Dear Sophie: How can early-stage startups compete for talent?

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.”

How can early-stage startups compete for talent?

Dear Sophie,

As a first-time, early-stage startup founder, I find it difficult to compete against other startups on compensation.

We’ve had some interest from individuals who need visas or are demanding green cards, but paying the government and legal fees would be a stretch for us.

Any advice for reducing the cost of recruiting from abroad?

— Fledgling Founder

Dear Fledgling,

Thanks for your question. In a recent podcast episode, I chatted with Jen Holmstrom, an associate partner at GGV Capital who leads talent and recruiting support for startups in the GGV portfolio. We talked about fallout from a paradigm shift happening right now with respect to work and the unprecedented talent crunch, and how that is affecting sourcing, attracting, hiring, retaining, and developing employees.

Ms. Holmstrom offered her take on recruiting, which may be helpful for you to consider: Look beyond compensation when recruiting. “Companies are more effective at attracting and retaining talent by focusing on creating a work environment where people want to work, where people can grow, develop, and do the things they truly love to do rather than focusing on compensation alone.”

She emphasized that startup founders need to be prescriptive and intentional, paying attention to their company culture and each employee’s journey. That’s not easy, especially in today’s world of remote work teams. With clarity on vision and values, early-stage startups can help candidates make the changes they want to see in the world through their job.

In addition to creating a great company culture where employees can do the work they love, here are a few more tips to help you with hiring from abroad:

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

Saving money

Although your startup’s runway may not be as long as you’d like it to be right now, think about talking with an immigration attorney. An experienced immigration attorney can help you devise a strategy for recruiting international talent to meet your growth plans while staying within your budget.

While most business immigration attorneys charge flat fees for their services, those fees can vary significantly, so look around. For instance, government and legal fees for filing an H-1B can range anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000, according to the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

Sponsoring an H-1B holder for a green card has a smaller range, but a heftier cost of $10,000 to $15,000. You should be aware that USCIS will likely raise fees for visa applications and other immigration and naturalization benefits later this year. If you can, consider exploring immigration options for prospective hires sooner rather than later.

For early-stage startups, it’s also really important to consider whether you mesh with your attorney, and whether your attorney understands the vision and goals for your startup. You can save time and money by selecting someone with whom you feel at ease around and can work efficiently with. Check out this podcast episode from a few years ago with tips how to save money in the immigration process.

Develop the talent of recent grads

Consider recruiting and training students or recent graduates who are already in the U.S. A potential candidate may already be here on an F-1 visa, and would be authorized to work through OPT (Optional Practical Training) or STEM OPT, which is a two-year extension of OPT work authorization for individuals who studied in an approved STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field.

To retain international students and recent grads in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), recently expanded the list of STEM fields, enabling more F-1 students to qualify for STEM OPT. Some of the fields that were added include atmospheric and ocean science, bioenergy, business analytics, cloud computing, data visualization, mathematical economics, research methodology, and social sciences.

You can register an individual on F-1 OPT or STEM OPT for the H-1B lottery in March for only a $10 fee. If that individual doesn’t get selected in the lottery in March, the individual may still be selected in subsequent H-1B selection rounds if USCIS doesn’t receive enough H-1B petitions to meet the annual cap of 85,000 cap-subject H-1B visas. USCIS did three random selection rounds in 2021 and two rounds in 2020! If an individual is not selected in the H-1B lottery, you could consider a cap-exempt H-1B, which enables you to avoid the H-1B lottery. Take a look at this previous Dear Sophie column in which I explain how a cap-exempt H-1B works.

Another option would be to sponsor an individual for an O-1A extraordinary ability visa. USCIS recently updated its policy to make it easier for international STEM students, scholars, and researchers to qualify for O-1A visas. For example, a Ph.D. scholarship can now be considered a national or internationally recognized award for excellence, which is one of the qualifying criteria for O-1As.

Immigration as a benefit

If you find a promising job candidate living abroad, you could consider offering that individual a position that would involve working remotely from their home country for a one-year trial period. You can also consider sponsoring a prospective employee to come to the U.S. and work remotely from a city or town with a lower cost of living than in Silicon Valley or the other traditional tech hubs. More food for thought: I discuss some things to keep in mind when hiring people to work remotely in this previous Dear Sophie column.

All the best to you in growing your startup!

— Sophie

Have a question for Sophie? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space.

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!