US Immigration is completely broken for startups

A lot of talk has been made recently about the shortcomings of US immigration policy and how it’s hurting the US’s competitive edge in the global economy.  A good friend of mine who is a Canadian, and acting president of an LA based company valued at > $100M just had his visa revoked and isn’t allowed entry to the US.  That was enough to get me to write this post informing people of my personal experience with starting and working for companies in the US as a foreigner which I believe demonstrates some of the problems.  For more of a history on the shortcomings read about it the Startup Visa act here.

3 Canadians get funded

In 2007 after myself and 2 Canadian friends spent about 6 months bootstrapping Attassa from Edmonton Canada, we raised almost $1M from Silicon Valley based Tandem Entrepreneurs – who at the time had a slightly different investment model than they do now.  We were building software to solve a lot of the pain in document and email collaboration and were tightly integrated with the Microsoft technology stack – Windows, Outlook, and Office applications.  Once we closed funding we decided it was best for the company to nestle up closely to Microsoft in Seattle.  Seattle obviously has a deep talent pool of Windows engineers, and we viewed Microsoft as a potential partner or acquirer.

2 Canadians get TN Visas

Myself and Rod both arrived in Seattle with our investment money, and our freshly printed TN visas and set up shop next to Dwayne.  We spent about a year working on product.  We hired a full time engineer, and paid for several part time consultants, and a book keeper.

2 Canadians get TN Visas revoked

During our time in Seattle, I traveled back to Edmonton about once a month to visit family.  I did this for about a year without issue.  That all changed one day in October.  Rod had been travelling back to Canada earlier that month and was denied entry on his trip back to the US.  His Visa was revoked.  I was actually in Canada when his visa was revoked, and naturally, this flagged our company, and when I returned to Edmonton International to fly to Seattle a few days later, my visa was also revoked.  I was given 2 days to get in and out of Seattle to deal with my apartment and belongings.  If I wasn’t back in Canada after 2 days, I’m not sure I’d ever be allowed back.  Ultimately, they believed that the job I was performing went above and beyond what was allowed for my visa type.  I won’t go into too many details about what went down at the airport but at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I will say that those 3 hours of interrogations were quite possibly the most brutal 3 hours I’ve ever experienced in my life.  If you’re interested, read Zack Homoth’s story.  He was a Y-combinator kid that got rejected at the border.  It pretty much describes the nightmare I experienced.  At this point though, it was as if USCIS told us they didn’t want us or our ~1M investment.

One Canadian gets an H1B, the other … no dice

We put our hellish experience at the border aside and both applied for H1B’s.  We still wanted to do business in the US.  Our applications were pretty near identical, at least the company portion of the application.  Rods was approved, mine was not, for reasons I still don’t quite understand.  They claimed we were missing evidence (tax info, payroll info) that we clearly had sent them.  The cost to re-apply was too high so I ended up staying in Canada and working remote.

During this time period I travelled to the US to play Ultimate frisbee (of all things), and to visit friends on weekends.  Each time crossing the border, I typically spend 45 minutes in secondary screening answering questions about the intentions of my trip.  Believe it or not, I once was turned away at the border when trying to drive down to Seattle from Vancouver.  The reason?  I was carrying too much laundry in my Rav4.  Yup … I’d forgotten to drop my dirty laundry off at home before heading down to Seattle, and they thought it was a red flag that I was entering for the weekend, but had 2 weeks worth of cloths.  Fair enough I guess …

We get acquired by a US company

In December of 2010, Attassa was acquired by Yousendit, a successful exit for us and our investors.  By this point though, Rod and I are both back in Canada, largely due to the immigration nightmares that we’ve faced.  A bunch of cash that could have stayed in the US basically left the country that day.

But … I decided to move to the bay area after the acquisition, while Rod stayed in Canada

I decided to move down to the US after the acquisition.  I worked at Yousendit for a year and as of last week gave notice that I’m leaving in April.  I’m starting another venture but ….

I’ve got to do it from Canada

Despite preferring to start from the Bay Area, and having the financial means to bootstrap for some time, Immigration policy doesn’t allow for that.  All options require significant investment, either from yourself or institutional investors.  While those may be viable options, I can’t help but believe that raising money to facilitate immigration is a ridiculous idea.  Instead I’ll raise money if and when it facilitates the acceleration of an idea with traction.  At this point I simply don’t want to experiment and learn on someone else’s dime.  So instead, I’m going to return to Canada to start the next company.  I love the Bay Area, I have a truly amazing support network there, so I will be back, but it’s going to require time, investment, and a stupid amount of paperwork.

Concluding

Over the last 3 years, the US has made it damn hard for me to spend 1) investment $ 2) acquisition earnings and 3) seed money in starting.  Most other people probably wouldn’t have gone through what I have and moved down there post acquisition, and most probably wouldn’t think about starting something down there again.

I think a lot of people read about the startup visa and have a theoretical sense that it sounds worthwhile, but they don’t see first hand what effect it’s having.  I’m sure most of you have never heard of Attassa but we’re just one of many lesser known foreign companies that tried desperately to get Uncle Sam to allow us to spend our capital in the US.  It really shouldn’t be that hard …

10 thoughts on “US Immigration is completely broken for startups

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. That’s crazy that the US wouldn’t be more open to foreign investment and economic development.

