We recently received approval for our first H-1B visa. It was a complex process that is challenging for any company, but particularly burdensome for resource constrained early-stage startups like ours. A quick Quora search shows many questions about the process, including “Can a startup realistically sponsor an H-1B or is that just for the big companies”?
I thought I’d share how the process went for us, from meeting our candidate through receiving approval last week.
Last June, Reed Sturtevant e-mailed the TechStars founders list asking for volunteers to attend “TechStars for a Day” near South Station. TechStars for a Day is an invite-only opportunity for TechStars applicants to get to know the team, alumni, and mentors who help make TechStars Boston happen.
It’s kind of like a higher education “admissions tour” or MBA “info session”.
I love participating in TechStars for a Day. It’s a fun way to meet new entrepreneurs while also reconnecting with fellow TechStars Boston founders and mentors. I’ve written in the past how strongly I feel about the long-term benefits of being a part of the TechStars Network.
TechStars for a Day is also a great venue to meet and recruit early-stage talent.
One of the people I met at TechStars for a Day was Hai Zhou of Bon’App. Hai and his team were based at the Harvard innovation lab with a vision to build a better calorie counter, along the lines of MyFitnessPal. When the TechStars companies were announced, Bon’App didn’t make the final cut.
I received an e-mail from Hai via our HelpScout “info@” account at 2:38pm on a Saturday in early August. Hai inquired about career opportunities in software development at EverTrue.
By 2:41pm, my co-founder & CTO, Eric Carlstrom and I had both replied.
Hai had double-majored in Computer Science and Physics at Williams College and expressed a deep interest in big data.
He had also served as a senior class gift agent for the Williams College Alumni Fund, helping contribute to a record-setting 77% participation rate.
Our mission is to build relationships in pursuit of a better world, with a specific focus on college and non-profit fundraising. Hai was our kind of candidate.
He joined EverTrue as employee #13 on September 4th, 2012.
But from the moment we hired Hai, we knew that the H-1B visa application was looming on the horizon as his F-1 visa was set to expire. As we initiated the application process in March 2013, shortly after raising our Series A, it seemed like nearly every day a disheartening article was published on the topic.
“the H1B is really designed for large established companies, and when assessing your application they will look at the strength of the company.” - Forbes, 3/31/13
“This year, the H-1B cap was “sold out” within a week.” – Jeff Bussgang, Inc. Magazine, 6/17/13
“H-1b problems?” “Pivot to Canada.” – New York Times, 6/5/13
But we dug in and put forth the best application we could.
Like most early-stage startups, we don’t have a full-time HR person, much less an HR department, much less an immigration specialist. So we learned lots of new phrases including “Labor Condition Application”, “Prevailing Wage Determination” and “Request for Evidence”.
What evidence was requested?
We were asked to provide an “Annual Report” to prove the viability of our business.
We were asked for multi-year customer contracts to prove that we would continue to generate revenue during the course of the H-1B period.
We were asked to provide a detailed view into the next 12 months of our sales funnel.
We were asked to provide a long-term lease to prove our physical location.
We were asked to strengthen our profile on Dun & Bradstreet. Now anyone can purchase a “Business Information Report” about EverTrue for just $121.99!
As each request came in, I wondered how startups were expected to complete this process. Very few early-stage companies I know would readily have those materials available. Many work in short-term co-working spaces, are pre-revenue and don’t have a long-term sales pipeline during initial customer development efforts.
We invested over $5,000 in legal and application fees in addition to many hours of our time.
But after all of that, we won the lottery. Hai received his H-1B visa approval on July 22nd. I wish I could provide insights into why we received approval against the odds. We can’t. He just as easily could have (and statistically should have) been denied.
We had a “Hai Life” USA-themed celebration at our office last week as a tribute to Hai’s opportunity to continue to build his career here in Boston. We also had lots of Chinese food to pay homage to his Shanghai roots. We were graced by the presence of (a cut-out image) of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Hai’s presence makes EverTrue a better company, Boston a better community and the USA a better country. We’re lucky to have him.
Here’s my advice to early-stage entrepreneurs considering H-1B sponsorship.
1) It’s doable. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but going through the process helps ensure you have things in order on multiple fronts.
2) You have to prove you’re a business, not an idea. We’re fortunate that we’re a revenue-generating SaaS business with enough funding to make our case for viability. If we had applied a year or two prior, it would have been much harder to complete the “Request for Evidence”, because we simply didn’t have the type of evidence the government requires.
3) The H-1B massively expands your talent pool. Talent matters more than anything else. It’s more important than market size or product features. By embracing this process, your potential applicant pool will grow by over 500 million knowledge workers globally (source: LinkedIn).
In the end, the time and expense of going through this process was worth it. Next time will be much easier given the learning curve we’ve climbed. And there will definitely be a next time as we continue to grow our business and build our team.
Comprehensive immigration reform is complicated. It’s hard to unbundle the fact that on one hand there are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, but on the other hand immigrants are responsible for 76% of the patents from top American universities.
But in order to unlock latent growth of high tech companies, we have to unbundle those facts and build policy that supports growth without burdening early-stage companies like ours. I wish I knew better what that policy should be.
If you’re interested in this issue, I suggest you check out Engine (http://engine.is/). Engine is an advocacy group led by Ron Conway, Brad Feld, Jeff Bussgang, Hunter Walk and a variety of other startup leaders. Immigration reform is one of Engine’s primary concerns.