Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
A friend and I founded a tech startup last year. Like a lot of other startups, we’re looking for funding. Should we come to Silicon Valley to meet with venture capitalists?
How should we begin that process? What type of visa should we get and how easy is it to get?
—Logical in Lagos
Thanks for reaching out to me from the entrepreneurial hotspot of Lagos!
In a recent episode of my podcast, I spoke with Esther Tricoche, director of investments at Kapor Capital, who offered up many words of wisdom to founders. She also mentioned that in many emerging entrepreneurial markets, including Lagos, accelerator funding and Series A funding are relatively easy to find, but pre-seed and seed funding are not.
Getting yourselves and your startup in front of Silicon Valley investors that focus on pre-seed and seed funding will be important to rapidly scale. Esther mentioned that even in U.S. cities, such as Atlanta, that are entrepreneurial hotspots, investment dollars are not as plentiful as they are in Silicon Valley. Moreover, investors outside of Silicon Valley tend to be more risk-averse.
So, yes, you should meet with Silicon Valley investors, but be aware that most U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed to routine visa and green card processing due to the ongoing pandemic. Given that, you can start requesting virtual meetings now; and you will have to wait until the U.S. consulate in Lagos comes back to full capacity to apply for a visa to come to the U.S. I like checking for visa availability through the Waypoint Embassy and Consulate Directory (full disclosure: I am an advisor to Waypoint).
As always, I recommend that you consult an experienced immigration attorney when you’re ready to take the step of actually applying for a visa.
Once U.S. consular offices reopen, if you aren’t eligible for ESTA, you can apply for a B-1 visitor visa for business. With a B-1 visa, you can request an initial stay of up to six months. This is a great status for business meetings such as to talk to prospective investors, negotiate contracts and incorporate a new business. However, you can’t work in the U.S. You must be aware that no hands-on work for pay (or even the chance of future remuneration) by a U.S. entity is allowed.
When you arrive at the airport in the U.S. with your B-1/B-2 visa, make sure immigration officials know you are entering the U.S. as a business visitor (B-1) — not a tourist (B-2). This is super important: Once a founder was denied an E-2 investor visa because his first visit to the U.S. was under a B-2 tourist visa for pleasure. While he was in the U.S. on the B-2, he signed an office lease for his business. Years later, immigration officials denied his E-2 visa petition even though he had already invested $200,000 in the U.S. Immigration officials stated that he had committed fraud by leasing the office (conducting business) while on a tourist visa. So please proceed very carefully!
If you need more time in the U.S. for fundraising, after you arrive, you can apply for one six-month extension of your B-1 status with USCIS. Except for extreme medical circumstances or changing status to become a student, one year is the maximum total stay on a B-1 visa, so if you want to remain in the U.S. beyond one year, you will need to find another visa option. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have a trade treaty with the U.S., which makes the E-2 visa out of reach for you and your co-founder. However, there are other immigration options available to you both. Take a look at my TechCrunch column that provides an overview of the common immigration options for founders.
Take a listen to my podcast episode, “Startup Law with Lindsey Mignano,” which was recorded last year about six months into the pandemic. In that episode, Lindsey, who is a founding partner of Smith Shapourian Mignano, a corporate law firm that focuses on startups, shares her expertise in establishing and structuring startups and the best strategies for raising funds, taking on investors, and growing a startup.
Until you make your way out to Silicon Valley, spend time doing research on Silicon Valley investors and their investment philosophy and focus and work on fine-tuning your pitch deck and pitch. For more info on this you can check out my discussion with Eileen Wu, who advises many tech startup founders on how to get the attention of investors by optimizing their story. In that episode, she talks about best practices for creating pitch decks and pitches, and she critiques the elevator pitches from two entrepreneurs.
Early-stage founders often want to figure out who to talk to and how to get in front of the right investors. Pitch competitions are a great way to get in front of a lot of prospective investors all at once. Several pitch competitions have moved online, so try to get in on as many as you can! And most investors are still meeting with startup founders via Zoom, so also email your pitch deck out to investors that look like a good fit for you and your startup and try to snag a Zoom meeting.
All my best for your startup journey,
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The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.
Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!