Going after the “American Dream”: Starting a Business as an Immigrant

by / ⠀Startup Advice / August 6, 2012
I came to the U.S. from Colombia like many immigrants do: I was looking to find my “American Dream” and have the chance to take part in all life has to offer here.As with any move of significance, there are not only logistical changes, but cultural ones. Running a business in Colombia and overseeing one here in the States were two entirely different things, as I would soon discover.

One of the first and most noticeable cultural changes to me was the perception of success and failure that business owners see in the two countries. Although things are changing in my native country, I still get weird looks when I tell my Colombian friends that I enjoy working on holidays because I don’t get distracted. Quite frankly, working hard in the U.S. is seen as something positive, rather than as a negative, as I had experienced back home.

Another difference is that failing is generally regarded as something admirable here in the U.S., as long as you try again. This philosophy may not apply to the Chicago Cubs (there go my clients in the Windy City!).

One other positive thing here in the U.S. is that you easily – and always – have the ability to network. Networking events in the tech industry were unveiled in Colombia only a few years ago. Here, I write my name on a Post-It, stick it on my shirt, and the next thing you know, I’m talking to people I’ve never met before.

Lastly, the laws and regulations in this country make it very easy to start a business. I think this is something that many take for granted, but I know how much it’s meant to me.

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Challenges Exist When Starting a Company

Now that I brought up how easy it can be to start a business here, let me tell you that they don’t give you a book that explains all the challenges you’ll encounter. My own business would eventually become a holding company for multiple ventures. Trust me, the challenges that we were aware of were nothing compared to the challenges that we actually faced years later.For example, I bootstrapped several startups, not because I wanted to, but because I had no idea how venture capital worked. Quite frankly, I had never been exposed to that. Additionally, I can say with certainty that should you use an attorney to help you with the necessary paperwork; hire someone who knows what he’s doing. Along with having a hard time finding the right attorney for the business, years later, we realized the attorney we’d hired had made a number of bad decisions, simply because he was not familiar with startups. (Um, that’s what we hired you for!)

In retrospect, one thing that we could have done better, too, was bringing more confidence behind what we were providing the consumer. To be honest, we had confidence issues. When we (my wife and I) started Voice123 (now VoiceBunny), many people were mad at us. For years, we thought we’d done something wrong; we were afraid of going public. At the time, we thought we would be typecast as immigrants, something that turned out not to be the case at all.

Over time, we discovered that some people were mad because we had disrupted their industry and made it more efficient. We also realized many people loved us, but were not as outspoken as the haters.

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Many Positive Reasons for Opening a U.S.-Based Business

As I mentioned earlier, one of the first things I discovered in the U.S. is the relative ease of putting together a small business. The U.S. is the single largest market on the planet. As a result, it’s easier to do business than in, say, Europe or Latin America. In these areas, there are plenty of opportunities because of the land involved, but different languages, not to mention a different payment culture, can wreak havoc on business plans. In the U.S., for the most part, we share the same language (the lingua franca of the Internet, if you will). You also have going for you the fact that the payment culture here is shared by countless people.Another benefit with having a startup here in the States is that it tends to be easier to locate highly-skilled people willing to work in such an environment. In other countries, from Japan to Colombia, you find more highly-skilled workers tending to want to work for only big corporations, largely due to the fact that they are more risk-averse.

I’m oftentimes asked if being an immigrant was a benefit or a detriment for me in starting a business in the U.S. Honestly, a little of both exist when it comes to getting your piece of the “American Dream” in the business world.

On the plus side, being an outsider has helped me think outside of the box by default. Being a foreigner, my accent may make me appear more intelligent, not to mention interesting, to potential clients. Lastly, I was able to build an amazing tech team in Colombia.

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On the down side, it took me years to become a legal resident of the U.S., something I don’t take for granted these days.

While I got lucky, many others do not. Nonetheless, it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. While the American Dream looks different for everyone, it’s one worth pursuing.

Alex Torrenegra is the CEO of VoiceBunny, an online platform for crowdsourcing voice overs from over 100,000 professionals in minutes.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on Under30CEO.com, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.


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