On taking risks

It’s been almost 3 years since I last posted – a lot has happened as expected.

I remember in 2011 when I was at Microsoft, I asked myself what my biggest regret in life was at the age of 24 and the answer was “not really having taken a risk”. In the past few years though, I think I’ve done enough to get rid of this regret.

While I was at Microsoft, (like most restless developers) I tried to work on several startup ideas on the side and finally around end of 2010, pulled together a team of 5 people (across 3 countries/5 cities) to finally build what could be called a product. As you might guess, we launched and didn’t get users to regularly use the product so eventually in mid 2011 we decided to put things on hold. I somehow felt that the reason we lost momentum was mainly since everyone was part time and so, as soon as things at work got intense for one person, everything halted for a week for him and the people who had a dependency on him. Repeat a few times and the whole thing ground to a halt.

The obvious solution was to try this again but doing it full time. However, the problem with being on a H1B visa is that you can work for anyone except yourself. So I did some research on the USCIS/other sites on a few options and eventually it seemed like if I spent 10 months full time finishing up my Stanford MS (that I was almost halfway done with part time), then the F1 student visa would let me be self employed on the OPT for 12+17=29 months. I called up the Stanford I-Center and they confirmed that this was true provided the work was related to my major.

When you first come into a new country not knowing anyone, you have a very low risk tolerance but after a couple of years, you become more risk taking. In my case the big uncertainty was getting the F1 student visa, since Microsoft had started applying for my green card (which the lawyers said would take 12-14 years more to get) and the F1 student visa is non-immigrant intent. This means that there was a risk of my visa getting rejected since the green card application could be seen as immigrant intent. Anyway, I took the leap, quit Microsoft on Aug 31 morning and left the country on the same day at night (strictly speaking you have to leave the country the day you quit although people typically assume that you can be out of status for 30 days). I had my visa interview a week later – my passport lamination was coming out but despite that they just gave me a verbal warning and approved the visa. I got the passport back a few days before my return flight and flew back to Seattle (where I had left my trusty Camry filled with all my stuff). I was originally planning to land, sleep and drive to Stanford the next day but it started raining and I was still feeling jet lagged so decided to wait another day. The next day, Saturday at 9am I left from Seattle and started the 860 mile drive – it was non stop except for a lunch stop at a Safeway. By the time I crossed Sacramento though (after 12 hours of driving), I was starting to get distracted and in addition, didn’t have a place to stay at Stanford (I applied for graduate housing but was still on a waitlist – normally new students get priority but since I had already been enrolled part time somehow I was not eligible). So I called a college friend who was doing his PhD at Berkeley and took a detour that way and crashed at his place.

The next day (Sunday) morning I started driving again to Stanford and finally found a temporary place to stay with two seniors from undergrad who were just starting their MBA at Stanford. Monday’s mission was to try and get an assistantship and by evening, I found a Graph theory course (with a fancy title – Social and Information Network analysis) to TA, which would cover my entire tuition and also provide a stipend. A week later, another senior from college who was now doing his PhD at Stanford pinged me asking if I wanted to share a 3 bedroom place in Menlo Park. With that, I was finally set in terms of the base level of Maslow’s pyramid (shelter, food, money etc) and now could start focusing on why I was here in the first place.

Over the next 9 months, I started working on a fresh set of ideas and spent enough time talking to a lot of people this time, instead of just building what I thought made sense. I applied for my OPT with a start date of August ’12 so that it gave me enough visa runway till December ’14 (12 months OPT + 17 months OPT STEM extension). The STEM extension required an e-verified employer and so, I finally set up my first US based company in May of 2013. After 9 months of going unpaid, I finally started getting income/revenue in Dec 2013. 2014 went much better – I think I had to talk to 60 potential investors before finding 6 who agreed to invest (this ratio has actually not improved much over time since as soon as the ratio goes up, I start aiming higher and increasing the difficulty level).

By mid year, I got enough revenue to be able to apply for a H1B. The other requirement for a H1B was that I had to have an employer-employee relationship with the company. I asked around and couldn’t really find anyone who had gone through a similar situation and so, I spent a fair bit of time again reading through the USCIS site and LLC legal structures to come up with a solution. The final solution involved restructuring the LLC to separate out control and economics into separate classes of LLC interest, bringing on 2 more people into the LLC and dividing the control units 3 ways while keeping most of the economic interests (Give an engineer a problem with a million constraints and he/she will find a solution provided a solution exists). While this seemed fairly simple to me, the immigration lawyer said that the USCIS folks might find this too complex to understand. Nevertheless we went and filed the H1 petition and got an RFE (Request for Evidence) that we responded to and got yet another RFE which we responded to again and finally it got approved on Nov 15th, roughly a month before my OPT expired. Phew.

I went back to India in December to get my H1 stamped (after finally getting a new passport to replace the old one where the lamination was coming off – this was as expected a last minute thing and I got my passport 2 days before the flight) – I was concerned that there may be issues at the embassy since I got 2 RFEs but the interview took 15 seconds and I was back in the US by the end of Jan ’15.

Now I have another ~5 years of visa runway and due to various other reasons, am probably eligible to apply for an EB-1 green card (this category gets approved in 3-4 months instead of 5-6 years at least for the other categories). The one complication around applying for a green card is that if I get married to someone who is outside the US, she would have to stay outside the US for the ~2 years that it would take for her green card to get approved. As a result, I guess I am going to have to postpone the green card plans for now.

Looking back, if I knew what I know now (that I would have to go for 9 months without pay during which all my advisers would recommend that I should give up and more), I would never have made the first leap but now that I have, the net result is that I can finally cross “not taking a risk” from my list of regrets. In addition, I’ve now developed a very high tolerance to hearing “no” – often the no doesn’t really come verbally from any one person, it’s just an implicit “no” embedded in the rules you have to play by (be it immigration, business, investing or even inter-personal work relationships) when the deck of cards seem to be almost always stacked against you.

The biggest risk is actually starting to become pessimistic – as long as you can bounce back, there is always hope and as long as you feel there is hope you feel like giving it one more shot. So yes, a lot of “no”s can be converted to “not now”s and some “not now”s to “maybe”s and eventually “yes”.

That was a long post and I’ll probably go back to my blogging hiatus soon after hopefully publishing a post on a few principles/frameworks that helped me through the journey so far.

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One Response to “On taking risks”

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