There has been an ongoing discourse on the need for a Founders Visa, also called Startup Visa, from luminaries of the startup world. Paul Graham began with his post back in April 2009 and more recently Eric Ries, Dave McClure, Manu Kumar et al have formed a rallying cry for it. Dave maintains an excellent resource for it at www.startupvisa.com.
For the purpose of this post, rather than talk about the bureaucracy of it all, I want to tell you about my personal experience and how my startup once again falls victim to the throes of uncertainty due to my immigration hassles.
I have had my heart set on startups ever since I can remember and wanted to be in San Francisco – the proverbial belly of the beast. So in 2003 I quit my job at India’s largest webportal at the time, packed my bags and left home to study in the only place in the Bay Area that was willing to provide me with aid- The University of San Francisco.
I graduated near the top of my class with a Masters in Information Systems and while I contemplated starting something right out of school, I was offered a job with great pay at Deloitte. I also had mounting student loans to pay off and no clue how an “alien” starts a company, I decided to join Deloitte till I got on my feet.
Startups aside, I have what I like to call an ancestral background in film – my grandfather, with what can only be called youthful callowness, sold all of his inherited agricultural land at the age of 17 and moved to the largest metropolitan area close to his village – Madras, India. He told his dad and step-mom that he wanted to do something in the “movies”, most of India wasn’t familiar with films back in the 1940’s and his parents had no idea what to make of it.
The first his parents heard about him was that six months later he had no money and was sleeping on a couch in his friends’ place. His parents took the next train to Madras to rescue their son. Upon reaching Madras they learned that all that money had been put down to purchase 18 acres of space and take on a loan to build a movie theatre on the land. My granddad was in “cash conservation” mode and didn’t mind a couch for a bed.
His first theatre now stands as a landmark in Madras(Chennai), and the neighborhood named after the theatre – “Liberty”.
The apple doesn’t fall from the tree and a few decades later his son (my Dad) noticed that the movies catered only to the well-to-do and it was yet another thing the poor longed for. He started a no-frills theater, where movies would play after they finish their initial run of 5-10 weeks, but at a deeply discounted price, bringing joy to millions, who back then couldn’t afford luxuries like TVs and VCRs.
This might be just pure hereditary kicking in, but I have always anazlysed the problems of the film industry and more importantly, the hurdles of independent film making is usually on my mind. So it wasn’t surprising when a few buddies of mine in New York and I launched into a discussion about this late one night in 2007. The solution to the problem seemed to be within grasp with all the recent advances in technology. We were far too drunk to come up with any sane solution to a century long problem, but there we had the seed.
I latched on to the glimmer of an idea planted in my head from that one drunken night with hopes of trying to bridge the road for independent filmmakers. Over the next year, I spoke to hordes of filmmakers, I saved up every penny I could and worked on building the basic version of the website. However, with all the immigration bits and bobs unsorted, I had this nagging feeling that this would be yet another aspiration that leaves with no trace.
That didn’t deter me anyway, and with the all that I have saved up, I approached the star student at USF, pitched my idea and my business plan and had her on board to work with the still fledgling startup, which now had a name to it and a URL Indee.tv. With my days spent at Deloitte, I would spend my nights churning till dawn on Indee, my weekends on Indee, my breaks and slow periods at work on Indee. Sleep was optional, as were meals, and a social life was a gross extravagance.
That is about when I realized there is such a thing as cumulative fatigue, and I was experiencing it. I was falling asleep during the day and under performing at Deloitte. There had to be a way to work on Indee.tv full-time. After gathering a bunch of information off my computer screen I made an appointment with an immigration lawyer. This immigration lawyer started our conversation with “It’s not possible, I wouldn’t advise you try it”, but over the next 45 minutes with support from all the material I’d documented and printed out we saw that we might actually be able to pull it off! Of course, there were more hurdles to jump than a kangaroo on crack, but that is a story for a whole other post.
I eventually did have everything setup and convinced some seed investors to back my especially risky undertaking and in October of 2008 I applied to have my H1B visa transferred from Deloitte to Indee.tv. I had about a week of waiting and then it came through! I was legally allowed to start my company and work in it as well.
Over the next 11 months we developed a much nicer product, launched our Beta website in February of 2009. Every month, with the most popular films from Indee, we began public screenings in bars and restaurants around San Francisco. Natalie Portman’s company, MakingOf, partnered with us to do these. We developed a Curation Application that saves film festivals between $45,000 – $100,000, with which we signed on customers and began generating actual revenue and a whole lot of milestones we’re really proud of. As of September 2009 we are a team of four, with U.S. citizens and Permanent Residents a part of that team. Indee was generating jobs for Americans in this economy.
Just as everything seemed to be going so well, I came up to Vancouver on September 24th to renew my H1b visa and it turns out the approval I got last year is not worth it’s weight in paper. Upon appearing for my interview, my previous approval notice was held by the consulate till I furnished a ton of extra documentation from our tax filings last year, to a full report of all employees, all of my bank statements right down to the photographs of our work area (as alien founders we cannot have startups in garages and our apartments, it has to be in real offices).
I worked through the rest of Thursday and all through the night gathering all this evidence (As for the photographs, I swear the DustOff can was for equipment cleaning purposes only). So after working through the night to get the evidence to the officers the very next day by 11:30 am, I was told that my application would take a week to be reviewed.
Now leaving aside the exorbitant costs of living in a city like Vancouver for a week, I don’t have to talk about what an entire week means in startup terms. This particular week in question, since we’re in fundraising mode, I have had to cancel a meeting with Comcast Capital and cannot present at the Plug and Play Expo on Thursday Oct 1st - they were nice enough and believed in our product to pretty much waive the $1500 participation fee, only to realize I can’t make it. If anyone wants to present on my behalf for Indee, I will coach you and I will be most obliged.
So here I am in Vancouver, it’s late at night and I’m of course alone in the room, frustrated at the prospect that the dream of saving the independent film industry from San Francisco might not be my dream after all. May be it is just to be relegated to a dull and thoughtless job that adds incremental value and not really dream the big dream, I guess I’ll know in about a week or two. In the mean time, I can already feel all of the company’s productivity drop as uncertainty kicks in. I’m spending as much time researching immigration law as I am researching potential investors.
Let me be clear that they will not kill this dream, as a valley entrepreneur if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last 7 months, it is tenacity and determination. If the Department of Homeland Security feels I’m a threat to the U.S. economics, I will have to solve filmmakers’ troubles from half way across the world if needed. My team and I will do the best we can to save the independent filmmaker given the cards we have been dealt.
My reason for ranting in this post is to highlight the hurdles set up by the U.S. legislation in ensuring I cannot be on U.S. soil if I want to solve a problem on any large scale while hiring U.S. employees. I love the American worker and would only be glad to have my company to offer more jobs, why make it harder than it already is for a startup?
Not to sound preachy, but please help future generations of entrepreneurs with the Founders Visa.
Oh, and wish me luck.