Congratulations on graduating from MassChallenge! That’s a huge accomplishment. If you’re an international founder, you’re probably wondering what’s next. As you transition from an accelerator to growing your startup, there are several essential to-dos keep the momentum going.
The U.S. immigration system can overwhelm anyone, especially with the added challenges of COVID-19. However, with determination and some planning, growing your company in the U.S. is entirely within reach.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article should not be relied upon as legal advice.
First things first: check your current visa status or start planning
If you’re already in the U.S.
If you are already in the U.S., a few scenarios may be applicable to you.
If you have B-1 status
The B-1, also commonly referred to as a business visitor visa, is an excellent option for founders who need more time and flexibility to remain in the U.S. to fundraise, hire or find office space. B-1s are initially valid for six months. Suppose you need to stay in the U.S. beyond the initial six-month period. In that case, you may be eligible to apply for an extension online or file a paper application to extend your status for an additional six months. You do not have to leave the U.S. to apply for an extension or change your status to a different visa if your status does not expire during that time. Learn more about the B-1 here.
If you used the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA)
The Visa Waiver Program allows individuals from 38 countries to travel to the U.S. temporarily for business or tourism for up to 90 days. ESTA is valid for three months. ESTA is usually enough time to participate in an accelerator program. However, while the Visa Waiver Program is more straightforward than applying for the B-1, you cannot extend or change your status on ESTA. If you would like to stay in the U.S. longer than the allotted 90 days, you’ll need to travel back to your home country first and then apply for a different status.
Options for International Students
Are you a student on F-1 or J-1 status? You’ll want to know about the most common options for students:
- Applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- Transferring to the H-1B visa
- Applying for the O-1 visa
More on the O-1 visa below!
If you are currently outside the U.S.
If you are currently outside the U.S. and are interested in traveling and growing your startup in the U.S., you can still apply for a work visa. It is never too early to map out a plan, figure out your timeline, and evaluate your options!
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, USCIS is still processing, and approving cases, and consulates are re-opening! If you apply for a work visa and it is approved, you’ll need to check with your local Consulate/Embassy’s website for the specific status of whether the location is open for visa stamping.
To check your current visa status, visit the I-94 site. You can check which status you have and when your visa status officially expires. There may be entry bans to be aware of as well. Check here for the most up-to-date traveler information.
Consider applying for the O-1 visa
Most venture-backed founders, especially MassChallenge graduates, qualify for the O-1 visa. The O-1 is initially granted for three years. After the first three years, you’ll need to apply for an extension on your visa every year. The good news is the O-1 is renewable indefinitely. There is no maximum on how many O-1s are granted every year, no salary requirements, and flexible requirements that align well with entrepreneurs.
The O-1 visa is considered an ideal option for startup founders because of the flexible criteria and the path to permanent residency. Founders must meet at least three of the following eight criteria. We’ve provided an example of how other founders have qualified for each criterion.
- Awards: You raised venture capital
- Critical Employment: You founded a venture-backed startup
- Press: You get coverage in major media (Forbes, TechCrunch, etc.)
- Judging: You’ve judged a startup competition
- Memberships: You’ve gone through an accelerator program (like MassChallenge!)
- High Remuneration: You have significant equity in a venture-backed company
- Scholarly Articles: You’ve authored scholarly articles
- Original Contributions: You invented something original (think something very original like developing the touchscreen)
Learn more about the O-1 criteria here.
Keep your network warm
One of the greatest benefits of accelerator programs is the connections you make, so be sure to stay in touch with your network. Your accelerator community could be the catalyst for successful fundraising and recruiting opportunities. Your connections may also be helpful if you’re thinking about long-term options for living and working in the U.S.
Think of ways to stay top of mind. One way to do that is to send email updates periodically. Keep the email simple, actionable, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. The relationships you formed while you were in an accelerator program are invaluable. You now have a network of founders who are likely going through similar journeys and experiencing the same ups and downs. Stay in touch, offer your support, and accept the help when you need it!
Stay laser-focused on growth
Post accelerator blues are real: it’s like all your friends left, and you don’t have a program managing your life. Maintaining some of the rituals that kept you focused and some of the relationships that held you accountable take work but are really valuable. Establish a handful of routines that work for your team and stick to them. Set up recurring meetings and monthly reporting, and do not neglect your network.
But also take a breather
Life at an accelerated pace can burn anyone out. Keeping your work-life balance in check is critical to long-term success.
Remember that you’re a founder, not an immigration expert. Your visa situation doesn’t have to distract you from the exciting momentum you’ve built. With a bit of preparation from you, Legalpad takes care of your work visa so you can focus on growing your company.
This is a guest post from Allison Davy, director of marketing at Legalpad, an organization that simplifies the stressful and annoying complexities of U.S. immigration so entrepreneurs can focus on growing their company.