One year out of an undergraduate program at Vanderbilt, Xiao Liang is currently living his dream as the cofounder of Polarr, an exciting photography and artificial intelligence startup. If he doesn’t get an H-1B visa this year, however, he will have to leave the U.S.
Xiao Liang has had an exciting journey since he came to America in 2011. A native of Shenzhen, Liang decided to move to leave the Chinese university where he was earning his undergraduate degree that year and transfer to Vanderbilt University. “When I came here, literally all my knowledge of the United States and English came from the television show Friends,” Liang says. After a bit of a bit of a rocky beginning, he quickly became involved in campus activities, and graduated with a degree in Economics last summer. “My time there was a great three years,” he says, “Probably among the best that I’ve had.”
Liang initially took a job in San Francisco working at a corporate recruiting firm after graduation. But shortly after arriving in the Bay Area, he went to a tech meet-up where he met two Stanford students, Borui Wang and Enhao Gong, who were building a revolutionary photo editing and artificial intelligence platform. Wang and Gong, who had experience working at Google and Qualcomm, demonstrated for him a photo-editing tool they were building that would let users do sophisticated post-production photo editing in an online browser. Their product could handle RAW formats that had never been available to edit online before free of charge; Liang says the editor was also incredibly fast with a beautiful design. “They showed me what they were doing and I was just blown away,” he says, “I realized these guys are going to do great things, and I am willing to help them with everything I have.”
Soon he had the opportunity to do just that. In July 2014, the engineers launched their company, Polarr (www.polarr.co). By August, Liang had quit his job and joined them as a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer. The months that followed were a whirlwind. The photo editor became available to the public in November of last year. Within a week, it was one of the featured apps in the Google Chrome store, with 180,000 downloads. Polarr got into Startx, which ranked sixth on the nation’s best accelerator program by Forbes. Once there, the company grew fast. Today, 200,000 people actively use Polarr’s photo editing tool on their Website each month, and 180,000 individuals regularly use it as a Chrome app. The firm has already raised $1 million in funding from Pejman Mar Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital fund, with a second, much larger funding round planned for later this year. Liang says the company treats users “like family” and the response has been incredible. “Our service is entirely free, but we’ve had people reach out to us and say that they love the app and wish they could pay us for our work,” he says, “It’s amazing to have such engaged and energized users.”
Liang says the company is also only just beginning. In the next two to three months, Polarr will be launching a second product—an artificial intelligence platform that will help people better edit and finish their photos. Using data on how an individual user typically improves pictures—like say, landscape images featuring a child in the foreground—the program will offer edit suggestions for users who are not heavily experienced in photography. “We know how busy people are—they come back from vacation with 1,000 photos in their phone,” Liang says, “We want to take those images and tell you not only how to improve them, but which ones are the best in the group.”
For Liang, however, it is uncertain if he will be able to remain at the company as it continues to grow. He is currently in the country on an Optional Training Visa that will expire this summer. To stay, he is currently applying for an H-1B visa, but he knows with the lottery this year, it will be difficult to get.
Because his co-founders are also Chinese nationals, visa challenges are an issue for the whole executive team. In fact, Liang and one other co-founder, are both applying for H-1B visas this year. “We’re an early stage startup trying to create jobs in America,” Liang says, “but two of our five employees essentially have their futures dangling on a string.”
Liang says if he doesn’t get the visa, he will likely either try to enroll in a U.S. graduate program so he can work part time, or return to China and try to work remotely. Between the large time difference and the many Websites that he would be unable to access back home, however, he says he doubt working from China for Polarr would be sustainable for the long term. “Silicon Valley is a mecca for entrepreneurs, and I’d really love to stay here,” he says, “This is the best place in the world to do what I love.” He adds that his experience seems to go against the American entrepreneurial culture so many immigrants admire. “The word ‘serial entrepreneur’ is common among Americans,” he says, “but as a foreigner, I feel like I have one shot to build something—and one shot only—before I may be forced to leave.”