Brad Feld

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The Founders Visa Movement

Sep 10, 2009
Category Government

In April, Paul Graham wrote an inspired post titled The Founder Visa.  In it he proposed the idea of creating a US Visa for founders of startup companies – 10,000 / year for founders of companies that are started in the US.  There was some chatter around this at the time (I think it’s a brilliant idea) but then the discussion died down.

I sent the link to Paul’s essay to a few congressmen (congresspeople?) that I know with an offer to discuss it further and give some substantive examples.  I just got off the phone with a senior staff member of one of my congressmen who had read the essay and was interested in hearing more.

This issue has come up over and over again – in 2008 I wrote a post titled Solving the H-1B Visa Issue where I suggested that “the US should grant permanent residency to anyone who graduates from a qualified four year university with a computer science degree.” I didn’t put any energy behind this at the time (beyond a blog post) because of where we were in the election cycle.

Now I’m ready.  I was hit squarely in the face with this over the summer.  Two of the ten TechStars Boulder teams were comprised of non-US founders – two from Canada and two from the UK.  Both lived in Boulder for the summer and want to relocate here and build their businesses in the US (and – specifically – in Boulder).  Over the summer we struggled to figure out ways to get them Visas – all of the proposed approaches were expensive, risky, and tiresome.  Both companies are still trying, but each are now seriously considering returning to their home countries to build their businesses.

I cannot come up with a single reason why this makes any sense from a US perspective.  These are young, talented entrepreneurs that have come out of a three month program with amazingly interesting startups.  They are in the final process of raising their first rounds of financing. Post financing they will be creating US based high tech jobs.  If they are successful, they will create a lot of jobs.  Plus, they are young so they will do this multiple times in their lifetime.

It should be trivial for them to stay in the US.

In an effort to flesh out this thinking, a few questions came up on the call.

How Do You Determine If Someone Is a “Founder”? Two easy approaches: (1) set up a non-government board consisting of credible VCs, entrepreneurs, and lawyers to vet applicants.  (2) the founder has to own at least 10% of a company that has raised $250,000 within the same year as the application for the Visa.

How Do You Deal With Failure? The founder gets to keep the Visa.  Startups fail.  That’s part of the experience.  Some of the greatest companies were not the “first” that an entrepreneur did.  If the entrepreneur doesn’t start another company with a year, then the Visa expires.

I’m looking for more feedback on this as I work with a few people to actually create a movement around this (rather than just an idea, blog post, or essay).  So – if you have positive or negative feedback, along with suggestions about how to make this more powerful as a construct, or more palatable to people in our government who will have a negative knee jerk reaction based on “illegal immigration” or “jobs to immigrants” concerns, please weigh in.