Invent a Cool Clothing Site, Now Leave the Country—Fan Bi, Blank Label, and The Case for the “Founders Visa”

Twenty-two-year-old Fan Bi is the mastermind behind Blank Label, an online clothier where fashion-conscious young men can use sophisticated “configurator” software to design their own dress shirts from a variety of fabrics and collar, cuff, and pocket styles. Tailors in Shanghai assemble shirts from the designs and ship the finished articles back to the U.S., all for under $100 per shirt. His Boston-based startup is part of a “mass customization” movement that could alter the economics of the fashion industry, empower clothing buyers, and give rise to a new generation of e-commerce success stories.

Too bad, then, that the young entrepreneur is about to be kicked out of the United States.

Bi is a citizen of Australia and a student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who has spent the last year in a study-abroad program at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. He says that even before his fourth month at Babson, he had fallen in love with the high-energy entrepreneurial culture at the institution (and around Boston in general) and had decided, like most of his Babson peers, to start a business. Blank Label went live on October 31. But now that the startup founder’s studies are ending, his student visa is about to expire—meaning, come January 4, he’ll have to get on a plane for Sydney.

When I first talked with Bi back in October, there was still some prospect that his visa would be extended. That fell through. Speaking with him again yesterday, I didn’t hear anger in his voice about having to leave, just disappointment. “I’m not screaming and saying ‘This is ridiculous’ or ‘This is absurd,'” Bi says. “This is far bigger than myself; I’m one of the fortunate ones.”

But Sydney, he confesses, just doesn’t have the kind of startup culture where, he now realizes, he will thrive best. Even in Canada—to which Bi is considering emigrating, so he can be closer to the rest of his team here in Boston—he wouldn’t be surrounded every day by a community of successful serial entrepreneurs and investors who could offer him guidance, feedback, and support (not to mention employees and capital), he says.

Fan Bi (left) in a still from Dart Boston's Pokin' Holes

At bottom, there really is something absurd about banishing a promising entrepreneur like Bi, who could be building his ideas into a valuable business right here in Boston—creating jobs and aiding the region’s, and the nation’s, economic recovery. That’s why there’s so much talk these days about the idea of a startup visa, a new class of immigration document that would allow graduating students and other non-U.S. citizens who become startup founders to stay in the country indefinitely.

Brad Feld, the co-founder of Boulder, CO, venture firm Foundry Group and startup incubator TechStars, has been blogging for months about the need for what he calls a “founders visa,” picking up on an idea from Y Combinator’s Paul Graham. In October, Feld published a first-hand-account by an anonymous foreign-born student entrepreneur who said he was dreading his departure from Babson; Bi now acknowledges that he was the post’s author.

“Being in Boston…I mourn the fact my visa expires in December, the conclusion of my studies,” Bi wrote. “Why is it so good here? How is it so different to back home? It’s not about the number of venture dollars, or the size of the business plan competitions, it’s not even the size of the market. It’s about an intangible in the ether. It’s about culture. For a first-time, young entrepreneur, environment is so fundamentally key. The couple of web tech, social media, or general startup networking events I go to every week act as shots in the arm. I always come back that much more energetic; that much more inspired.”

The inspiration for Blank Label, Bi says, came when his parents, who emigrated from China to Australia and run a successful grocery business, visited Shanghai in mid-2008. The city is home to a bustling garment district. “I thought maybe there would be a way to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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