Xiao Wang, 36, was working as a senior product manager at Amazon Go when he met someone who had spent more than $10,000 on an immigration lawyer for a green card application. It reminded him of the story of his own family, which had spent nearly five months’ rent on legal fees after immigrating to the United States from China when Wang was a child. To solve such nightmarish situations, in 2017 Wang founded Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based technology company that helps people complete their citizenship application via its online platform. Now a premier online resource for immigration information as well, the company has raised $45 million in funding and last year posted $7.1 million in revenue. Wang’s data-driven dream is to connect immigrants with the services they need. –As told to Melissa Angell
Like many immigrants, I had lived my entire life in America with this assumption that immigration is supposed to be difficult. I never thought it was any other way, because everyone has suffered from the same set of bureaucracies and challenges for generations. When I started Boundless, I wanted to better understand the specific pain points customers were experiencing.
I interviewed hundreds of immigrant families, along with lawyers and public and political officials, and I discovered that legal immigration is challenging mainly because of a huge information gap. The only two groups that are truly savvy — the government and immigration lawyers — benefit from the status quo.
The application packs are over 400 pages, so putting them together is a lot of stress. Before Boundless, families seeking help often had to choose between an expensive immigration attorney or an unlicensed consultant, with no guarantee of outcome. My family spent months of income trying to get our green cards to stay in this country and my dad was constantly being taken advantage of at his job because they knew if he left his job he would be jeopardizing his green card.
This type of problem is precisely what technology and data can solve by democratizing information and services. Fortunately, I had talked about all of this with a startup called Pioneer Square Labs. In order to quickly get a hold of the desired customers, we created websites that promoted various types of services. Then I could talk to the customers and understand their needs. When I actually started hiring a team and building the product, I had a strong view of what could work because we had already tested several iterations with real people.
When we launched, I wore many hats. My personal cell phone number was listed as our customer support line, so I would receive calls at any time with questions about our service. That was a great input.
We have also taken many wrong turns. In mid-2018, we tried to acquire customers through paid marketing on Facebook and Google. Unfortunately, due to competition from attorneys’ advertising, the cost of customer acquisition grew to over $800, so we were losing significant money per customer. We had invested in content marketing and SEO, but it was unclear what the return would be and how long it would take. We were about a year away from running out of money if we couldn’t turn it around. Finally, that August, organic traffic exceeded our paid traffic for the first time. From then on, it just snowballed, from 100,000 unique visitors a month to over 1.5 million now, making us the most popular immigration website outside of the federal government.
We’ve helped process more than 70,000 successful applications, and we have an approval rating of 99.97 percent. We turned a process that took weeks and months into something that takes a couple of hours to complete online. The majority of our clients apply for fiance visas or marriage green cards, which tend to cost more than temporary travel or visitor visas. Compared to typical immigration attorney fees of more than $3,000, our fees to assist with these visas are $995. This is not like other purchases that let you do something. You get a chance to produce an application that can change your life.
During our time as a company, we’ve been through a presidential administration that basically tweeted out immigration changes on Friday nights, and then a global pandemic that shut down immigration, migration, government and processing around the world. It’s a testament to our team’s resilience that we take on every challenge and roll with it. It’s true that startups succeed when you refuse to die.
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From the September 2022 issue of Inc. Magazine