Xiao Wang founded Boundless (www.boundless.com) in 2017 to “empower families to navigate the immigration system more confidently, rapidly, and affordably.” His family arrived in the US when he was a boy and he watched his parents struggle and spend a lot of time and money on their green card application.
Xiao saw an opportunity to transform the immigration industry by allowing applicants to do much of the work online and then work with Boundless’ network of vetted lawyers who review each application to make sure it has no errors – all for a much lower cost than exists today. They specialize in marriage green cards and naturalization. Before COVID-19, their business was growing quickly, and they had about 50 employees.
While his company name is Boundless, Xiao also seems to have boundless energy and enthusiasm. He brings a confident tone and has built a successful and growing startup.
When COVID-19 hit, it took a while to see the impact on their business; the impact came in early March. His first action was to have everyone work from home – the safety of the employees was paramount. As an aside, Xiao was on paternity leave during the first week in March, so he had to do all of this while being remote, even before he asked his employees to work remotely.
The first week, their business was down 10%, then 25% in the second week, and 40% in the third week. “When the winds were behind us, we soared,” said Xiao, “but suddenly we are asking ourselves where is the bottom?” They concluded that this was not a fault of their business; the environment had shifted, and they needed to respond.
Xiao and his team concluded that they couldn’t control the top of the funnel; there was depressed interest in immigration issues during the pandemic, but they believed that it would return as the market adjusted to the new normal. They needed to buy time. They were set up to thrive and scale, but needed to switch to survival. He outlined the three guiding principles they followed:
- Reduce costs to survive longer at lower revenue;
- Get more cash in the door (both capital and working capital);
- Once customers come, convert them to paying customers more quickly.
So, they took a series of actions within two weeks. They got a line of credit, changed their payment plans for customers to get the cash on day one, and went through every single expense line-by-line and cut or renegotiated each expense down. This led to a decrease burn rate of $100,000 in one month – a decrease of about one-third.
He realized that the key to pulling this off was to communicate with his team with complete transparency. He opened everything to all employees, including sharing a screen capture of the Boundless bank account. He and his team put in place a plan to manage cash that showed how they could make it through. Since he knew that his team was talking about layoffs, he outlined a plan that would not require any layoffs. Xiao told his team that “making sure that the ratio of revenue to cost to save the company was everyone’s’ job,” and shared how each dollar of revenue flowed through to achieve that goal. By this “radical transparency,” the entire team bought into the plan.
Xiao had weekly calls with his shareholders during this process, as well as a bi-weekly letter to all investors. Given the actions that they took, there was no need for an immediate cash infusion, but wanted to share and monitor early indicators. “Investors are there for what I need when I need them,” said Xiao proudly. His investors were very supportive.
He recognized that the pandemic required a change in mental attitude – this is not a short-term blip. So he has closed the office through July. They instituted a policy of no Zoom meetings 2 days/week to give his team time to reflect and recuperate. But, their business required a limited number of roles to actually be in the office, so they opened the office while limiting number of people there at any time to enforce social distancing; the majority of people still work from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused some fundamental changes in the way the Xiao and his team approach their business. “We got ourselves in a good enough position to not just hunker down but be stronger.” They improved their financials so that they could raise more money, which allowed Unstoppable to buy a large competitor, RapidVisa (see: https://www.geekwire.com/2020/seattle-startup-boundless-raises-7-5m-acquire-rival-rapidvisa-grow-online-immigration-tools/).
Xiao sees the future as bright and he took the changes as an important learning lesson. How can we set people up to be successful wherever they are?” he asks. “We have the opportunity for a leaner cost structure, better infrastructure, and improved recruiting and onboarding, leading to a stronger company in the long run.”
Xiao says, “I’ve learned a lot. Everything you feel uncomfortable talking about, your employees are already talking about. The impact of showing action is more important than taking a couple of weeks to do it ‘right’.” In conclusion, he said “during times of immense stress, people seek better sources of information. We will elevate ourselves – not limp across the finish line.”
“We will put a giant asterisk next to 2020 and come out stronger,” said Xiao. Echoing what many of us feel, “this has been the hardest six months of my life and professional career.”