The American visa process is a nightmare for foreigners looking to start businesses or work at tech companies. Trust me, I’ve been through it. And it’s bad for all of us if skilled workers and entrepreneurs can’t stay in America.
Had they not been able to get a visa, Sergey Brin would have created Google behind the Iron Curtain, Instagram creator Mike Krieger might have stayed in Brazil, and YouTube’s founder Steve Chen might still be in Taiwan.
They were the lucky ones. In 2007, Kunal Bahl, a Wharton-educated Indian entrepreneur, couldn’t obtain a work visa and left America. He launched Snapdeal – an Indian Amazon – a few years later. It’s now valued at around $5 billion. And in 2010, entrepreneurs Anand and Shikha Chhatpar left Wisconsin for Bangalore after their visa application was denied… despite them paying $250,000 in taxes to the IRS on about $1 million of revenue. There are a thousand more stories. The lack of accessibility to visas and the shortcomings of the visas available have led to some tragic losses for America’s economy.
The business world needs talented people with creative ideas, and people from other cultures often bring a different perspective and style.
Unfortunately, the visa process is inherently confusing and expensive. One visa can only be applied for once a year, and applications open on April 1st (not a joke). If granted, it doesn’t come into effect for six months, meaning that a company might need to wait around nine months to get a new hire, including the application time, the waiting-for-approval-time, and activation time. That’s a lot of time to wait for a hire you don’t know.
There are many different visa types available, and they all have weird restrictions and clauses. Many have visa caps, which means only a certain number get issued per year. And when there are 3.5 applicants for every visa (this applied to the H1B 2015 working visa applicants), companies have to make tough decisions about whether they can hire – or keep – the people they love. And other visas are prohibitively expensive.
For instance, one visa lets foreigners live in the states if they invest $1 million in an American business ($500,000 if it’s in a rural area). This is impossible for most people. If you’re just starting out in entrepreneurship you probably don’t have a spare $1 million to invest.
But where some people get depressed, others see opportunity. Which brings us to SimpleCitizen, a startup that wants to make the visa process simpler and cheaper.
Making the visa process simpler
Launched in July 2015 by co-founders Sam Stoddard, Brady Stoddard, and Ayde Soto, SimpleCitizen provides a simplified way for visitors to apply for visas. They’ve created a web tool that strips away all the complicated jargon, and gives people a web form that makes sense, no lawyer needed.
“We are dedicated to innovating immigration,” Sam Stoddard said. So far the team has raised $700,000+ from venture funding. They have not released any numbers about how many people have used their service yet, but say that they’ve had inquiries and web traffic from over 130 countries.
SimpleCitizen’s business model is surprisingly simple. They charge a flat fee of $249 and users get access to their custom web tool that takes them step-by-step through the visa process. It asks for specific information and sorts the data into the necessary documents. For an extra $99 a lawyer reviews the forms and offers applicants guidance.
If you’re tenacious enough, you can cut all these costs by filling out the forms yourself, and only paying the filing fee. But going solo is stressful, and it’s always a concern that you’ve done something wrong… and messed up the whole process. SimpleCitizen is a cheaper option than a full-time immigration lawyer (which costs thousands) and a good intermediary solution.
SimpleCitizen also has a “Guided Learning Centre,” which is basically an immigration forum where people ask questions and share tips. For now, they only process green cards visas, family visas, and extensions, but they aim to build in more visa services in the future.
Co-founder Sam Stoddard was inspired to build this after he went through the visa application process with his South Korean wife.
“We realized we had two options: pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to do the paperwork for us, or do it on our own,” he told TechCrunch. “It ends up being about 80 pages of government forms that you put together in a packet, and there are a lot of complexities around how you assemble it. The forms need to be in a specific order, and some need to be printed on special paper.”
Stoddard went through the process manually, and realized how complex it was. The goal of SimpleCitizen is to automate the process, getting rid of the confusion.
But how do you build a service for one of the most confusing and bureaucratic processes in the world?
