My O1 Visa Story And How It Almost Killed My Startup Mobtest

August 6, 2013

I’ve been back to San Francisco now for a couple of weeks. I am finally able to be employed and fully work on my company Mobtest as I got my O1 visa. My adventure took one and a half year, and almost killed my startup in the process. Here is my story.

My background

I am from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I worked for leading internet agencies as software engineer, and recently I ran the startup HelloInbox together with my 2 cofounders. While doing so we experienced that the startup environment in our country wasn’t so great. I really wanted to have a chance at being part of a successful startup and after a short visit here decided to move to Silicon Valley. I got a B1 business visa, completed the Founder Institute program and founded my new company Mobtest as a C-corp in Delaware. It was time for me to start working on a real visa that would allow me to be employed by my company and pay myself a salary.

Visa options

I got introduced to an immigration lawyer, and she explained to me what options I had. What surprised me most is that there was no visa for entrepreneurs. H1B employee visa wouldn’t work for a startup founder. There was the option of the E2 investor visa but that would require at least $100,000 and it comes with additional requirements. I didn’t have that money unfortunately. Another option was the L1 intracompany visa, but that would require my Dutch company to remain in business, and for my US based company to have a direct relationship with it which would discourage investors. That meant the O1 visa, for individuals with extraordinary abilities was my best shot.

Eight months for first O1 petition

To prove I was eligible for the O1 I needed a lot of testimonials from people I had worked with. To save them time, I had to write the testimonials myself. As a very down to earth Dutch engineer that was not easy to do for me, but I learned. It took a lot of time to write all of them, and get my sponsors to return them signed. My lawyer was busy so she also took a lot of time. Five months later we submitted the petition to the USCIS, only to receive an RFE for additional information. We answered as good as we could their questions, which took another three months to compile. Meanwhile I had returned to the US for the third time on my B1 visa after three months of Amsterdam, with a not so friendly secondary interview at entering at SFO.

Denial

Back in the US we got the answer, and it was a denial. We thought we had proven our case, but apparently not. Stunning. Why, and what risk did the USA run with me? I came here to create jobs and pay taxes. I have a master’s degree from a top 62 world wide university with 15 years of software engineering experience? And from a western country that if I would completely fail, would most definitely return to, as the social security is so much better? I found out that all doesn’t matter, you have to play by the rules of the US Immigration Services and proof your eligibility according to their specific rules for this visa. Apparently me and my lawyer didn’t do a good enough job.

Getting back on my feet again, and second O1 petition

That was hard. I was already working on Mobtest for a year, and now had to face the reality that I had only 4 more months on my B1. Meanwhile I wasn’t allowed to be employed by my US company as well as work for my Dutch company, so money was really really tight. Many people asked me when I would return to the Netherlands, assuming I would give up. Or told me to find a nice American girl and marry her (!). I decided to take a well informed decision, so interviewed in total five different immigration lawyers on what to do. The first three ones didn’t say they believed in the case and would not take it. Finally my fourth was willing to take the case, and seemed smart enough to get me the O1 visa. The last lawyer confirmed that the case was doable, so we set out to write a completely new O1 petition. I needed more money, and fortunately my family was again willing to support me. I had to gather more evidence, so managed to judge at iOSDevCamp Amsterdam and BeMyApp hackathons and presented at the iOS Renaissance conference . I sold HelloInbox which got me great press coverage, including an article in a national old skool newspaper. My lawyer told me also to beef up Mobtest, which was a total catch-22 with me not being allowed to work for the company and investors or cofounders being highly unlikely to work with a company of which the founder is about to be deported. Again gathering the evidence and writing the petition took time, so only last June were we ready to file our petition, totaling over 400 pages.

Success: second petition got approved!

The second petition had success, it was approved! After 18 months of hard work, uncertainty and a lot of money USCIS had sad yes. Now I can say I am glad I persisted. Finally I can work without limitation on Mobtest, which obviously has not been my primary focus over the last period. I am grateful for the help of a lot of friends that helped me out, and I hope I can one day return the favor. Pay back my family. I will do my best to make a success out of Mobtest, create US jobs and pay my taxes.

Final sayings about the US immigration situation now

It took me 18 months, but I succeeded in getting my O1. It took a lot of money but more importantly the opportunity costs were high. During this long period I couldn’t focus on Mobtest and saw similar companies grow. I hope for future startup entrepreneurs that the US government adopts laws that make it easier to start businesses. I managed, but a lot of foreigners without the financial backing of their family are turned away right now and will option for another country like Canada, Singapore or Chile. Immigrants have started over 50 % of tech business but this number is declining because of immigration laws. I would expect an immigrant country like the US to do better.

Dirk de Kok

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