'Ask Sophie' book excerpt: A startup founder’s guide to O-1A visas

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

The following information has been excerpted from "Ask Sophie™: The Founder’s Guide to Visas & Green Cards" and adapted for TechCrunch’s audience.

International startup founders have limited time, energy, and funds. That’s why the O-1A visa for extraordinary ability or achievement is my single favorite path forward for them.

O-1A visas are now taking one to two months to process (or shorter with premium processing) and can grant founders a three-year stay in the United States, with the possibility of unlimited extensions afterward. Compared to other potential visas for founders, like H-1Bs and L-1As, the equity requirements are less complicated, the process is faster, and there is no lottery process or annual cap to contend with. There is also no minimum wage and you can set up your O-1A to allow you to legally engage in multiple work gigs.

O-1As can be petitioned by you or by a designated agent, meaning you don’t need a company or employer to apply for you.

Even students can apply for O-1As. Although it can take a while to build up a suitable portfolio of accomplishments in your field, an intentional and highly motivated founder can establish the requisite portfolio of accomplishments through volunteer engagements that do not constitute work — even prior to graduation as an international student. I’ve seen it happen many times!

“Extraordinary ability or achievement” may sound lofty, but you don’t have to have a Nobel Prize to qualify for this visa (although it wouldn’t hurt!). Compelling founder candidates only need to meet three of the following eight requirements in order to be eligible!

  1. Receive nationally or internationally recognized awards for excellence in your field — venture capital funding counts!

  2. Have articles about you or your startup published in major trade or media publications; often it’s “the more the better,” but a couple of biggies can suffice.

  3. Write and publish articles for major media or professional publications, like TechCrunch. Aim for five or more.

  4. Judge the work of others, such as by serving as a judge at a hackathon or pitch competition.

  5. Accept an invitation to join a group or association that demands outstanding achievements, like a startup incubator or an elite professional association such as a scientific standards committee.

  6. Demonstrate significant contributions to your field, such as disruptive technology, patents (patent pending now counts!), or peer-reviewed publications.

  7. Receive higher-than-average salary or demonstrate valuable compensation in the form of startup equity.

  8. Prove that you have been a critical or essential employee for a company with a distinguished reputation such as your startup or even a prior employer.

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Although the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires applicants to meet only three of the eight requirements above, I recommend aiming for four or more to present the strongest case.

If you don’t qualify yet, don’t despair. I typically find that early-stage startup founders can get an O-1A in a few months with a little focused effort. My law firm provides a complimentary O-1A assessment for founders as well as an extraordinary ability prep course to help you get to the finish line.

Aside from its founder-friendly structure, O-1As are also a great path toward the EB-1A green card, which is the fastest green card route available today and which also requires the demonstration of extraordinary ability.

The benefits to getting qualified for an O-1A, however, extend even beyond immigration. I can attest that the eight O-1A criteria provide an amazing marketing plan. When I started Alcorn Immigration Law, I was dealing with imposter syndrome. I wanted to help brilliant founders like you, but I felt like I had to prove myself worthy. I followed the O-1A requirements as a roadmap to establishing my firm’s credibility. These efforts paid off and we now get the privilege of helping the world’s most brilliant people make a difference!

In a process like immigration where so much can often feel out of our control, our mindset — and our resulting actions — are everything. I have seen the most qualified clients get bogged down by their own feelings of “I can’t do it.” But I have also witnessed the magic of fast and easy approvals for people who didn’t have any clue about their own potential but continued to trust the process and put in the work.

After taking a single step, I find that the ones that follow are easier, almost inevitable. Momentum builds, and magic happens.