Sophie Alcorn, attorney, author and founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley, California, is an award-winning Certified Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is passionate about transcending borders, expanding opportunity, and connecting the world by practicing compassionate, visionary, and expert immigration law. Connect with Sophie on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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I am a solo founder who is bootstrapping my startup to the point of traction before I even consider raising funding. It sounds like you need VC funding to get an O-1A — is that true? Is it even possible for me to consider getting an O-1A at this stage?
— Bold Bootstrapper
Great questions! It was one of the most frequently asked questions I got at Disrupt. There are many brave solopreneurs and bootstrapping founders like you turning their bold dreams into reality and a visa is absolutely possible even if you never raise funding!
Early-stage global founders want to know how they can qualify for an O-1A extraordinary ability visa if they haven’t received any angel or venture funding yet. Many are wondering if they will ever even need to raise money, as they might be able to achieve traction and scale by reinventing their profits.
These questions mark a profound shift in the global startup fundraising ecosystem. Even just a year ago, VCs selected founding teams composed of a technical co-founder and a sales co-founder to build a minimum viable product, launch, and iterate to product-market fit. Now the trend is for founders to work heads-down for months to build and launch an MVP, finding initial traction as they quest for the holy grail of product-market fit. They start seeking venture funding later, when they’re at the point of needing to rapidly scale.
So, back to your question: You absolutely can qualify for an O-1A while you’re bootstrapping, and VC funding is not required for the O-1A! We’ve helped many startup founders as well as students get an O-1A even before their startup was generating revenue.
Let’s take a deep dive into how founders can beef up their qualifications for the O-1A to build their startup, reach traction, and scale.
The O-1A is a nonimmigrant visa that is initially valid for three years and can be extended an unlimited number of times. While the O-1A is not officially a dual-intent visa, which enables you to pursue a green card (immigrant status) while on nonimmigrant status, the O-1A acts like one. In other words, you do not have to maintain a residence in your home country as is required for other nonimmigrant work visas, and pursuing a green card is fine. (Unlike the H-1B and L-1, which are fully dual intent, once your I-485 is filed, you will need Advance Parole to leave and reenter the U.S.)
Another thing that sets the O-1A apart from other nonimmigrant work visas is that most work visas are tied to a specific employer that sponsors you for the visa by offering you a job and filing an application on your behalf. For the O-1A, either an employer or a U.S. agent acting as your employer or representing multiple employers can sponsor you, which makes the O-1A the only single nonimmigrant working visa that makes freelance work possible. A colleague in your field or a formal agent from an agency (think Hollywood) can act as your U.S. agent, but your O-1A petition must provide details of the relationship between you as the O-1 beneficiary and the U.S. agent.
Setting the stage
Keep in mind that for the O-1A visa, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudicating officers will primarily be interested in your prior accomplishments in your field, which they consider to be a strong indicator of your future contributions and successes in that field and are proof that you are a person of “extraordinary ability.”
Determining your field of expertise is a crucial legal question for your attorney to help put your best foot forward for your O-1A. Ideally, your field of expertise should encompass your prior experience and accomplishments and the startup you’re creating. The O-1A is for individuals of extraordinary ability or accomplishments who are at the top of their field, so the more narrowly defined your field of expertise, the easier it will be to demonstrate that you are at the top of it. Instead of listing biotech entrepreneurship as your field of expertise, narrow it to something like entrepreneurship focused on AI-driven drug discovery. An expert immigration attorney will help you hone your field of expertise and explain other best practices for the O-1A.
If your startup is in a completely different field than your past experiences and accomplishments, that’s okay! People can grow, change and pivot, and there are many stories of successful founder O-1As for people building products different from their studies or past professional experiences.
Three of eight criteria for the O-1A
To qualify for the O-1A, you must meet at least three of eight criteria. I recommend meeting four or more for a strong O-1A petition.
Last year, the Biden administration sought to attract and retain STEM talent in the United States. As part of that effort, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the USCIS, expanded what it would consider evidence that satisfies the O-1A criteria for individuals working in “the highly technical nature of STEM fields.”
