Megan Zengerle had a problem. For months, her company had been courting a hire from Brazil. They loved him. He loved them. Her team had filled out all of the paperwork and submitted them to the H-1B pool as planned, but they missed the April cutoff by a number of hours. If they still wanted the hire, they’d have to wait an entire year to apply again — meaning he wouldn’t actually start until the following October.
No startup can afford this kind of wait. They don’t know where they’ll have headcount in six months, much less in over a year. Fortunately for Zengerle, her company’s immigration attorney had an idea: Apply for a J visa to cover the 18-month wait for an H-1B, and get the employee onsite immediately. The team sprinted to file the right papers, and the plan worked.
Moral of the story: Competence in international hiring can be a major competitive advantage for entrepreneurs fighting for the best talent out there, allowing them to tap into less competitive markets and go the extra mile for that perfect hire. If you don’t know your stuff (or employ someone who does) you’re sure to be outgunned. In this exclusive interview, recruiting veteran Zengerle, now VP of People Operations at online education company CreativeLive, lays out what founders need to know, expect and do to get the world’s best in the door.
A lot of startups want to hire from other countries. There’s a wealth of technical talent in China, India, Western Europe and Canada, especially. Simply saying, “We should launch an international hiring program,” isn’t going to cut it, Zengerle says. Each hire is a specific case that requires dedicated attention. Top challenges for founders include when to start immigration hiring, the timelines involved, and the amount of detail required. She has tips to demystify each.
When to Start
“I haven’t hired an international employee before a company hit 5 to 10 employees,” says Zengerle. “Of course there are outliers, but you have to have decent organizational and reporting structures in place to help some acclimate. You’re asking someone to move to a new country and produce results. You have to be able to give them the tools to do that.”
Most founders want to incorporate international hiring right away because they want to promote a diverse culture and don’t want to miss out on great candidates. But this can be a mistake. “The reality is you should always start domestic, at the very least because, in order to get most worker visas, you have to say you exhausted local hiring opportunities.”
That said, there might be some roles where you know right away that you’ll want to look abroad — especially in saturated technical fields like developer operations (more on that later). Recognizing this, Zengerle says that founders should stop asking “when” and start asking “why” about international hires. They should only be made when it’s critical to the role.
Hiring someone from another country is largely a waiting game, with very strict deadlines — and the cap on H-1B visas has made the situation even more acute. The window to receive this type of visa opens every April 1, and the government only grants 60,000 a year. This usually happens within the first week. 20,000 more spots are reserved for people graduating from U.S. master’s programs, but even those cap within 30 days.
Immigration hiring is a very sensitive process and you have to start early.
Zengerle says she typically starts recruiting overseas in the fall, knowing that she’ll have to get things together for H-1B visa applications on or before the first of the new year. Then you wait until the window opens and hope for the best. If you miss the window, you’ve missed it for a year.
“This doesn’t work with unpredictable startup roadmaps,” she says. “And if your company is in a high growth phase looking to exit in the 18-month window it takes to get someone through the process, it doesn’t make sense to even consider hiring international employees. The process is just too long, and it can take away from your focus on an accelerated growth model.”
Immigration regulations are basically a giant matrix of visa types and dense criteria for each. There may be ways around certain rules (like subbing a J for an H-1B for a short stint), but Zengerle stresses the fact that every hire is different by nature. “A few countries have their own visas — Australia has the E-3 visa, Canada and Mexico have the TN status, Singapore and Chile have a special one outside of the H1-B cap,” she says. “Even people hired for the same role from the same country will differ in what they qualify for.”
Before joining CreativeLive, Megan Zengerle headed up People & Business Operations at Scribd. For 8 years prior, she ran MPower, a firm she founded, specializing in startup recruiting. There, she worked with clients including Twitter, LinkedIn, Etsy, Zappos and more.
In order to have a wise immigration plan, you have to know all the rules.
It takes a lot of time and resources, but the only way to recruit outside the H-1B window is to be very smart about where you can find the right people with the right skillsets who qualify for different tickets into the country.
“My number one piece of advice for any company recruiting outside the country is to immediately start interviewing immigration attorneys — they're incredible sources of knowledge if you can afford one,” says Zengerle. “Choose one the same way you would your corporate counsel because you want them to be there to answer any questions you have as you go. As soon as I know I’m going to make an offer, I run it by my attorney to make sure I’m considering everything, and so he can flag anything that might cause issues down the line.”
“At my last startup, Scribd, I spent a lot of time carefully choosing the roles I knew we’d have to look outside the country to fill, so that I could budget what we would need from a lawyer.”
Invest in the Right Roles
“Immigration hiring takes a lot of time and money — you just can’t consider it for every position,” says Zengerle. “So really evaluate where you want to invest. You have to admit that this is going to be a very resource-driven process, and it’s expensive to choose wrong. Most companies can only afford to sponsor one or two visas a year.”
