tremendous gains in the startup and ICT sector with a huge number of newly established startups that are contributing more and more to the economy. According to the Enterprise Incubator Foundation, the Armenian tech industry grew from $71 million in 2006 to $765 million in 2017, and the industry grew from employing just over 4,000 workers to more than 15,000 workers in the same period.
There are many reasons for the rapid growth, from the high quality and low cost of Armenian developers to the work of local venture capital funds and accelerators like SmartGateVC and ImpactAim. The government and especially the Ministry of High Tech Industry deserve accolades, as well as forward-thinking programs like the startup tax regime, the NerUzh Diaspora program and the newly announced collaboration between the Armenian government and Draper University in Silicon Valley. These initiatives have been cited by many in the startup community as contributing factors for building a startup in Armenia rather than in the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe.
However, there is still much more to be done for the Armenian startup ecosystem to have a chance to compete with other burgeoning tech ecosystems that are working hard to attract foreign talent to build the next unicorn in their country so they can reap the gains of more local employment, tax revenue and soft-power. One major program that can be created in Armenia is a startup or impact-style visa that helps to facilitate the entrance of foreign entrepreneurs to build their companies or to be contributors to local startups in Armenia. While most of the Armenian programs cited above have contributed to the development of the local ecosystem, they also have a commonality in that they are mostly focused on domestic or diaspora entrepreneurs. There is not much obvious facilitation of foreign entrepreneurship in the country outside of larger agreements such as Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) membership and visa-free regimes with certain countries. Building domestic capacity and engaging the diaspora are critical components of building the local startup ecosystem, but even this is not enough. Just by the numbers and with generous assumptions, the population of Armenia is about three million and the diaspora population about three times that at nine million. This means in total these programs are mainly focused on a market of 12 million people, many of them who have neither the skills nor the interest in developing the next GG or PicsArt.
Bringing in highly skilled foreign entrepreneurs with the capacity to build the next unicorn dramatically increases the potential for Armenia to establish itself as a predominant regional, or even global, tech hub. Following the example of countries like Estonia, France and New Zealand, Armenia should develop a unique visa program that facilitates the entrance of these entrepreneurs into the local ecosystem so that they can build their companies here and help to develop the local ecosystem. The visa systems of Estonia and New Zealand are of particular interest as they are both highly targeted programs. Following in these countries’ steps, Armenia has a chance to create a differentiated product that builds on the nation’s strengths like being a beautiful place to live and raise a family, being open-minded and welcoming to outsiders, being an easy place for Russian speakers to get around and do business and providing access to the diaspora worldwide.
In Estonia, the Startup Visa program is focused on attracting non-EU founders of potential high growth startups to come to Estonia and build their company there. While there are many qualifiers for eligibility, including having a set amount of money in the bank to make sure you don’t become a burden to the state and an insurance policy for the duration of the individuals’ stay, the main emphasis is on whether the company has the potential to be a breakout success like other Estonian unicorns such as Skype and Transferwise as judged by a panel of experts from the startup community, venture community and government. This means that the companies selected must fit the mold of potential ventures that can become major employers and tax contributors in the future. New Zealand has taken a different approach with its Edmund Hillary Fellowship which bills itself as the world’s first and only Global Impact Visa. In essence, this visa scheme allows founders, investors and other exceptional people who have the potential to make a positive impact the ability to move to New Zealand to work on their projects and presents a pathway for both permanent residency and citizenship. But it also has a cohort and community-based approach linking fellows together to support one another.
As we mark the opening of both a new year and a new decade, Armenia has a clear opportunity to develop a unique visa program that can help accelerate the development of the local tech sector, but also help spread the Armenian culture by bringing in top tier foreign entrepreneurs, executives and others to experience living in Armenia. However, the visa must play to the strengths of Armenia to be truly competitive, as when looking at attracting global talent the battle for the best is fierce and the value proposition of Armenia’s program needs to be very strong. That said, there are many permutations of potential startup or similar visas that could be developed, ranging from an ‘early-stage founder’ visa that focuses on bringing in people who have founded a company elsewhere or have had successful careers in other industries that want to start a new business but may not know exactly what they want to build to come to Armenia to a combined visa and relocation package like the one started by the city of Tulsa that pays top tier remote workers to relocate if they meet certain criteria. These programs also lend themselves to collaboration with the local ecosystem. For instance, a partnership with Hero House or ImpactHub could help a new arrival acclimate to the local ecosystem quickly, and discounts with local development firms could help entrepreneurs build their product and create work opportunities for Armenian developers. With the creation of a robust new visa program, Armenia can gain further ground in its quest to be a startup hub and in spreading the culture and values of Armenia far and wide.