Why Being an Immigrant is the Ultimate Entrepreneurial Experience

Being an entrepreneur is scary, exciting, gratifying … so many emotions mixed into one. The same is true about being an immigrant.

Here are five ways my experience as an immigrant served as a foundation for launching a startup.

Jump Off the Cliff

It was 2003, I was 19 years old, and I had just arrived in the US from my native country Bulgaria ready for my freshman year at The College of Brockport in upstate New York. I was holding two suitcases containing the contents of my entire life. I only had my clothes and my memories — everything I would need to start fresh.

Nine years later, as a founder, I was again back to nothing and constantly reminded that 90 percent of startups fail. Layered on top of this stress, my Google safety net had vanished.

With the odds stacked against me, and terrified that the life I had built in America could evaporate in an instant, I knew I had to make my startup work.

Rely on Friends, Family & Fools

My scholarship covered tuition — but the rest was up to me. To attend university, I borrowed the complete savings of my parents, including their 401ks, and took gifts from extended family. I scraped together enough to cover room and board for my first year, roughly $5,000. Raising funding is a similar experience. 

You have to rely on friends, family and fools to get enough seed funding for your first product or service launch. It’s a skill set that may feel awkward, but is essential to survive.

Become an Efficiency Machine

Shortly after starting school, I landed a job as the “smoothie guy” in the school cafeteria. It was the graveyard shift, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., earning 50 cents per hour more than the day shift.

I worked 20 hours each week, the maximum allowed to work on campus as a full-time student, all while triple majoring in math, computer science and computational science. I had time only for working, studying, eating, and sleeping.

Between university and founding Leanplum (Seattle ’12), I worked at Google for five years. When I left, I knew I was giving up the security of a work visa and paycheck, both of which I’d come to heavily rely on.

In a way, it felt like I was 19 again, beginning from scratch with no resources. And when I started Leanplum, I was right back at it, coding, talking to customers, eating and sleeping.

Rely on Your Wit

As busy as I was at university, I was also the happiest I’d ever been. Why? I felt empowered to pursue my dreams with nothing but my vision — a belief I would need nearly a decade later as an entrepreneur.

The thing about entrepreneurs who are also immigrants is we’re relentlessly resourceful — the number one entrepreneurial characteristic.

In Bulgaria, there’s a folklore character named Hitar Petar, or Clever Peter, akin to Robin Hood. Clever Peter relies on his resourcefulness to succeed, and there are plenty of stories that showcase his wit.

His essence lives on in Bulgaria, a nation that may not be the most affluent, but one that is certainly resourceful. It’s this trait that has helped me flourish, both in school and in Silicon Valley.

Risk It All

Once you jump off that cliff, you can’t look back. As a student, I was thousands of miles from my family, and terrified of failure. At the end of my four years, I worked hard and graduated Summa Cum Laude. But standing there with my two suitcases that day, I didn’t know that’s how my time at university would play out.

A founder’s fears are the same. Five years after launching Leanplum, I’m proud to have built a company that is every bit as successful as I could have hoped.

We raised our Series C funding last October, continue to triple our revenue and employee growth each year, and work with the biggest brands in the world, like Tinder, Macy’s and Lyft.

It was my experience as an immigrant that made this all possible — an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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