Work Visas for Founders: Tips for International Startups Launching in the U.S.

Apr 28, 2021

By Sara Itucas, Cofounder of Legalpad (Techstars Seattle)

We founded Legalpad in 2018 with the belief that ability — not birthplace — should determine opportunity. Our mission is to transform the complicated and stressful process to secure a visa to live and work in the U.S. to be fast, easy, and guaranteed for startups.

Many startup founders think that the U.S. immigration process is too complex and expensive to navigate. We totally get it! It’s easy to get lost in the confusing government websites with legal jargon no one understands.

Over the past three years, Legalpad has helped hundreds of startups secure the work visas they need to accelerate growth. Below, we debunk the most common misconceptions about securing work visas for founders and share our advice for any founder who has thought about what it would take to make it a reality.

Being an Entrepreneur Can Qualify as an Extraordinary Ability

The list of U.S. work visas spans the entire alphabet, but there is one option that stands out for Techstars or other startup founders: O-1 visa for individuals with extraordinary ability.

It’s a common misconception that you need to be a Nobel Laureate, a celebrity, or a famous scientist to be considered extraordinary by the United States government. That couldn’t be further from the truth! “Extraordinary Ability” is an intimidating way to describe someone who is at the top of their field in technology, business, science, and the arts. Everyone from entrepreneurs to graphic designers can qualify for the O-1. Qualification for the O-1 is based on your accomplishments, not your credentials. For instance, applicants do not need to meet a minimum salary requirement or hold a college degree. Just being a Techstars founder satisfies the basic criteria. The flexibility in how to meet the criteria makes the O-1 visa a strong fit for startup founders.

You Don’t Need a Visa to Get Funded by U.S. VCs

Most investors understand that you may not be able to secure your O-1 visa until after you get funding. Focus your energy on your ideas and growth first. Investors are looking for opportunities and are usually not deterred by your work visa status. It is helpful to know what your options are, but prioritize closing your round first before you worry about your visa.

Plan Early

As you plan your move to the U.S., there are certain details to track carefully. Your timeline is one of the most important details to sort out. Do you need to be in the U.S. for a critical customer meeting? Do you have aggressive hiring plans that require U.S. residency? Are you currently living in the U.S. and your visa status is expiring soon? You don’t want to find yourself “out of status” in the U.S. or stressed out that the visa process will kill your momentum. The best option is to plan early, map out a desired timeline, and find an immigration partner who can help you achieve your goals in the timeframe you need.

You may need or want to strengthen your credentials before applying for your visa. You’ll need to factor that into your timeline. If you opt for the O-1 visa, there are specific things you can do to give your application the boost it needs to get an approval.

  • Judge a startup competition. Judging is one of the eight criteria for the O-1. Judging a startup competition demonstrates that you are an expert in your field by judging the work of your peers.

  • Go after awards. Awards include the receipt of venture capital, landing a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30, or any other prestigious recognition within your field.

  • Get some press. Articles about you and your startup bolster your application. Featured in TechCrunch? Check. Landed an interview with the Wall Street Journal? Yes! Press coverage in major media or niche publications relevant to your startup all contribute to a strong application.

The Work Visa Process Helps You in More Ways Than You Think

Thomas Edison once said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”

All the planning and extra work to get more PR and awards wasn’t for nothing! Pursuing a U.S. work visa like the O-1 creates unexpected opportunities. Many founders who qualify for an O-1 visa later tell us that the visa process helped them take their startups to the next level. For instance, by fulfilling the PR requirement you’ll also increase your visibility in the startup community and beyond.

Risk and Uncertainty Are On Your Side

Immigrant founders are well suited for startup life. There is even research to prove it. Immigrant founders embody the startup mindset. Launching your own company is full of unknowns, but as an immigrant, you are well suited to withstand the ups and downs and adapt to constant change.

Moving to another country is one big learning curve! Not only are you leaving behind the stability and security of your family, friends, food, culture, and even language, your sacrifice often isn’t just yours. Similarly, going all-in to pursue a startup can affect your health, relationships, and maybe even your bank account.

Choosing the right partner to help you with your visa is essential. A good immigration partner will take as much of the guesswork out of the visa application process as possible but that doesn’t mean you won’t experience stress or anxiety.

This may sound cliché but believing in yourself in the most important thing you can do in pursuit of relocating for your startup. Techstars founders and other venture-backed founders are almost always excellent candidates for a U.S. work visa like the O-1. You just have to go for it.

Join Legalpad for an AMA for international startups launching in the U.S. May 12 at 11:00 am ET / 8:00 am PT. Register Now

Legalpad (Techstars Seattle 2018), now a Techstars Global Network Partner, is transforming the slow and complicated work visa and green card process to be fast, easy, and guaranteed for startups.

About the Author
Sara Itucas

Sara Itucas is the cofounder of Legalpad, a Seattle-based startup which simplifies the process of obtaining work visas and green cards. She is a member of Forbes 30 under 30 and was named GeekWire’s 2020 Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Sara’s passion for immigration stems from the value she places on her own immigration story. Sara and her family immigrated from the Philippines to the United States when Sara was five.