The O-1 Visa for Startup Founders: Where to Start and How to Qualify for this U.S. Work Visa (Sponsored)

Ever thought about growing your company in the US and competing for talent on a global scale? A basic understanding of the U.S. immigration system and which work visas are the best fit for startups can be a major competitive advantage for founders. 

We dive deep into the O-1 visa in this post, often seen as the best visa option for venture-backed startup founders.

A work visa such as the O-1 enables you to live and work in the U.S. while you grow your startup, avoiding the limitations of the B-1 business visitor visa or ESTA. An O-1 visa is also an attractive option for some founders because it ​​also puts them in a great position to apply for permanent residency as a long-term strategy.

What is the O-1 Visa?

The O-1 is a three-year temporary work visa for those with ‘extraordinary abilities’ – another way to describe someone at the top of their field in technology, business, science, or the arts. Individuals from entrepreneurs to graphic designers may qualify for the O-1. 

There are eight criteria to demonstrate extraordinary ability. You must meet three of the eight criteria to qualify for the O-1. Venture-backed founders often satisfy the awards, critical employment, and high remuneration criteria. Founders that have also participated in a selective accelerator program likely meet the membership criteria. Everyone has different backgrounds and experiences, and since the O-1 visa is based on all of your professional accomplishments, no two cases are the same.

Legalpad can help you understand your options based on your background! 

Let’s look at each category individually so you can get a better idea of where you stand. 

  1. Awards
  2. Critical employment
  3. Press
  4. Judging
  5. Memberships
  6. High remuneration
  7. Scholarly articles
  8. Original contributors

Awards

Securing a venture capital investment is one of the most common ways startup founders qualify for this criterion. If you’ve raised funding for your startup, you likely meet the award requirement. There is no minimum amount of capital required – the number isn’t always what matters. The importance is showcasing an investment in your company. As much as we love angels, angel investments don’t typically satisfy the awards criterion. 

There are also more traditional awards that meet this criterion. Members of elite recognition like Forbes 30 Under 30, Fortune’s 40 under 40, The Thiel Fellowship, are some examples.

Unfortunately, the USCIS will not accept awards or most other achievements from while you were a student. There’s a heavy focus on your professional career, so while you may have some outstanding credentials from school, don’t rely on these to help qualify for the O-1.

Not there yet? Take these steps:

Remember that your awards don’t necessarily need to be related to your startup. They could be awards you received prior at another organization. If you obtained any awards that stand out from previous jobs, they might fit this criterion.

Still not sure if you can meet this criterion? Think about awards specific to your field.  Search for awards by looking at professional organizations within your area of expertise. It may feel awkward at first, but find out the qualifications to be nominated.

You can also apply for an accelerator program. Many accelerator programs such as Techstars, 500 Startups and, YCombinator provide seed funding and access to a network of investors post-program. 

Pro tip: Completing an accelerator program may satisfy the “Membership” criterion. That’s an easy two-for-one.

Critical Employment

For this category, USCIS wants you to prove that you have a  critical or essential role at an organization with a distinguished reputation. As a founder, you are an essential player in your company’s success. The same case can be made for certain early employees. Beyond getting press about how awesome you are, you can demonstrate critical employment by including letters from your company that explain your role as a founder.

There is not a specific definition as to what it means for an organization to have a distinguished reputation, however, you can prove a distinguished reputation through funding, awards, revenue, a large user base or downloads, press in well-known outlets, and key partnerships or contracts with well-known organizations.

Press

A feature in major media or industry publications is a great way to meet this criterion. Featured in EU-Startups or TechCrunch? Check! Interviewed by the Wall Street Journal? Yes!

Not there yet? Take these steps:

If you haven’t been featured in the media yet, there are several ways to get your name out there. Many founders lean on their network or pitch their product to publications. 

While the readership and esteem of the publication are a big factor, you may not always get a “yes.” Focus on publications that are relevant to your business. Are you an electrical engineer? Think IEEE Spectrum. Working on infotech or biotech? MIT’s Technology Review might be the right option for you. Or, if you’re looking for something more generic, consider publications like Science Daily, Seed Magazine, or WIRED. There is no shortage of publications. Just make sure you’re putting your efforts in the right place!

Your press doesn’t need to be in an American publication. The publications in your country — or anywhere else — are just as relevant.

You may also want to consider engaging with a PR firm specializing in getting press for startups.  Companies big and small leverage PR firms to get their name out there, or in this case, help you meet one more criterion for the O-1.

Judging

As a startup founder, a straightforward way to meet this requirement is to judge a competition in your field. USCIS wants to see that you’ve been deemed an expert to judge the work of others in your field. If you’ve been a judge at a startup or pitch competition, let the world know about it!

Not there yet? Take these steps:

Landing a judging opportunity may be more feasible than you think. Look for competitions within your field and reach out to them. Do your research on the competition and past winners. Showing your passion for the competition can go a long way!

Student competitions don’t typically meet the judging requirements for the O-1 but can be a good experience to help you land a judging opportunity in an industry competition. If you were involved in competitions at university it’s a great step towards getting involved in more significant events. Are you still in touch with your advisor or researcher you worked with in the past? Use those connections to find the right competition for you.

Memberships

The membership requirement can be met if you are a member of a professional organization that requires outstanding achievement.

The same is true if you’re a member of an accelerator program like YCombinator, 500 Startups, or Techstars. Accelerators have become increasingly popular in the United States and internationally.

Not There Yet? Take These Steps:

There is no shortage of societies to reach out to. Engineers who are members of organizations like IEEE (electrical engineers), ASME (mechanical engineers), ACM (computing), Chi Epsilon (civil engineers) are just some of the societies you can contact. Find the professional organization relevant to your specific degree — a must to be considered — and find out the acceptance requirements.  Be sure to highlight your company’s work in the field, and include as much detail as possible.

You can also apply to startup organizations like the Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC) and other entrepreneurial organizations.

High Remuneration

You don’t need a high salary to meet the high remuneration criteria. In fact, there is not a minimum salary requirement at all.  Oftentimes, venture-backed founders use the equity in a startup to satisfy the high remuneration criterion. 

However,  if you don’t have VC backing, this is another criterion where your work history can come into play. Typically a salary in the 90th percentile in your field is enough to satisfy the high remuneration criterion. 

Scholarly Articles

Scholarly articles are typically research published in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g. Science, Nature). If you’ve completed a Master’s degree in the physical sciences, you may have been co-authored in your lab or maybe even through your own research. If you’ve completed your PhD, you’ve probably been authored multiple times and can meet this criterion.

Another possible way to meet this criterion is to write an opinion piece as a subject expert in any number of publications. Articles in well-known publications such as Popular Science, WIRED, and Forbes may all help you meet this criterion. 

Not there yet? Take these steps: 

Reach out to publications with an idea for an article. In the age of online journalism, many publications are much more responsive than you would think. The important thing is that your piece is relevant to their audience, and you share a clear idea of what you’d like to write about.

Original Contributions

This category is subjective. You’ll need to have invented something of significance and be able to prove that through letters and other pieces of evidence. While we think you’re extraordinary, there may be additional legwork here to make sure that USCIS knows it too. What have you previously worked on? What did you do? Why was the work important? For example, did the work create better processes, initiate further research in the field, or provide an innovative solution to a problem? 

How to Get Started

U.S. immigration is complex, and the path for startups isn’t always straightforward. Legalpad brings clarity to the U.S. immigration landscape so founders can focus on growth instead of the hassles of getting a work visa.

Schedule a free consultation to explore your visa options. They will discuss your specific background, goals, and map out your customized path forward towards getting your O-1 visa.