If a particular O-1A criterion does not apply to a candidate who works in a STEM field, then comparable evidence may be submitted. I’ll provide examples below. Now, let’s dive into each of the criteria in more detail.
National or international awards
To meet this criterion, you must have received nationally or internationally recognized awards for excellence in your field — ideally, two or more. Venture capital funding counts as an award of excellence, but there are others that bootstrapping founders can list, including:
- A PhD scholarship or doctoral dissertation prize.
- U.S. government grant, stipend or grant funding from private community foundations, philanthropic or family funds.
- Winning a national or international startup pitch competition or hackathon.
- Professional association awards.
- Awards for presenting at national or international conferences.
You must have received an unsolicited invitation to join a group or association that demands outstanding achievements in your field of expertise as judged by experts. This cannot be a membership that is only based on paying a fee, a subscription, or simply your education level, years of experience or a requirement for employment.
Some examples that will serve to strengthen your O-1A application include:
- Fellow-level membership in an organization in your field.
- Invitation to join a scientific committee or entrepreneurship club.
- Acceptance into accelerators or incubators.
- Membership in organizations such as Forbes Councils or On Deck.
- Invitation to be an adviser or mentor to a startup or at an accelerator or incubator.
Having one example is okay, but more is better.
Featured in media
You and your work have been substantially featured — not just a passing reference — in professional or major publications either online or in print or in major audio or video coverage. The publication or coverage can be either in the U.S. or abroad. Six or more is generally good. If the publication is in a language other than English, it will have to be translated by a certified translator.
Hometown newsletters, student-run publications, and press releases that were not published or posted by a publication don’t count. Blog posts and podcasts generally do not qualify unless they go viral or you can otherwise prove large circulation at a professional level.
Judging the work of others
Judging the work of others in your field or a related field either as an individual or as a member of a panel, such as a hackathon or other competition, will meet this requirement. An invitation alone is not enough to meet this requirement. You must actually serve as a judge. We have also included hiring decisions as an example of judging the work of others for startup founders.
Having one example is fine, but more is better. Some of the things that might work include:
- Judging a hackathon.
- Judging a pitch competition.
- Judging a technology award.
- Peer-reviewing publications.
- Serving as a venture scout.
This criterion requires that you and your work have made significant contributions to your field and often overlaps or ties in with the other criteria. Examples include:
- Your achievements have generated widespread commentary or media attention.
- Your publications have received a significant number of citations.
- You hold patents.
- Your work has been used by others through licensing, patents, or contracts.
- You and your work are pushing your field forward.
Written published articles
If you’ve authored articles in scholarly journals or professional or major trade publications or major media in your field of expertise, you fulfill this criterion. The articles must list you as the author. Books and book chapters also count, but probably not if they are self-published and sold only 15 copies. Blog posts generally don’t count unless they’ve generated significant views and comments. Five or more articles are often good.
Individuals working in STEM fields could use the presentation of their work at a major trade show if they are not in academia and the publication of scholarly articles doesn’t apply to them.
Critical or essential
You must demonstrate that your work has been “critical or essential” at an organization with “a distinguished reputation.” Demonstrating you meet this criterion is usually easy for serial entrepreneurs, funded or bootstrapping founders, contributors of intellectual property, experienced executives, or team leads focusing on important projects.
Evidence can include letters of recommendation, media coverage, and company metrics or key performance indicators.
Founders can demonstrate higher-than-average compensation through the equity they hold in their startup.
If you commanded a salary or other compensation in the past for your work that is higher than the industry average for your geographical area, you can meet this requirement by showing employment contracts, pay stubs, tax documents, or other evidence. Generally, a salary should be above the 90th percentile of comparable wage data based on your location.
Bonuses may be considered if they are included in the total wages section of your tax document. Stock options and profit-sharing incentives do not count.
Remember: You only need to demonstrate three of the eight O-1A categories, and venture funding isn’t required.
You’ve got this! Enjoy your journey!
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