About this episode:
In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor Lisa Christensen speaks with Sam Stoddard, co-founder of SimpleCitizen, about how his accounting background and getting married led to the creation of groundbreaking software that seeks to take the headache out of applying for U.S. citizenship. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider where we take a look at the happenings and issues of Utah’s business community. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor for Utah Business magazine. Today I’m talking to Sam Stoddard, founder and CEO of SimpleCitizen. Sam, tell me about the SimpleCitizen story. How did it start and why?
Sam Stoddard: Yeah. So SimpleCitizen began back when I got married to my wife. She was originally from South Korea. She had been in Utah for a number of years, about seven. She went to East High. We met at Brigham Young University. She was studying math education. I was studying accounting. After we got married I just assumed that because I’m a citizen, she would automatically become a citizen. But that’s not the case. There’s actually a lot of paperwork involved, about 100+ pages.
We went the traditional route of going to speak with an attorney who assured us that it was going to be very simple, but that it was going to cost us $2,500 in legal fees. We were students and that seemed really expensive. I was looking at the paperwork thinking, well it kind of looks like a 1040. I’m studying tax accounting and I should be able to figure this out. It was a lot more involved and more complex than I ever imagined. After about six months of working late nights and long weekends, I started looking for an online tool to guide me through the process, sort of like tax preparation software. I didn’t find anything. All I found were a lot of scam websites. So I set out to create a tool, not just for myself, but for the millions of other immigrants and families that go through this process every single year.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, so I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with Turbo Tax right now as it’s tax season. So this is kind of like that, but for immigration?
Sam Stoddard: Yeah, there are a lot of parallels to immigration paperwork and tax paperwork. An immigration application is usually a combination of several different forms. There’s a lot of supporting documentation that you need to attach to that. Even though one person or one family may be able to do the bulk of it themselves, there’s still this nagging in the back of your mind of: Did I do this correctly? Or: I would really like a professional to just give it the once over. I’m looking for that peace of mind.
One of the main things that SimpleCitizen does is it provides that peace of mind – the reassurance that everything’s ok. You did this paperwork correctly and it’s safe to turn over to the government.
Lisa Christensen: How was SimpleCitizen progressed since the beginning?
Sam Stoddard: Wow. So, in the beginning it was just kind of this idea of, oh yeah, we’re going to ask people a bunch of questions. We’re going to take those answers and put them into an application, onto a pdf, which essentially, we still do that. But there are a lot of things that we learned over the course of a year from customers, from immigration attorneys we work with, from investors, from all of the different important people that play such an important role in creating a business. And so, just kind of the evolution of SimpleCitizen over the year has been fun to watch up close. It’s definitely come a long way.
Lisa Christensen: You were telling me earlier about the growth that SimpleCitizen has enjoyed over the last year. Tell me about that.
Sam Stoddard: Yeah, so early on, when we launched, it was about the beginning of August when we released SimpleCitizen to the public. We had that initial increase of users, people who logged on and started filling out their application, paid for the software, and that was great validation for us. But once someone finishes a green card application and turns it in to the government, it’s then in their hands and the waiting begins. And on average, an immigration or green card application is going to take six to eight months depending on the situation, depending on wait times, depending on how quickly the government can get to them. So we were expecting to wait for a little bit of time as we saw this first cohort of customers first make it through the system and pop out the other end. And we were taking enough time and care with each application. Every application was personally reviewed by an immigration attorney, so we knew logically that this would all work.
In January, we had our first person from way back in October that submitted their application actually get their green card issued from the government. And so that was a huge piece of validation. Not just in our eyes, the creators of SimpleCitizen, but also in the eyes of investors, in the eyes of the immigration attorneys we work with. But ultimately in the eyes of our users, our customers. That’s a question we get often. Is does this really work? And it’s great to see these stories of people who actually used the software, submitted applications and are now getting green cards and citizenship issued from the government.
Lisa Christensen: What would you say has been the biggest catalyst or catalysts in SimpleCitizen’s story? You know, every business has these little pockets of acceleration to them. So what have been some of those pockets for SimpleCitizen?
Sam Stoddard: Sure. First we had a pocket of growth where we went from idea to actually building a product and releasing it. And we got a lot of work done in those two to three months where we released version one of SimpleCitizen. And then we started getting the feedback from customers, what was working, what features they needed, and then we went back to the drawing board and worked on what we might call version two of SimpleCitizen. What the market really needed. And that was all released in January? Mid-February? And since mid-February we have seen an explosion in growth. Both in demand and in engagement from users who are actually on the software filling out their applications.
