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Sep 27, 2012

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Robert Mao, Discoverful

Robert Mao, Discoverful

UPDATE: As of early December 2012, Robert received approval from USCIS for his EB1A green card. 

Every once and awhile, an entrepreneur is faced with a decision to take a leap of blind faith. In the case of Robert Mao, his move not only meant a departure from his home continent but to take a chance in creating his own business.

“I liked the open and innovative environment in  the U.S.,” said Robert.  “I really hate the fact that in China  everything Internet business has to been censored by the Great Fire Wall.  I love the open and free competition environment of the U.S.”

A serial entrepreneur, Robert is the founder of three companies in China. Lodesoft, one of his three, was a pioneer in VoIP software solutions in 2000. In 2003, he founded UUZone, one of the first social networking sites in China. The success story of Robert and his company were widely covered by major news media in China, and UUZone was named as one of the top web 2.0 sites in the country in 2006.  However, after his third company’s “unsuccessful” exit, Robert left China and joined Microsoft Research  working first in Dublin, Ireland, and then in Redmond, Washington.

But, his natural gravitation towards entrepreneurism could not be stifled. When not at work, he moonlights on LOCQL and Discoverful spending his spare time on both ventures. LOCQL is a location based question and answer service that allow user to seek answers to any places in world. Discoverful is a mobile visual discovery app to help users get travel inspirations through other’s eyes.

“I love travel and moved from my home to several countries from Asia to Europe and now the U.S.,” said Robert.  “I found finding places to visit, no matter whether you’re traveling or you’re at home, is actually challenging. There is either too much information (e.g. a popular city like NYC), which causes information overload or not enough (e.g. a nice little town in Europe or China).  That’s the motivation of co-founding Discoverful, we are trying to build a world places database with pictures and locations.”

LOCQL and Discoverful have both received copious news coverage in TechCrunch, USA Today, GigaOm, etc. He and his co-founder won the first place in the 2012 SXSW Application Hackathon, and Discoverful won second place in the Where 2.0 Conference’s Startup Showcase. They are also one of the winners of the Kiip Build Fund.

“We know our products have the potential to disrupt today’s online travel sector,” said Robert. “And, it looked like we were on the right track to success.”

However, Robert, like many others featured on this site, is faces a significant hurdle in trying to successfully navigate the U.S. immigration process. This roadblock prevents him from fully dedicating his time and effort to his ventures. Instead, Robert must stay at his current job or risk having his whole family deported back to China.

“Current visa restrictions have slowed down the business and development a lot causing a deadlock with several potential venture funding opportunities,” said Robert. “Potential investors need founders to work full-time, and at the current stage without external investors, we are unable to obtain the H1B visa to allow me to work full-time on Discoverful.”

The company continues to function but is struggling to expand and to generate revenue without the right support. Initially, Robert tried for an H1b visa under his own startup; however, after consulting with several law firms, he realized it would be nearly impossible without external funding and sponsorship.

Not being discouraged, Robert received legal advice that encouraged him to apply for the Extraordinary Ability Visa (EB-1A). The EB-1A traditionally targets scholars and researchers from other countries. Robert’s lawyer recognized that given his previous research experience, his over 20 published scholarly works and his occasional conference presentations, Robert could arguably qualify for this visa. Recently, Robert received a request for evidence (RFE) from USCIS after applying for the EB-1A. The request requires a submission of his contributions on the startup. By doing so, Robert would be caught in a complicated catch-22 trying to justify his contributions while complying to his current sponsored work visa.

“I can foresee that this will be very tough and challenge,” said Robert. “I realize that the EB-1A is designed mostly for scholars and researchers – not entrepreneur friendly. But, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will work. If I can get EB-1 visa, I can fully dedicate myself to Discoverful.  This is why, I firmly believe that the US should enact something like Startup Visa, so that entrepreneurs like myself can stay and focus on innovation and growing businesses.”

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