Stoddard and his co-founders started re-reading all the green card literature, notating every question, and marking when they were repeated. Then they assigned each question a variable, and crossed that with answer fields, and turned this into a flow chart.
“It’s basically a decision tree that walks them through the process, eliminating forms they don’t need,” Stoddard said to Wired. “These are rules that are found in the instructions of all the forms, so it’s public knowledge. It just takes a long time to sift through it all.”
The company has said that the average user takes around 27 hours to complete all their paperwork.
“Simple Citizen is helping to solve one of the biggest problems facing our country right now — expediting the immigration process for outstanding potential citizens,” said Morgan Davis, associate at Kickstart Seed Fund.
“All of the companies we invest in do great things, but SimpleCitizen is one of the few in our portfolio that will drastically change its customers’ lives for the better. “
I have to agree. It’s very important that visas are more accessible for entrepreneurs and skilled workers for the state of the American economy. According to a New American Economy report, 18% of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. That number rises to 41% if you take into account entrepreneurs with immigrant parents. And these companies generate $4.2 trillion in revenue and provide over 10 million jobs, roughly the entire population of the state of Georgia.
It’s not that there aren’t any options available for entrepreneurs and skilled workers, but that they’re so limited. Take the infamous H1B visa that lets companies hire skilled workers from abroad. They pay $4,000 plus legal fees to do this. But there’s a catch: only 65,000 can be hired a year. Workers are chosen through a lottery system selecting from applications filed from April 1st on. In 2015 there were 233,000 applications for the H1B visa.
Instagram’s Mike Krieger almost left the company as it took so long to get his H1B visa approved. “It was approaching the point of hard conversations,” he told Bloomberg. “I had moments where I was like, ‘Maybe I should just tell Kevin to forget about it and find somebody who is easier to hire.” He said that it took him less time to build Instagram then it did to get his visa approved.
Then there’s the “genius” visa, which is granted to people with “extraordinary ability.” This category tends to include Olympic athletes, Hollywood stars, and startup rockstars. If you’re exceptional in your field, you might be able to get this, but it will involve accumulating numerous letters of acclamation from specialists in your field and demonstrating how your skills benefit America. If you’re still figuring this out, this is a tough visa to get approved.
Compare this attitude to Canada, with its welcoming approach to immigrant start ups, and you can see why – if we don’t see a change – the American economy might be in trouble.
“If the US continues to do what it’s doing, five, 10 years from now, it’s not going to be the leader any more,” immigration lawyer Tahmina Watson told the Guardian. “The prosperity is not going to remain here, jobs are going to go somewhere else.”
Other startup founders agree.
“I have some teammates that have gone (and are still going through) this painful, costly process and would love to support anything that can make this easier,” said Ryan Hoover, CEO of Product Hunt. And Vivek Wadhwa’s book, “The Immigrant Exodus” addressed this point in greater detail. He said there’s a drop in immigrant entrepreneurs because they can’t get the visas.
“It’s a big loss for America. This is the stupidity of our immigration system,” Wadhwa said. “It happens far more than you would imagine. You have to live in Silicon Valley and hear the horror stories. You go and hang out at the cafes, and you meet entrepreneur after entrepreneur who’s struggling, basically — who’s had a visa problem who wants to start a company, but they can’t start companies. It’s really heartbreaking to go to Silicon Valley and see what could be and what isn’t.”
The future of visas
There has been a lot of discussion about creating a “Startup Visa,” a new category that fast tracks entrepreneurs into the country. But this is still meandering its way through congress with no end in sight. For now, getting a work visa is still down to luck, perseverance, and DIY-ing lots of forms. Luckily, these are all skills that entrepreneurs have, and it’s comforting to know startups are actively trying to make this process easier.
At SimpleCitizen, Stoddard said that he values the visa market opportunity at $1.2-$1.6 billion dollars. He hopes to grow SimpleCitizen with the “Mint.com” approach. “We’ll give away lots of educational content and become a trusted resource for immigrants looking for answers.”
Hopefully, they’ll find them.
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