In pursuit of talent, technology start-ups handicapped by immigration hurdles


Adam Bonnifield (left) thought it would take about a month to get a developer here from Poland, but he’s learning that it’s a much longer process. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Adam Bonnifield has hired several overseas developers to work on coding projects for his young technology company, but none have been as talented as Marek Publicewicz.

Bonnifield, co-founder of District-based Spinnakr, which offers tools to help firms collect and analyze web traffic data, found Publicewicz, a computer programmer in Poland, six months ago through an online freelancing marketplace called Elance. Spinnakr contracted him to work remotely on a single front-end project, but while tackling that problem, Publicewicz found ways to improve other programs that work behind the scenes, “writing code in such a way to make everyone else’s job easier,” Bonnifield said.

On later projects, when the company expected Publicewicz to give time estimates in days, he would offer estimates measured in hours.

“If he was born here, he would be one of the most sought-after developers in the area, but because he was born in Poland, it’s a different story,” Bonnifield said.

New technology firms often struggle to compete for skilled programmers, particularly in the Washington region, which is brimming with large corporations and government contractors that can offer better benefits and higher salaries. So many start-ups instead search for talent abroad, often hoping to discover someone exceptional who they can eventually bring on staff in the United States.

“It became obvious that we had to get him a visa and get him on our team, and not being familiar with the system, I thought it would be as easy as calling up a lawyer, filing some paperwork, going through a short process and he would be here within about a month,” Bonnifield said in an interview. “But that’s where the problems began.”

Spinnakr’s executives mulled a number of immigration alternatives before deciding to apply for an employer-sponsored H-1B visa for Publicewicz, which cost roughly $2,000 in processing fees on top of the $2,000 they spent on related legal counseling. However, the application won’t be reviewed until April, as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services only processes H1-B requests during one six-month period each year, and if it’s approved, the earliest the visa would take effect is October.

“I understand that reviews take time, but the current system just doesn’t work for early-stage tech companies,” he said, noting that rounds of angel or venture funding typically provide enough capital for less than a year of start-up operations. “Things happen quickly, so you may be applying for a visa for someone without knowing whether you’ll even have a company still going on the other end, let alone what your needs will be at that point if you are still running.”

Bonnifield is among a growing number of founders and investors who believe policy makers must take steps to attract more highly-skilled and entrepreneurial foreigners to the United States and expedite the application process. Members of Congress from both parties have floated several targeted proposals to tackle both problems, but the measures face a tough road, at least on their own, as the administration and many lawmakers have committed to tackling immigration reform in a comprehensive, not piecemeal, manner.

And while many lawmakers and lobbyists say a comprehensive deal is within reach, there’s no guarantee that it will pass unscathed through a bitterly divided Congress, nor is there any assurance that such a deal would even include measures to, for instance, allocate more visas for highly educated immigrants or hasten the process.

“It’s a massive gamble right now, because we could spend $4,000 and if that visa doesn’t get approved, we are left with that loss,” Bonnifield said, adding that such a loss is much harder to absorb for cash-strapped start-ups than for large technology firms. “The process at least needs to be much simpler and much faster.”

While they wait, Spinnakr’s founders are continuing to pay Publicewicz as a foreign contractor through Elance, and they’re proceeding as though the application will be approved, which means negotiating a future salary and searching for housing for someone they aren’t yet certain they can hire.

Bennifield said he’s eager to secure the visa so the entire team can communicate more efficiently. Right now, they maintain contact with Publicewicz and two other foreign developers using Web-based communication services such as Hipchat and Github, but time zone variations pose a number of challenges.

“We’ll just have a random idea for Marek, and it’ll be the middle of the night for him when I ping him on Gchat,” Bonnifield said. “He’s always working, so he’ll jump on Skype in his one-bedroom apartment, and we’ll discuss things while his wife is sleeping in the other room, but that’s part of the fun.”

But eliminating communication barriers isn’t the only incentive to spend so much time and capital to get their new programmer into the country. A start-up’s workforce is often considered as important as the value of its technology when being vetted by potential investors or acquirers, Bennifield explained; thus, Spinnakr would likely boost its value considerably by adding Publicewicz.

“One of the most important parts of building a tech company is building a unique and talented team of people who have their own areas of expertise, and that resource becomes independently valuable from the product you’re actually selling,” he said. “But you really do need a team, not a broken community of contractors.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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