Thursday, July 7, 2016
SimpleCitizen: Streamlining The Immigration Process
If you are someone looking to become a citizen of the United States, there's lots of paper work involved--and not a lot of help--especially if you don't want to pay thousands to an attorney. That is, unless you turn to Provo, Utah-based SimpleCitizen (www.simplecitizen.com), a startup which has developed an online, easy-to-use process for helping people through the immigration process. We spoke with Sam Stoddard, CEO and founder of the company, on how the company came about through his own personal experience, what the company is up to, and also on how it's doing this summer at YCombinator, the Silicon Valley startup incubator/accelerator. SimpleCitizen is one of only three, Utah companies to have participated in the highly regarded YCombinator program.
First of all, what is SimpleCitizen?
Sam Stoddard: SimpleCItizen is a TurboTax-like solution for immigration paperwork. We focus specifically right now on family immigration. Seventy percent of immigration applications are for family members of U.S. citizens.
How did you start the company?
Sam Stoddard: We started the company through my own frustration, dealing with the immigration process for my wife, who is originally from South Korea. We met while we were both studying in college. She had lived in the country for seven years, and we thought once she married me she'd become a citizen. That's not the case. There's actually about 200 pages of paperwork involved. Our only options were to go to an attorney, and pay $4,000 in legal fees, or do it on our own. I actually tired to do it myself, but got frustrated at the process, which was very confusing, and it seemed like I could get something wrong. So, I spent a lot of time searching for resources and tools online, an didn't find anything reliable, or anything near the experience I used when filing my taxes With all the many, beautiful tools we have now that makes our lives easier, there is nothing like that for immigration. We thought we'd create those tools and resources for the millions of people who have to go through that process every year.
What was your background before SimpleCitizen?
Sam Stoddard: It kind of fits right into our value proposition to become the TurboTax of immigration, I was actually in my final year of getting my Masters in accounting, with an emphasis in taxation. I started going down the Big 4 accounting route, and thought about getting a job practicing in international tax, when I saw the similarities of those forms and immigration paperwork. I saw there was a business opportunity here. I started working at another, local Utah startup in the Fintech industry and got my first exposure to the startup and thriving technology scene in Utah. That ended up being a perfect segue to what was a great business idea, which really been able to execute on with the help of some incredible mentors out there in Utah.
For those who aren't very familiar with it, talk about that environment in Utah, which has both the technology community and really is an international place?
Sam Stoddard: Yea, there are all the things you hear about in terms of success stories in Utah with startups. There are also lots of venture capital firms, and deals happening in Utah, plus really just a great community and ecosystem in terms of entrepreneurship. Specifically, for our business, I was studying at BYU, which has a big international student population, and a lot of students who have lived abroad and speak foreign languages. It ends up, there were lots of people at BYU who had the same experience I did, who were marrying someone not from the United States, and had struggled through the process. Early on, I was able to reach out to many students, and hear the same stories, and get the same kind of feedback. Early on, our product development was driven by the real experiences of customers, who had lived through the pains of immigration. Normally, it would be tough to find customers with that experience, but we were lucky enough to be surrounded by people who had. Had we not been there, it would had been much more difficult to design the product.
So you're now at YCombinator and are in Silicon Valley—how did that come about?
Sam Stoddard: YCombinator was the perfect opportunity for us to take us from initial product, which we launched at the end of last year, and really expand and scale that solution. YCombinator has some incredible mentors, particularly in the area of direct-to-consumer products, which was something that was lacking in Utah. We've been able to take the insight and expertise that YCombinator has to offer, which is unparalleled, and we've made incredible improvements to our software and customer experience.
What's the biggest lesson so far with the startup?
Sam Stoddard: I think the biggest lesson we've learned, especially in developing products and software, is that every assumption is incorrect until you test it. You have no idea how a customer will react to features and rollouts. Every decision you make, you have to make based on data, and on customer feedback.
Finally, what's the next step for you?
Sam Stoddard: We've now been in the YCombinator program for a month, and it's opened the door to many interesting partnerships and products. Things that were very far off for us on the distant horizon, are now well within our grasp, due to the mentorship and resources we have received at YCombinator. It's really given us the ability and opportunity to take what we have done, and really scale it, and we'll now be able to offer some of the other visa and immigration paperwork that people are looking for. It's also opened up our network of immigration attorneys, and start really taking our process, and scaling it to handle the millions of people who need these services.