Ask Sophie: Can a bootstrapping solo founder get an O-1A?

Sophie Alcorn, attorney, author and founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley, California, is an award-winning Certified Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is passionate about transcending borders, expanding opportunity, and connecting the world by practicing compassionate, visionary, and expert immigration law. Connect with Sophie on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Dear Sophie,

I am a solo founder who is bootstrapping my startup to the point of traction before I even consider raising funding. It sounds like you need VC funding to get an O-1A — is that true? Is it even possible for me to consider getting an O-1A at this stage?

 — Bold Bootstrapper

Dear Bold,

Great questions! It was one of the most frequently asked questions I got at Disrupt.  There are many brave solopreneurs and bootstrapping founders like you turning their bold dreams into reality and a visa is absolutely possible even if you never raise funding!

Early-stage global founders want to know how they can qualify for an O-1A extraordinary ability visa if they haven’t received any angel or venture funding yet. Many are wondering if they will ever even need to raise money, as they might be able to achieve traction and scale by reinventing their profits.

These questions mark a profound shift in the global startup fundraising ecosystem. Even just a year ago, VCs selected founding teams composed of a technical co-founder and a sales co-founder to build a minimum viable product, launch, and iterate to product-market fit. Now the trend is for founders to work heads-down for months to build and launch an MVP, finding initial traction as they quest for the holy grail of product-market fit. They start seeking venture funding later, when they’re at the point of needing to rapidly scale.

So, back to your question: You absolutely can qualify for an O-1A while you’re bootstrapping, and VC funding is not required for the O-1A! We’ve helped many startup founders as well as students get an O-1A even before their startup was generating revenue.

Let’s take a deep dive into how founders can beef up their qualifications for the O-1A to build their startup, reach traction, and scale.

O-1A basics

The O-1A is a nonimmigrant visa that is initially valid for three years and can be extended an unlimited number of times. While the O-1A is not officially a dual-intent visa, which enables you to pursue a green card (immigrant status) while on nonimmigrant status, the O-1A acts like one. In other words, you do not have to maintain a residence in your home country as is required for other nonimmigrant work visas, and pursuing a green card is fine. (Unlike the H-1B and L-1, which are fully dual intent, once your I-485 is filed, you will need Advance Parole to leave and reenter the U.S.)

Another thing that sets the O-1A apart from other nonimmigrant work visas is that most work visas are tied to a specific employer that sponsors you for the visa by offering you a job and filing an application on your behalf. For the O-1A, either an employer or a U.S. agent acting as your employer or representing multiple employers can sponsor you, which makes the O-1A the only single nonimmigrant working visa that makes freelance work possible. A colleague in your field or a formal agent from an agency (think Hollywood) can act as your U.S. agent, but your O-1A petition must provide details of the relationship between you as the O-1 beneficiary and the U.S. agent.