You want to spend these resources on the functional areas where it’s becoming almost impossible to hire in the U.S. “The technical talent market is so tight in San Francisco as you get more specialized, you need options.” In some of these cases, you can move someone in an adjacent role who is already on a current visa — that’s the quickest solution — but you won’t always have someone with transferrable skills.
This is often the case with developer operations roles. Off-shoring has already built a deep talent pool outside of the U.S. over many years. And, depending on the role, there are very few experienced people available domestically. If dev ops is a critical need for your company, that’s something you have to realize and prioritize.
New technologies have also made it hard to find the right talent without looking abroad. When mobile was first on the rise, a lot of people learned iOS and Android on their own, built their own apps and made money on the App Store. Talent became widely distributed, which means today the very best people may not be readily available in Silicon Valley.
If you’re a founder or working at a startup and wondering where to invest in immigration hiring, it has to be a role with specialized skills, Zengerle says. This is actually built into the visa application process. “It’s actually really hard to get an H-1B for general software engineers because you have to take the time to explain in detail why the person is a good fit for this particular role."
The more specialized the role, the less likely you'll get resistance during the visa process.
Get a Point Person
“In order for any of this to work, your startup needs to have a really strong sense of organizational planning — it can get very complicated with timing and budget,” says Zengerle. “That said, sometimes your founder is too busy with product and other things, and even a good attorney won’t be able to do this planning for you. You need a really sound operations person — either someone internal or closely advising you — who will build and oversee this plan.”
This person should also be the one to work closely with an attorney or do the legwork to become indispensable on all matters related to international hiring. Whenever your founder or a hiring manager has a question, this person should be ready with an answer within hours. There might be a lot of waiting involved, but other phases need to move fast. On top of that, immigration laws are constantly evolving. Tricks that worked five years ago don’t anymore. You need a dedicated person simply to stay on top of trends. In most cases, this person will be your head of HR or recruiting, or the primary consultant you’re working with on talent.
While Zengerle taught herself the regulations, deadlines and fine print through diligent research — and that’s one way to go — she suggests hiring a lead recruiter who has experience working on the international hiring team at a large company like Google or Facebook. They’ll come equipped with insider knowledge they can apply immediately.
“I think if you try to do this kind of hiring without a designated person it’s a very heavy added stress, and you’re opening yourself up to big mistakes,” says Zengerle. “Of course it’s good for founders to understand the basics of what’s going on, particularly at an early stage — and they should be very involved in identifying which roles this applies to — but someone else should get into the details.”
Know Your Visas
While there is a large, complex chart of visas that are both role and country specific, there are three in particular that are far and away the most popular for technology workers — these are the ones your founder, point person and attorney should know.
“This is the most common in the startup world because it’s an occupation visa that requires a four-year degree,” says Zengerle. “Those are just the baseline qualifications. H-1B also requires specialization, which is common in tech.” With H-1B you qualify to stay in the country for three years, and then potentially extend for another three.
The caveat is that after six years, you have to leave and reside outside the U.S. for a minimum of one year in order to reset the visa to six. “So you’re basically saying, ‘I am agreeing to work for you, but I know I can’t stay at your company forever,’” says Zengerle. This works out nicely for most startups, but it’s something to know if you’re trying to build long-term employee relationships. Employers also have the option to sponsor an employee for permanent residence if they do want them to stay longer.
“This is the equivalent of a long-term internship. The intention is that someone will come to the U.S., work in a skilled role for 18 months, and gain a specialty that they can take back with them to their country.”
Employers should be aware that the application process is far more time intensive. The company needs to fill out a 20-page document with incredible detail about what the person’s training will look like every month they are in the country and what skills they will learn. Not enough believable detail, no visa.
“At startups, there definitely are some roles that are only needed for the short term — you go through different growth phases,” says Zengerle. “So if this is the case, the J might be perfect for you. You can hire highly skilled people for ‘tours of duty’ that make sense for your company at that point in time.” This is the other way the J visa can be helpful to accommodate for the H-1B shortage.
TN status is not actually a visa (though it is often confused with one and serves a similar purpose). It's specific to Canadian and Mexican immigrants, and it’s growing in popularity in Silicon Valley due to the number of talented graduates coming out of universities like Waterloo. TN visas are much easier to get than the other two types, and the process is very simple.
“Startups can be more active about looking for talent across all of North America than ever before,” says Zengerle. “It’s a great way to get your feet wet with international hiring. I would definitely advise — if you’re under 10 employees and you want to hire abroad — start out with recent graduates from programs like Waterloo. It will teach you a lot about the process and is much lower risk.”
Understand the Employee’s Perspective
If you’re an employee considering a move to another country for a job, you want to make sure the company you’re interviewing with is both really willing to go through the visa process and thoroughly understands it. “In my experience, employees are very knowledgeable about what is required on the employer’s side,” Zengerle says. So what can you do to demonstrate your commitment as a startup?
