Berlin Startup Tour, by Heisenberg Media. CC2.0.

I’m a foreigner.
Should I join a startup in the U.S.?

Short answer: yes.

Now let’s see the things you need to look at when considering a startup, and what are the benefits and disadvantages.

Many foreigners in the U.S. (or those outside considering coming to the U.S.) hesitate about joining a startup for a number of reasons. These are some of the reasons I’ve heard recently:

  • Startups are unstable and I need stability because of the complexity of living somewhere other than my home country
  • Startups are not well funded and they cannot sponsor foreigners to work visas / don’t have the same chances as a bigger company when sponsoring.

Let’s cover the myths one by one. Starting with visas.

Not true. Startups do sponsor for work visas and most actively seek talent regardless of their origin. Talent acquisition is incredibly hard and startups compete fiercely for it. If you’re the right fit and a startup wants you, they’ll find a way. There’s always a way.

I’ve worked for 3 companies in the US. Two of them startups, that applied for my work visa, and another one not so startup, that refused to apply for it.

Nope. There is a misconception that startups are not well funded enough to sponsor foreigners for work visas. That is not true. Some startups are well funded, some startups are not. The word “startup” shouldn’t stop you, as a foreigner, from interviewing with companies and getting to know them. Here’s a list of things you need to ask / find out when interviewing with a startup:

  • At what stage is the startup? Recently created and not yet funded, seed stage, series A, series B…? When did they raise their last round?
  • How easy is the access to capital for that startup? (How well connected the current team is, do they have existing well-known investors, is the startup operating in an area of high demand, …)
  • The founder(s). What’s their track record, past successes and failures.

If the startup won’t answer you the questions in bold, or answer you in a vague, imprecise way, scratch it off the list and move on to the next one. Transparency is no longer a bonus, it’s a must, and not answering these questions to potential employees signifies deeper problems you don’t want to deal with.

Making sure you understand those questions will guarantee you full knowledge of the risk you’re taking. The main question that needs to be answered in your head is: how much money does the startup have until they need more to keep operating. Generally, you don’t want to join a startup that is burning money and has a couple more months of runway (and is not already raising a new round). With respect of the stage of the startup, it’s up to you. I’ve worked in seed stage startups and in more advanced ones, they are all stable/unstable in their own way.

The risk of being laid off is mitigated by the runway the startup has left and its potential to attract more capital. A combination of these two factors, the track record of its founders, the market, and the product(s) they work on will determine how stable the startup is.

Note: Now, for the adventurous. Not everything is stability. I joined a startup when it was at seed stage because I believed in the product and I saw potential in it. Sometimes you’ll make decisions based on your intuition. It’s not black and white and you’ll have to find the sweet spot of the level of risk you feel comfortable with taking.

Absolutely not. Startups will generally hire an outside firm to do the paperwork, even when they have in-house HR bandwidth, that will ask you a lot of documentation and information to do the process.

If a startup asks you to fill/send your own H-1B paperwork, scratch it off the list and move on to the next one.

A startup-sponsored H-1B application properly filled by an outside firm has the same chances as one from Google or any other giant. The H-1B lottery is random and computer-generated, and the approval is not dependent on how big the company is. (Premium processing only makes the process slightly faster. It doesn’t increase your chances in the lottery and it doesn’t increase the chances of getting it approved.)

Now, most start-ups don’t have revenue. Those who don’t will find some blanks in the H-1B forms to be pretty awkward, since they ask about revenue. USCIS (the government agency dealing with visas) wants to make sure the company will be able to pay you. Firms know this and it’s generally enough with providing letters in support of the company and/or specifying that the money comes from investors. This is standard practice and it doesn’t diminish your chances.

Not always, and it depends. Startup salaries and salaries at big companies are similar.

Big companies will offer you more perks. Gym, laundry, and the like.

Startups will offer you equity. Equity is not liquid and won’t be in a long, long time. But the potential of its worth is what really matters at this point. If you don’t value the equity the startup is offering you it probably means you don’t value the product/what they do. If that’s the case, don’t join. I speak more about potential in the sections below.

What. No. I’ve heard this so often and it still baffles me. No one expects you to pack your bags immediately and sail to the unknown if you get fired or laid off. If you get fired or laid off while on an H-1B, find a new job. H-1Bs can be transfered. Generally, USCIS will approve requests to transfer employer within 30 days of the day you stopped working for the other company.

Now, other factors that may influence your decision:

For foreigners, sometimes timing is everything. If you plan to join a bigger company, that will be a problem. Big companies have longer hiring processes and they move much, much slower. Google processes can go from weeks to months.

Rule of thumb is most big companies won’t even talk to you if you’re a foreigner after beginning/mid February. They just don’t have enough time to do the whole process before making a decision and applying for an H-1B. (H-1B applications start April 1st).

Startups are considerably much faster, more efficient at talent acquisition and will respond quicker and make a decision faster.

This applies not only to foreigners, but to all workers. The potential for growth and success in the medium/long term in a startup is considerably higher than in a bigger company.

It makes sense. It’s a game of math. If you join a small company, you’re helping make it. Big companies will give you stock options (some of them) and a big salary. Most early stage companies will give you a market salary and very good equity conditions.

If you believe in the product, take the equity. Take the fucking equity. If equity is not part of your offer, negotiate that.

If you’re adventurous enough to leave your home country, chances are you’ll be adventurous enough to get a slightly smaller salary but a generous equity package that may change your life. (And again, if you don’t think this equity will change your life, maybe you shouldn’t join that startup).

I’m not a lawyer and none of this supposed to be legal advice. If you have further questions about your immigration status or about immigration processes, please consult with an expert.

Designer, engineer. Cofounder at Silo.

Designer, engineer. Cofounder at Silo.

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