We’re immigrants in Silicon Valley and we’re putting America First
Myself and my cofounder in our new video business , 8TV , are immigrants to the United States. We’re both very proud of that, and consider it a mark of success in itself. I came here in October 2012 on the controversial H1B migrant worker visa which is often accused of keeping Americans out of jobs, and Chris came just a few weeks before me on the almost identical (but only for Australians) E3 visa. You almost never hear from people on H1Bs as generally they want to keep a low profile and avoid any attention. But every day we get closer to the November election, I read stories about immigrant workers and hear certain politicians talking of “putting America first” when it comes to immigration. Well today, these two immigrants are launching our first business in America and we wanted to tell our story of how we got here.
Growing up in an unremarkable British Caribbean community in the UK in the 1980s, I lived an alternate life through the movies of Spielberg, Lucas and Zemeckis, and thought California was the most exciting place in the world. So in 2012 when Chris (an Aussie surfer who optimistically imagined Northern California would be somehow a better version of Bondi Beach) and I were sat in a damp annex in East London, working on a previous startup together, were offered the chance to start a mobile team for a software company in Silicon Valley, we didn’t hesitate. They couldn’t find qualified candidates locally, experienced in video and app development who wanted to work in an obscure security software business- cutting edge mobile designers and product managers at that time only wanted to build the next big app.
Getting the H1B visa was a torturously stressful 6 month long journey, during which any wrong step was the difference between leading two completely different lives. Eventually me, my wife and my 1 year old son all got an interview at the US Embassy in London and a stamp in our passports. We bought our flights to San Francisco the same day. It’s hard to put into words the challenges and emotions of moving to a new country. Sure it’s exciting, but travelling 6,000 miles, 8 timezones, saying goodbye to your family, your friends, your network and your home, and jumping into the unknown is never going to be easy. But on migrant visas like H1B and E3, you have the extra pressure of living each day knowing that if you lose your job, you have just 15 days to leave the United States or face deportation. To add extra pressure, the visa barred my wife from any paid work, making her entirely dependent on me. Throw in finding a place to live with no credit history, even opening a bank account with no social security number and let’s just say immigrant life in the early days is never dull. It focuses you. Learning to believe in yourself through often intense uncertainty is a gift that every immigrant receives.
Chris and I set to work in our new jobs, often working until 2 or 3 in the morning building the company’s mobile products from scratch and helping establish their brand in the US. By the time we left in September 2015, we’d grown their mobile downloads from zero to well over 15 million and established the company as a centre for cybersecurity interface and UX innovation globally.
In those two and a half years we watched Silicon Valley grow around us, and dreamed of one day starting our own company, but on our visas, knew it would have to remain a dream. Starting a business is essentially prohibited on H1B, even changing employer is incredibly difficult and risky, involving lawyers and multiple documents. Plus to spice it up, the H1B is only valid for 3 years (potentially extendable to a maximum of 6 with employer support). After that, however settled you are, you have to leave the country. This deadline was always in the back of our minds.
BUT.. we found out about a slim chance to change things… Our work, the products we were building were getting cited in the press a lot, and had won some major industry awards for innovation. If we could present a case to the US Immigration Department to be considered “exceptional persons”, of great value to the country and at the very top of our profession, we might be given special visas enabling us to remain indefinitely in the US, without being tied to the H1B or to the company. After multiple meetings with lawyers, thousands of dollars and countless sleepless nights, the Immigration Department decided we both fitted the criteria. We’d worked our asses off for nearly 3 years, and had finally earned the right to control our own destiny.
After completing the projects we were working on, we left the company to start work on our own idea, and were lucky enough to be chosen as one of 13 startups from over 3,000 that applied to a prestigious (yet insanely secretive) Tech Accelerator called Angelpad. They gave us a little seed funding to help start the business, but it meant Chris and I leaving family/girlfriends behind in SF and moving to NY for 3 months to work night and day with another immigrant, the brilliantly insane (insanely brilliant?) Thomas Korte, who runs Angelpad (and formerly ran product development at Google when it was a tiny startup). He would be our day to day, very hands on mentor, helping us to get our business up and running. With virtually no money, we lived in a tiny studio in Chinatown and walked back and forth to the office each day to save the cost of transport. Arriving back in San Francisco before Christmas, the Angelpad connection paid off immediately when Silicon Valley Bank offered us temporary office space while we built our product. The office is located in one of San Francisco’s roughest neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, and we have questionable bullet shaped holes in the window, but it’s central, it’s affordable and it’s full of awesome people.
Starting a business is the most stressful, chaotic, unpredictable thing I’ve ever done. Every day since September 2015, when we quit our jobs and founded 8TV, we’ve lived and breathed uncertainty. Uncertainty when we’ll earn an income again; uncertainty if we’ve thrown away our careers; uncertainty if our product will work or if investors would ever give us funding; uncertainty some days if the whole Tech industry was about to crash. Days became weeks and months of uncertainty. Constant swirling uncertainty every time you wake up or go to sleep. Normal, sane people spend their lives trying to avoid uncertainty. For us it’s like a stick that beats us out of bed in the mornings.
But the uncertainty of life as an immigrant it turns out is almost perfect preparation for the uncertainty of starting a business. The focus you need, to keep momentum when the path ahead is grey and fuzzy. The confidence in yourself you need, to see opportunity when others have only doubts. The grit you need to keep on going in those darkest days when people would rather ignore you than tell you how much your product sucks. I believe so many of Silicon’ Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs, from Vinod Khosla to Elon Musk, Sergei Brin and most recently the Collinson twins and many many others have flourished not despite the fact they’re immigrants. But because of it. When you have no choice but to make yourself focus, while staring uncertainty in the face, you learn some of the best skills of how to build a company. When you arrive in a country where you have so many natural disadvantages, no college network, no family network, no reputation, it forces you to focus on the advantages you do have. Our resumes say that our natural advantage is our ability to build creative mobile video products. But in reality, I think our natural advantage is living with uncertainty.
Today we launch our business, 8TV, to the world!
A video network for watching and creating short videos about products. We’ve just agreed our first major brand partners, are honored to present at this week’s Cannes Lions, agreed a partnership with Amazon and are preparing to hire our first American employees. The uncertainty of our early days in America helped create this business and it’s sure as hell where we’re going to build it. We are putting America first.