“As soon as you’re serious about hiring someone, I would introduce them to your immigration attorney so they have that relationship as well, and your attorney can facilitate what happens next on both sides.” Remember, there’s a lot more than the work and immigration process to consider.
The amount of time and energy it takes for someone to acclimate to a new culture is almost always overlooked.
If possible, you should always have the candidate travel to you for final interviews and stay for an entire week to really experience the environment.
“Even relocating to a different part of the U.S. can be hard,” says Zengerle. “You want to make absolutely sure that they’re going to be able to adjust to a new way of life. If they can’t and they leave as a result, that’s a failed hire.”
This can be tricky because a lot of non-domestic hires have spent four or more years in school in the U.S., so you assume they know what to anticipate. But universities are often very international and distinct from the working world. And being a temporary student is not the same as signing up to stay in a country indefinitely. These hires can surprise you if you don’t spend enough time on culture during the interview process.
“I had a situation where someone was from Europe and it was still such a struggle for this person to adjust that they ended up giving up the job and going back,” Zengerle says. This isn’t unusual, either.
Being able to identify a person's ability to incorporate themselves into the culture outside of the job is very important.
Culture doesn’t only refer to differences across borders either — startup culture is radically different from academic and corporate cultures. “You want to consider whether this person you want to hire comes from a startup background, or beyond that, from a place where startups are prevalent,” she says. Otherwise, there’s a high chance of them being surprised, overwhelmed and quitting in short order.
“I think it’s easy forget that choosing to live and work in another country is very emotional. And the visa process can get very emotional for both the employee and the employer,” says Zengerle. “So when an international candidate comes across my desk, I do my best to make sure everyone is prepared.”
To be well-prepared, you should cultivate tight collaboration between the company and the employee as soon as possible. Make timeliness around submitting paperwork and responsiveness to questions a value for both parties from the start. As an employer, you need to send in detailed information about how you plan to employ the person; and the employee has to send in a list of their requirements to start the process. This is the perfect time to set precedents.
“I have had processes go really quickly because the cooperation from the employee is so immense — their core focus is getting transitioned into other company,” says Zengerle. “In exchange, the company should provide a comfortable landing spot, not only at work and within a team, but also in terms of resources outside the office.”
If possible, your company should help with short-term housing or relocation expenses, and maybe even hire a specialist to ease the transition. This can go a long way toward retaining top talent. Understandably, not every startup can make this happen, but they can take the extra step to introduce hires to contacts, the local area, and other resources to get settled.
Work Through the Pre-Employment Checklist
Zengerle uses the following list as a starting point when approaching an international hire (with alterations for each individual case — because there are always special circumstances):
What to consider before making an offer:
Why is this candidate being considered (purpose of work/assignment/project)?
What are the key components of the role in the first 6 months? 12 months? 2 years? Is this permanent or project based employment?
What past experience has the candidate had in other cultures, working in other countries?
Are there any obstructions to the candidate being fully engaged with the company upon hire?
Critical issues to address:
Citizenship, residency and visa status; involve immigration attorney prior to offer for advisement and risk assessment.
Determine timeline and costs of obtaining work visa and appropriate employment timelines.
Personal needs for employee and dependents (relocation, housing, transportation/travel expenses, education of dependents).
Make offer that incorporates appropriate relocation aspects.
Ensure employee is able and willing to provide:
High school diploma (only required if no college level of education has been attained)
All diplomas (Associate, Bachelor, Master, PhD)
College transcripts and academic records
Certificates or diplomas from training courses
Evidence of license or professional membership (if applicable)
Employment verification in the form of retrospective references (these must correlate with information on their CV or resume)
Current CV or resume describing in detail employment history including: Names and addresses of employers, job titles, month/year commenced employment and month/year concluded employment, types of business, duties performed, full or part time, etc.
Identity page in passport plus any pages evidencing current or expired U.S. visas
Zengerle can’t stress enough how quickly immigration law and regulations are evolving in response to the economy, global situations, and the tech boom specifically. To succeed at hiring, you need to track these trends closely and continuously.
For decades, visas have been based solely on established skill sets. Basically, if you meet the criteria, you get the visa. But this is changing largely because startups are more focused on building diverse and innovative cultures than on plugging the right people in the right roles based on skills. Environments and job descriptions are much more fluid. This will eventually change how H-1B decisions are made, Zengerle predicts.
“Finding a way for startups to continue to be culture driven and people driven while incoprorating the requirements for international employees is going to cause an interesting shift,” she says.
The visa process was formulated around corporate America, not small business, but we're going to see that change.
“For the first time in conversations about immigration reform, we’re hearing words like ‘startup’ and ‘founders’ — there’s a sense that we’re about to start a new chapter in immigration law that caters more to this type of ecosystem," says Zengerle. "When you think about it, this is an area where many startups are already being disruptive.”