  2. What a crazy story! Why are they making it so difficult; especially for entrepreneurs that are doing business development in the US?

  3. Fascinating story. What a joke! I guess we can only hope that this leads to Canada having an even stronger tech presence. Keep up the good work.

    -Jerry

  4. The US is not the only place to build a business, so take your business out of the US. Run it from Canada or elsewhere, and sell your products and services to Americans. If more businesses did that, maybe the US would stand up and take notice as jobs move offshore. But as long as people are clambering over each other to enter that country, the situation never needs to change.

  5. Yes, US immigration policy is messed up.

    Apparently it is easy enough for brick layers from Mexico to come to and work in the US. Apparently to enter the US, they wait until midnight and then walk across a low point in the river.

    I have to believe that it would be easy enough for someone in Canada, with an SUV, just to drive across the border somewhere out in the woods.

    Then once in the US, it can be illegal for someone to ask for proof of your legal right to be here.

    All that said, there’s more:

    Before 9/11, US immigration ‘policy’ mostly just wasn’t. That is, the US didn’t both have and enforce a clear policy. One reason was to encourage the immigration of Hispanics: The US Republicans wanted them to work but not vote, and the Democrats wanted them to vote but not work. Of course, the illegal immigrants couldn’t legally vote, but such a small detail didn’t always stop everyone! Indeed, some people would vote early and vote often!

    After 9/11, the US enabled big, crude, clumsy bureaucracies to control immigration, that is, except for brick layers from Mexico! And drug dealers! And gun runners!

    But there is another big part of the story: During the Cold War and the Space Race, technical workers in the US were doing well, making 6=8 times each year what nice new car cost.

    Then US national security and high tech industry noticed the ‘severe shortage’ in people with technical qualifications, and the US NSF (National Science Foundation that funds much of US academic scientific research in fields other biomedical) set up a group of economists with the goal of lowering the incomes of US technical workers.

    One of the steps resulting from the work of those NSF economists was to write into NSF grants that so many graduate students had to be supported. Then, hint, hint, can get grad students from Taiwan and India.

    Suddenly US technical fields were flooded, note that word flooded, with young students from Taiwan and India.

    Soon in both academics and industry, there got to be a caste system where native born, US citizens of Western European descent and with very high technical qualifications need not apply except for national security positions where US citizenship, preferably native born, was crucial.

    Soon native born US citizen students who walked into a class in technical fields saw nearly all the students from Taiwan and India with poor American English skills, concluded that something was wrong, and left for maybe medicine, dentistry, or an MBA.

    Continuing the problem, the job market was flooded with the students from Taiwan and India on H1B visas.

    A LOT of very highly qualified native born US citizens with very high technical qualifications became absolutely, positively unemployable at anything, in any field, technical or not, above minimum wage. A technical graduate degree became less good on a resume than a felony conviction. Literally.

    Eventually some US citizens screamed bloody murder at the NSF and H1B visa program deliberately destroying the careers, families, and lives of very highly qualified, native born US citizens in technical fields, citizens whose tax money had paid for the students from Taiwan and India to go to US graduate schools.

    Also the H1B visa program put people into a state of near slavery where they could be exploited. Thus there was a dirty secret in the US labor market.

    Screaming bloody murder or not, nothing changed. Then with 9/11, there was an excuse to change the flooding of the US technical labor market with people from Taiwan and India, and such immigration was severely limited along with the H1B program.

    At this point whenever immigration policy is mentioned, always there has to be a suspicion that the policy is deliberately intended to ruin the careers of some collection of US citizens, including brick layers. Once burned, twice shy.

    So, now US politics is relatively willing to say “No” to nearly any immigration for any purpose, except of course for brick layers, drug dealers, and gun runners from Mexico.

    Or, as Churchill once said, “America always does the right thing after trying everything else.”.

    1. I am not sure that why you would think that US company will hire foreigner when they have your so called geniuses roaming around here in every corner. Do you even know how many gate way of hell that one has to pass in order to qualify for H1B ?. Do you think a white owned company is so desperate to hire an Indian or Taiwanese just because they are so enamored with there culture. Sorry Pal, you don’t know a jack shit to have your opinion on this matter. If you don’t like it then you are more than welcome to get out of this country and live some where else.

  6. We lived it for 8 years. Hours and hours spent at immigration. We also had a TN Visa and were told Gordons responsibilies weren’t covered by our Visa. They actually asked us to produce our marriage license. We’ve been married for 32 years. I spent 3 days at the DMV trying to get a drivers license.I was not allowed to work while there, so I paid no taxes, but I drove on their streets and highways, was protected by their police and fire departments, and they wouldn’t even let me volunteer because I didn’t have a social security number that they could track……it’s nice to be home.

  7. Right here is the right webpage for everyone who wishes to understand this topic.
    You understand a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not that
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  8. That is why US economy is still bad. Unemployment rate is still high. US should open door for those entrepreneurs with ideas and money.

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