I think it’s due to a few key factors: One, we’re able to show the stories of real users who have gone from, I need to get this paperwork done, to I’ve submitted it to the government, to now I’ve actually gotten this application approved by the US government. So we’re able to take those stories. We turn them into nice little vignettes, or small videos that kind of highlight a user story. We provide those to new people who visit the website and they can see wow, this really does work. We also were able to make a few adjustments to the messaging of SimpleCitizen so that we were able to really understand kind of the high level key points that a user wants to know when they hit the website. And so providing that information up front, center in a very clear way helps with providing that sense of trust with somebody who’s hitting the website. Because, especially with immigration, there are so many scams out there. And people are very cautious about just giving their personal information into a website. Establishing that bond of trust is very important and we’re able to do that with a 1-800 number that people can call and ask questions. We have a chat portal on our website as well as very clear succinct messaging on the front of the homepage and that has definitely helped as well. And I think finally we’ve had a lot of help and involvement from immigration attorneys that really see how this can not only help with access to justice; and what I mean by that are the individuals of families that just need to get some simple paperwork done, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of support and different ways that immigration attorneys have stepped up to help kind of champion what we’re doing. And so I think all three of those things have kind of combined together to equal a great February and March for SimpleCitizen.
Lisa Christensen: That’s great. That’s a huge accomplishment for you guys. The Salt Lake City area is kind of unusual in that it has a pretty large percentage of refugees. Do you feel that that has impacted SimpleCitizen’s growth? Or is geography not really an issue with this?
Sam Stoddard: I think that geography definitely has an impact in our growth. It’s a little different for us because we’re an online business. So we can send our advertisements and our messaging to people all over the world if we choose to. We’ve definitely seen these pockets or hotbeds for immigration and a higher number of customers from those areas. So think New York, or Los Angeles or Dallas. Those are definitely places where we see a lot of users and customers. But we have been lucky in the fact that we have strong relationships with the University of Utah as well as Brigham Young University. There are a lot of customers that come from both of those universities, and that’s a good source for us.
As far as the refugees, we don’t offer a product currently to help with the processing of refugee paperwork, but that’s something that I’m happy to say is on our road map. So in the next few quarters we’re going to be releasing a product that not only immigration attorneys can use to fill out their own paperwork, but really anybody who has to deal with government immigration forms.
Lisa Christensen: Why do you think that SimpleCitizen is so necessary in our country?
Sam Stoddard: Well, I think that it’s necessary because for decades you have an industry that really hasn’t changed at all. And that’s looking at it from all of the stakeholders or all of the participants in the immigration process. So, immigration attorneys are for the most part doing things the same way that they did in the 80s. You have the USCIS, which is the immigration arm of the federal government doing things basically the same way that they’ve done for decades. We haven’t seen a big or major piece of immigration reform since really the Reagan administration. You have non-profits that are also kind of doing things the way they’ve been doing them, or looking for tools to do things more easily. And then finally you have families and individuals that are still looking for help and aren’t finding the resources that they need.
We see an industry that’s very fragmented, in which technology can do a lot of good. Not only for the families and the individuals but every single one of those stakeholders that I mentioned in that process. Technology only makes things more simple and efficient and definitely there’s a clear need for it in immigration.
Lisa Christensen: What’s one thing about the immigration process or what you do that most people wouldn’t guess?
Sam Stoddard: That’s a good question. One thing that we’ve noticed as we’ve gotten very up close and personal with immigration, and that’s everything from statistics to the process to the forms or all of the government agencies that play a role in what we term “immigration” in the United States. I’m shocked by how much misinformation and how little people understand the entire process. It’s very complex, and so there’s a reason why it’s easy to just go for the quick talking points and recite those, but when you really get into the weeds, it’s a very complex issue. So the most shocking thing for me, or amusing thing, has been watching the political discussion, especially with the 2016 presidential election, is just seeing the misinformation that flies around in relation to immigration.
Lisa Christensen: What do you hope comes of SimpleCitizen?
Sam Stoddard: When I look at SimpleCitizen and I look at our journey over the next year, two years, five years or even ten years, I see us being able to affect change in the immigration process. Meaningful change. We’ve already seen this play out in the lives of individuals and families as we help them through this process and we guide them step by step on what to do. It’s incredible the feedback that we get that our software – something that we went from an idea that I had when I was a university student, to something that our founding team built and released into the world – we see it in the hands of users and actually saving them real time and money. And helping them with a decision that really, when you get down to it, is probably in the top three most important decisions of their life outside of who am I going to marry? Or, am I going to start a family? Where am I going to live?
I believe that we can affect meaningful change for the other players in the immigration process. So those are the immigration attorneys that are trying to help these families and individuals through the process as well as non-profits. You have HR departments at various multi-national corporations that have employees all over the world, trying to manage that paperwork. Ultimately I see SimpleCitizen being able to bring the US government into this process as well. To use a much more streamlined version of the process that they’re currently doing.
Lisa Christensen: Well great. You can learn more about SimpleCitizen at simplecitizen.com. Thanks so much Sam for talking with us today.
Sam Stoddard: Thank you.
Lisa Christensen: Special thanks today to Pat Parkinson for production help, with additional help from Adva Biton. Got any thoughts on today’s episode? Let us know by dropping us a line at email@example.com or through our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. Thanks for listening and have a great day.