Alexander Torrenegra

Founder and CEO of Bunny Inc. and Torrenegra Labs.

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Startup Visa: American by Choice, Bootstrapper by Passion

5th April 2012

This article was original published by Wired.

My first real “angel” investor was Tania. She didn’t invest money, though. She invested something far more valuable: She married me so that I could stay in the United States and continue growing my startup. Fast forward to the present, and my company now has over 50 team members, about half of whom are based in the U.S.

I’m Colombian by birth. I’m American by choice. Most nations are defined by race, language, or religion, but the United States is different. What sets the American nation apart is that it’s defined by the entrepreneurial spirit.

Until the 1920s, the U.S. used to welcome risk-takers. The further back in history we go, the riskier it was to immigrate, and risk-takers are, by nature, entrepreneurial.

During the previous century, though, populist, xenophobic politicians had gained enough support to shape our immigration policy the wrong way. Now, immigrating to the U.S. is almost impossible unless you are rich or have relatives here — and so foreign-born entrepreneurs are starting the next great companies elsewhere (and the U.S. is losing jobs as a result).

The Startup Visa movement, championed by the likes of lean startup guru Eric Ries and VCs Dave McClure and Fred Wilson, would enable non-American entrepreneurs with funding from a qualified U.S. investor to get a two-year visa to start a company.

The entrepreneurial community is loving the spirit behind the idea — myself included. Unfortunately, it would not have worked for me: I was a bootstrapper.

I founded my first business when I was 14. When I was 19, I came to the U.S. as a tourist, and I loved it here so much that I decided to stay. I wanted to remain in the U.S. legally, so I was forced to switch back and forth between tourist and student visas — a difficult and time-consuming hassle.

When this was no longer an option, I did explore some illegal avenues. (If you are interested, go to a Latin bakery and ask for a green card. If you end up in the correct one, you may be surprised with the “menu.”)

I did manage to bootstrap my first tech startup in the meantime. Within a year, we were profitable; within three years, we already had seven employees in the U.S.

Then 9/11 happened and the switching-visas game was over. I had to go back to Colombia, where most visa requests were being denied. I was afraid I would never be able to come back to the U.S.

Fortunately, though, I had met Tania a few months earlier. And, as you know, I got lucky.

Most foreign-born entrepreneurs I’ve met are very eager to stay here; the startup environment in the U.S. allows for the execution of ideas that would be very difficult anywhere else. Setting up a business is easy, investment regulation is friendly, job laws don’t punish startups, and risk and failure are socially accepted. No other country in the world has such a rich mix of elements. As such, I’m a happy taxpayer and I want the best for this country.

Yet the U.S. is losing its competitiveness every day. The internet, the same tool that allowed founders in this country to cultivate companies like Google, is also allowing the rest of the world to learn — to learn a lot, and learn it fast. Such knowledge is allowing anyone with passion to launch startups from anywhere in the world. And by making it difficult for these entrepreneurs to immigrate, the U.S. is losing out on thenew jobs and tax revenues generated by homegrown startups to other nations.

Entrepreneurs won’t steal jobs or live on welfare. Instead, they will come here to grow a business, create jobs and pay taxes. (California is about to get $2.5 billion in tax revenue with the IPO of Facebook alone.)The future of the U.S. is at stake, and shouldn’t be dependent on luck. We need to make it easier for entrepreneurs to become part of our nation. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

Startup Visa is trying to rekindle the spirit of entrepreneurship that America was founded upon, but it has some glaring imperfections. For one, it doesn’t have clear provisions for bootstrapping-but-profitable entrepreneurs like me — yet we’re vital to the entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially in the tech space.

Additionally, it requires the entrepreneur to be successful with his funded startup in order to remain in the U.S. Most startups fail — even those founded by veteran entrepreneurs — so I propose that a better solution is to allow “failing” entrepreneurs to stay for a few more years so that they can try once again, after having learned from their mistakes. Similar to how foreign students that recently graduated are granted some time to find a job and perhaps stay in the U.S., a “failing” entrepreneur could be granted a few years to start a second business.

Startup Visa may not be perfect, but it’s a needed first step toward the kind of immigration reform that will help pull the U.S. up by its bootstraps (pun intended) to again become the nation of hardworking entrepreneurs and explorers that its founders envisioned over 200 years ago.

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