The “Startup Visa” is making the news rounds again, this time due to the introduction in Congress of the Startup Act 3.0, a bill designed to create a visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs. There currently exists no visa designed for a person to come to the US and start a small, high-growth business. As a result, foreign entrepreneurs like myself have to contort our businesses and visa applications to fit into visa categories that date from a time when starting a business required far more capital than today’s startup formula of: laptop, garage, and grit.
The experience was and is quite painful: my first-time visa application was 70 pages long; one year later, my renewal application had ballooned to over 150 pages. Combined legal fees for both years ran north of $5,000, and I had to spend about two months out of the country each year, waiting for my visa to be renewed.
All of this required significant amounts of time, money, and effort. Worst of all, however, is the uncertainty of the process: visa approvals depend on the judgment of one or a few consular officers. It goes without saying that a denied visa is tantamount to a dead startup. My company, LendSquare, lost investors, customers, and great hires because people weren’t willing to bet on a company whose founder might have to leave the country for immigration reasons.
If the startup visa, whatever its form, is to be as successful as legislators and sponsors hope, it must address the paint points mentioned above. Doing this will depend as much on how the law is implanted as on the text of the law itself. Informed by my recent experience as a foreigner/entrepreneur, here are some recommendations on how to implement any startup visa in a way that makes practical sense:
- Make the visa requirements crystal clear. Reduce the role of individual judgment on application decisions. Set clear minimums of investment, traction, and documentation. Provide outlines for required documents. Startups are risky enough endeavors without the added element of consular whim.
- Allow entrepreneurs to apply for the visa while in the US. Visa applications can take months, so being able to wait while in the US is critical.
- Allow foreign investment. Foreigners have substantial social networks to tap for angel-type investment out of the country.
- Allow applicants to leave the US and come back while their application is pending. There are a few immigration processes that prohibit an applicant from leaving the US while the process is pending. Separating entrepreneurs from a likely source of investment will be counterproductive, the inherent cruelty of not being able to visit your spouse/family/dying uncle notwithstanding.
- Allow universities to solicit visas on behalf of their students. Universities are in a unique position to help prospective entrepreneurs: students can work on their startup while in school, and they can avoid paying for immigration attorneys, who can be expensive or inexperienced with this kind of law.
- Allow undergraduates to apply for the visa. As is, most bills fast-track only US graduates with advanced degrees.
- Avoid catch-22’s. Don’t make it necessary to apply for a visa out of the country while requiring a bunch of work that can only be done inside the US, like getting customers, or securing a lease. Don’t ask for hundreds of thousands in investment before a visa to start a business can be granted.
In case you were wondering, the Startup Visa 3.0 bill currently under consideration would solve exactly zero of my immigration problems, as I’m no longer on a student (F1) visa—but for those in the same boat as me, we’ll take what we can get.