Stuart Anderson, Contributor
In true “only in America” fashion, two former students at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran ended up in San Francisco and established a romantic social network that is considered a top destination for singles. Zoosk co-founders Alex Mehr and Shayan Zadeh met in Iran as students back in the 1990s. “Their dream was to someday start a company together and achieve success in the United States.” (See here for a complete report on immigrant entrepreneurs in venture-backed companies.)
Even getting a visa to the United States was not easy. Since America does not maintain an embassy in Iran, Alex and Shayan needed to go to Turkey. With no air travel at the time between Iran and Turkey the two young men had to cross into Turkey on foot. Alex and Shayan roomed together at the University of Maryland and entered an entrepreneurship workshop. Along with two other friends, they put together a prototype for a new business software project, formulated a business plan and garnered second place in the competition.
Bolstered by success and with bigger dreams in their heads, the four men formed a company. “Initially I wanted to become an academic but we were excited and saw a lot of potential,” said Alex. Then, the reality of U.S. immigration law reared its head.
“Up until this point we had ignored the immigration aspects,” said Alex. The “immigration aspects” soon became clear to them: an international student possesses no right to stay in the United States and work. To work legally in the United States long term, a company would normally need to file a petition on behalf of a foreign national for H-1B status, which is generally good for up to six years (with a renewal after 3 years). Then, a company could sponsor the individual, filing for permanent residence, also known as a green card.
The immigration attorney they visited explained the law: It was unlikely the immigration service would approve an H-1B petition for individuals who are entrepreneurs and run the company. The attorney advised them: “I think you guys should stop doing this company and get a job.” Alex and his friends were devastated by the news. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” said Alex. “We almost cried.”
The four young men dissolved the company and went their separate ways. After Shayan finished his masters degree he joined Microsoft. One of the other friends left the country to work for an investment firm in the United Kingdom.
Alex continued school and was able, quite remarkably, to complete both a masters and a Ph.D. (in mechanical engineering) in only three years. He defended his dissertation in the application of complex systems, which had relevance to aerospace and later attracted the attention of NASA.
During his last year in school he sought a difficult-to-obtain O-1 temporary visa. Yet Alex’s life story took another improbable turn. A friend told him about the Diversity Visa green card lottery and helped him enter. Alex won the lottery, gaining permanent residence through luck where starting a business had failed (due to U.S. law).
After beating the odds and receiving his green card, Alex worked with a small IT consulting company before being hired by NASA as a scientist. After working at NASA, Alex persuaded Shayan to join him in San Francisco to work on ideas for a company. During their brainstorming sessions ideas emerged for such things as a “wireless cat feeder.” Eventually, the two came upon ideas more likely to attract the attention of investors.
The company that became Zoosk started as a Facebook application that allowed people to upload video and vote on which they liked best. The two saw their application as a market research tool. The videos morphed into an application for uploading photos from friends and rating the photos. That became one of the most popular apps on Facebook. Alex and Shayan realized the app contained elements of a dating site and observed the Facebook platform lacked a good site for singles.
“We immediately dropped everything else and put all our time and resources into developing a dating site,” said Alex. And this turned out to be a good decision. Started in 2007, today Zoosk has registered more than 50 million singles, while users have installed Zoosk mobile applications on more than 2.5 million mobile devices. The company has approximately 15 million active users a month.
Although dating is a local experience, Zoosk has subscribers in more than 70 countries and is available to users in 25 languages. To date, the company has raised more than $40 million in venture financing and in 2011 sales passed an annual rate of $90 million.