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

12/17/09Follow @wroush

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self-validation and the security than because we really needed it,” he says. “We have zero overhead, we have no ad spend at the moment, and we make money on every shirt. We don’t want to have a high cash burn while there are still so many unanswered questions.”

Such as where Bi will end up. Right now, he’s thinking Montreal or Toronto—cities close enough to Boston that he could drive into town every couple of weeks to see his team and get re-energized. In these days of virtual organizations, having a remote CEO isn’t a showstopper for a startup. But it’s not optimal, either. Bi worries that he’ll feel isolated. “So much of my limited startup knowledge comes from talking to other people and hearing their insights about marketing and technology and raising money,” he says. “Going to Montreal, I am a little bit concerned that my perspectives will be limited.”

If local entrepreneurs and investors had their way, Bi would be able to stay right where he is. “I met Fan at Web Inno and really dig his business—and him,” says Shawn Broderick, executive director of the Boston version of the TechStars. “He was sharp, smart, thoughtful, and interesting.”

It’s silly to push such people out the door as soon as they’re done with their studies, Broderick says, especially in light of the statistics: some 47 percent of venture-backed startups in the United States were founded by immigrants, according to a 2006 study by the National Venture Capital Association. “Lots of companies and lots of jobs are created in the U.S. by individuals not born in the U.S.,” says Broderick. “We’re fools to allow them to leave after graduation.”

Broderick’s solution: “The INS should identify the fields of study that create companies and staple a visa to non-citizen students’ diplomas when they graduate in those fields.” But he complains that “our lawmakers are unable to get past fear-mongering and short-sightedness to really address the serious issues within immigration.”

But even though it could be a while before Fan Bi gets to return to the United States as anything other than a tourist, he’s not letting the situation slow down his company. He gave up the fight for a visa extension after he realized that dealing with immigration officials could become as all-consuming as seeking venture funding. The company just doesn’t have the time right now.

“We’re not the only ones who think that customization is an interesting space, and we’re not the only ones who can go to a developing country to find cheap sourcing contracts,” Bi says. “We need to define what we’re doing that’s really different and develop some sort of unfair advantage.”

With the shirt configurator, Blank Label may have found the beginnings of this advantage. Now it just needs to find its founder a nearby home.

Check out the DartBoston Pokin’ Holes pre-show and panel interview with Fan Bi, recorded in September 2009.

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

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  • http://prashant.sachdev.googlepages.com/ Prashant Sachdev

    These founder’s issues will stay for some more time and we as founders have to deal with this some or the other ways…But it is good to see that most founders understand the value of being in US (startup ecosystem and market both are strong enough reasons).

    I myself also from Babson College, am bootstrapping from India but yes trying to spend time visiting US when need be with business visa. In my recent visit most of the advise I have received is – “Prashant you need to be here full-time”. I do agree this but instead of solving that issue I am better focusing on building business with visits to US for now. I believe with 4-6 months trip a year you can solve this problem to some extent if not fully.

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    He’s young and inexperienced but Bi has already learned a really great lesson in startups when he states, “We have zero overhead, we have no ad spend at the moment, and we make money on every shirt. We don’t want to have a high cash burn while there are still so many unanswered questions.” He’ll be so much better prepared to responsibly use investor dollars wisely because of this approach. And he’ll get a better deal for his company.

    On a separate note, I have a front view seat on what energizes consumers these days and the mass customization trend still has enormous runway. Blank Label joins other exciting startups in that mode like FashionPlaytes, Mix My Granola, YouBar, RumSumSum, Tia’s Sandals, and Sole Envie. We’ve worked with many of them at Daily Grommet…maybe some day we’ll work with Bi.

    Good luck with the immigration issues.

  • sridhar

    It is not true that people on student visas have to leave after their studies are done
    Several study programs allow for a 1-year curricular practical training after the studies/degree is done.

  • http://www.blank-label.com Fan Bi

    first, thanks so much wade for helping the growing awareness of this issue.

    prashant – that’s super encouraging that you’re dealing with the issue and managing to grow a successful business.

    jules – would love to chat with you and daily grommet. love your work.

    sridhar – agreed that OPT post studies, not for me because i was exchange as opposed to regular student, but in any case what happens after OPT? you have a year to found a startup and then have no real options of extending that.

  • http://www.lyleandscott.com/blog juna

    Aside from the main issue tackled, what strikes me a lot in this post is the idea of ‘mass customization’ by the younger generation. I love the concept itself! I hope so that there will be another topic for it.

    By the way, good luck with the immigration concern.

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  • http://worldmikel.com WORLDMIKEL

    I can understand a desire to be in the USA. In better times I could understand this product. Fashion is purely a luxury item. These are not luxury times in the US or most of the world.

    You seem like a nice fellow and would be a welcome resident or citizen. Still, I am very troubled to think that there might be Venture Capitalists that would invest in this. There are so many people in the US with things that contribute to the necessities of life that are breezed by for loans and VC. And this would get you a Visa?

    Part of what has brought America down is rampant consumption and pretentious, conspicuous consumption. We certainly should not be perpetuating this sort of thing now.

    I think there is a sort of skewed set of values in places like SV and its clones around the US. Perhaps that’s at the root of the problem with this notion of giving away a new set of Visas under the Startup Visa Bill. It is like anything for a buck; another buck for the richest campaign contributors.

    I guess the Startup Visa Bill could be applied to a new cathouse someplace in Nevada. If someone is able to put up $250,000 and they can wrangle a few more workers for the place and turn a profit, Green Cards all around?

    Hey, if Australian Venture Capitalists or any other foreigners want to put up the loot in the same manner touted in the PR for this biz here in the US (minus the tax breaks) – bring them on! Then it would truly be an influx of money to the US. Just selling goods here and churning the minimal profits around in our Economy does nothing for us. In fact, other than through some fancy accounting, it is a losing proposition.

    Also, you’re bright enough to understand what is really needed in our world. Apply your brainpower to that. At the end of the day, it will have much greater value to you and the world.

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  • http://ptechnorati.blogspot.com Paramendra Bhagat

    This is a sad story. Fan Bi should not have to leave the country.

  • Big Ben

    Well, what a young man for the business. You should definitely not be thrown out of the US. This business is a thrilling new idea that will make it’s way in the near future .. good luck!

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