Invent a Cool Clothing Site, Now Leave the Country—Fan Bi, Blank Label, and The Case for the “Founders Visa”
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self-validation and the security than because we really needed it,” he says. “We have zero overhead, we have no ad spend at the moment, and we make money on every shirt. We don’t want to have a high cash burn while there are still so many unanswered questions.”
Such as where Bi will end up. Right now, he’s thinking Montreal or Toronto—cities close enough to Boston that he could drive into town every couple of weeks to see his team and get re-energized. In these days of virtual organizations, having a remote CEO isn’t a showstopper for a startup. But it’s not optimal, either. Bi worries that he’ll feel isolated. “So much of my limited startup knowledge comes from talking to other people and hearing their insights about marketing and technology and raising money,” he says. “Going to Montreal, I am a little bit concerned that my perspectives will be limited.”
If local entrepreneurs and investors had their way, Bi would be able to stay right where he is. “I met Fan at Web Inno and really dig his business—and him,” says Shawn Broderick, executive director of the Boston version of the TechStars. “He was sharp, smart, thoughtful, and interesting.”
It’s silly to push such people out the door as soon as they’re done with their studies, Broderick says, especially in light of the statistics: some 47 percent of venture-backed startups in the United States were founded by immigrants, according to a 2006 study by the National Venture Capital Association. “Lots of companies and lots of jobs are created in the U.S. by individuals not born in the U.S.,” says Broderick. “We’re fools to allow them to leave after graduation.”
Broderick’s solution: “The INS should identify the fields of study that create companies and staple a visa to non-citizen students’ diplomas when they graduate in those fields.” But he complains that “our lawmakers are unable to get past fear-mongering and short-sightedness to really address the serious issues within immigration.”
But even though it could be a while before Fan Bi gets to return to the United States as anything other than a tourist, he’s not letting the situation slow down his company. He gave up the fight for a visa extension after he realized that dealing with immigration officials could become as all-consuming as seeking venture funding. The company just doesn’t have the time right now.
“We’re not the only ones who think that customization is an interesting space, and we’re not the only ones who can go to a developing country to find cheap sourcing contracts,” Bi says. “We need to define what we’re doing that’s really different and develop some sort of unfair advantage.”
With the shirt configurator, Blank Label may have found the beginnings of this advantage. Now it just needs to find its founder a nearby home.
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