Imagine telling an audience of young people struggling with their US immigration process (that can take up to 20 years) that you just gave up on your green card process a few months short of adjustment of status. That’s exactly what I did at the Startup Weekend Immigration event in San Francisco. After a brief moment of impressively synchronized eye widening, I still had an audience!
The goal of the immigration themed startup weekend was to gather individuals frustrated with the immigration system and team up with like-minded people to do something about it.
To be completely honest, I felt like an outlier in this gang of American dreamers. Most people sounded fixated on the idea that the US has to be the destination and outside a few hacks of making your way here through Canada, the idea of immigrating to anywhere else really wasn’t on the table (granted the audience by definition was a biased set).
After a speaker’s session with Sten on stage we both concluded that sunk cost fallacy could be a contributing factor to the somewhat “irrational” behavior of chasing the dream. It is the cost that has already been incurred (in both time and money) that overweighs utility decisions about the future and keeps people investing resources in questionable circumstances. I suppose believing that it is the place that makes success also helps ignore any personal shortcomings on the way to success.
Like most of the speakers, I agree that the US – and especially Silicon Valley – is a magical place. It’s this amazing mix of capital available on Sand Hill road along with the creative output from the cultural melting pot here that the rest of the world has not been able to compete with. However, what we disagree on, is believing that one has to be here to succeed.
According to research by Atomico, 61% of the billion-dollar companies started since 2003 have already been built outside Silicon Valley. This is unlikely a reversing trend given that 95% of the world’s tech talent resides outside of the US. Even if the US immigration would be fixed by letting tech talent in tomorrow, I have my doubts about Silicon Valley being able to keep its position. It’s not like getting here is the only problem with Silicon Valley! Getting here is just difficult enough that you would feel stupid complaining about the place when you’re finally here. Fixing immigration would probably only amplify the rest of the problems (median rent in San Francisco just hit $4225 according to Zillow).
One of my co-speakers, Tri Tran, left Vietnam on a tiny boat with 100 people to get here. He didn’t see his parents for 15 years. He has gone through a lot to get here and the difference between then and now probably makes it untactful for him to complain.
I, on the other hand, lack a sense of tact and am shouting here from my hedonic treadmill. Not because I come from affluence (in fact I also hail from a communist regime), but because I don’t see how the difference to where I came from could justify any place today as “good enough”. Just because 97% of us come from worse places, doesn’t mean we should now lower expectations on progress here.
Trains in the heart of Silicon Valley vs trains in a post-soviet Eastern European capital 2015
The US immigration system is obviously broken and needs fixing. Mixed opinions from the speakers on the likelihood of seeing substantial change in the next 4-5 years only served to fuel Teleports vision. We insist on turning this conversation around – it should be about countries competing for citizens, not about citizens competing for entrance into countries!
In fact, now that I think about it – I hope the US doesn’t fix its immigration! It would serve Teleport as the best showcase for what we believe in. We would start teleporting the talent in and out to raise capital and do networking (or other things Silicon Valley excels in ) and then build their world changing companies along with their profits and taxes elsewhere. You see, moving to the US does not need to be a binary decision any more. We are meeting startup teams with a much more intricate multi-site strategy every day (listen to Thomas Schranz from Blossom on our podcast for example).
It’s not like VC’s don’t understand the math of how their local real-estate subsidizing would translate into longer runways elsewhere. You can already sign legally binding contracts online in the EU without ever going there. So what are the other reasons for entrepreneurs to stick around besides networking and capital?
Let’s have the US compete on an open market with their offer of antiquated infrastructure for your tax dollars (vs. infrastructure, education and healthcare for lower tax rates). Let’s have the US compete with its offer of taxing its citizens outside their borders (this one will have Eritrea line up for competition). Let’s have the US compete for the experience of handing money to the government (there’s competition out there where tax filing literally takes minutes). And while we’re at it, we can have the US increase its odds by throwing in expatriation tax packages to those who think that free people should be able to move. There’s also a chance for the US to come in on a medal position competing for the bureaucratic burden of immigration (as the fact that this hackathon is needed clearly illustrates).
There are of course many more exciting competitions to be had (many in positive categories that the US would actually win), but the point I want to make is that transparency is increasing rapidly and we can expect more and more people to make informed decisions about when and where to live. And in that future, not only does the US need to solve immigration, but it has to work as hard as any other country to continue to attract the best and the brightest.
It is probably the very latest time for an immigration solution for the US to even qualify for the real competition ahead!
Props to Peter Shin and the team for organizing the Startup Weekend Immigration 2015 Hackathon event and letting us talk about our hack – software that helps free people move!
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