Statistics suggest that of every 100,000 immigrants in the United States, 620 start a business each month. In February, University of Missouri journalism students Michael Wang, Jade Xu and Joyce Tao joined that number.
Wang, who is from Taiwan, along with Xu and Tao, who are from China, welcomed 2015 by launching a startup, One Click.
One Click works with Columbia businesses to provide deals and discounts to MU students. Businesses including restaurants, barber shops and pet shops sell One Click membership cards, which cost $15 each. The businesses get a commission of 15 percent, or $2.25, for each card they sell. Since the start of the year, 39 businesses have joined One Click.
Students who buy the cards can use them to get special discounts when they make purchases at participating stores and restaurants.
The first target group for One Click was mainly Chinese students. The startup sent out flyers written in Chinese, and its app goes by a Chinese name in the App Store and on Google Play.
As the vice president of MU’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Wang promoted One Click to his network of international students. His familiarity with the country’s culture helped him recruit many of Columbia’s Chinese business owners to join.
“Chinese businesses are just helping each other,” Wang said. “We help them to promote, to advertise to — basically, right now — every international student. And they are willing to offer a discount, which is a win-win situation, I think.”
Next semester, the team will look to expand, targeting American students in addition to international students, Wang said.
Family background shapes business strategy
For another Columbia entrepreneur, Jack Jones, roots in China served as inspiration for expanding his business there. Jones was born in Lanzhou in northwestern China. His parents brought him to Bolivar, in southwest Missouri, when he was 8, and he can hardly speak Chinese now.
Working as an accountant after graduating from MU, Jones began uploading videos to YouTube about body shape and how to exercise at home. Presently, his most-watched video has accumulated more than 590,000 views.
That success inspired him to pursue video fitness instruction as a career. He established his own website, TheHealthyGamer.com, and now works full-time on the project. He shoots videos about workouts and writes articles on his website about supplements.
“Eventually the goal of it would be to take Healthy Gamer and develop it out in the Chinese market, because I think there will be a great need there,” Jones said. “I need to learn Mandarin again.”
Currently, Jones said, his operation generates revenue of about $4,200 per month between licensing of video to other websites and affiliate marketing fees generated through the sale of supplements he recommends on his site. The business has a 98 percent profit margin, Jones said, because the cost of running the online business is minimal.
One Click finds talent, capital
Yihan Xu, a graduate engineering student at MU, joined One Click at the end of March. Xu, who worked in IT for Chinese tech and media giant Sina Technology, is leading development of a new version of One Click’s mobile app.
“The second version will focus on increasing the user experience from every perspective,” Xu said. “I hope to create an excellent app for One Click, and it will be a highlight in my resume.”
The app, which is free in the App Store and on Google Play, has been downloaded about 1,000 times since it was released in March. It generates revenue through in-app advertisements.
Startup costs, which were less than $10,000, covered promotional materials, events and app development. Jonathon Marquart, a partner in the venture, contributed most of the startup capital. Wang, Xu and Tao also contributed some money saved from their living expenses, which their parents support.
About two-thirds of immigrant business owners in the U.S. use personal or family savings for startup capital, according to a Small Business Administration report, and immigrant entrepreneurs tend to have higher initial capital than non-immigrant businesses.
Legal, cultural challenges await
One Click registered as a limited liability company with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office on Feb. 20. The company was registered under Marquart’s name to expedite the registration process, because Wang is in the country on an F-1 student visa.
Last fall, 2,879 international students attended MU, according to the university’s International Center. That marked a 14 percent increase over the previous year. International undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled in the past five years.
If these international students want to work legally in America after graduation, they need an H1-B visa for specialty occupations sponsored by employers. But those can be hard to come by: This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opened the H-1B visa petition process for fiscal 2016 on April 1; the petition cap of 65,000 was reached within a week.
Melody Von Engeln, an instructor at the MU Asian Affairs Center, was in charge of a mock business pitch project this spring for groups of Asian students. “All of our students here are on a sort of visa for learning and studying,” Von Engeln said. “I don’t know if they are thinking so much about actually starting their own business.”
In April, Von Engeln guided 10 of her Korean students to watch the Ignition Pitch Competition held by Columbia’s Regional Economic and Development Inc. The students were working on projects designed to help them learn more about business in the U.S., from cultural symbols like names and logos to marketing strategies. “Sometimes we use business as a tool for them to learn about culture here and to develop professionally and personally,” Von Engeln said.
Sun-Hyoung Kim, a South Korean student studying at the MU Asian Affairs center, was one of the students working on the projects and was scheduled to eventually deliver a pitch to investors.
Kim had an idea for a business selling traditional Korean desserts, including tea and rice cake. American culture, people’s expectations and habits were challenges for Kim.
“I have no specific schedule about the business, but I can learn from the presentations,” Kim said. “A specific goal is important. In (Columbia), Korean culture is not famous. I think I have to spread it as a Korean.”