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Thursday, April 12, 2007

(Off topic, a little) . . . A tale of immigration business creativity

In 1987, I watched a strange story on the television news. People were lining up outside U.S. consulates across Canada to learn about the first immigrant visa lottery. The U.S. government had announced it would accept 10,000 "non preference" immigrants -- the catch is your name had to be the first 10,000 drawn at midnight one day at a Washington, D.C. post office. You also needed to be from certain qualified countries, which included most nations in the western world.
"What a strange idea," I thought. Then, as I mused about the situation, I perceived a short-term but intense business opportunity. The rules said you couldn't use a courier or hand-deliver your application to the State Department; you had to mail it to the appropriate post office box. They also said you could mail as many applications as you liked. And, most interestingly, you did not need to sign the application -- you simply needed to provide the basic qualifying information on a sheet of paper.

I decided the best way to 'beat the system' would be to go to the actual post office in Washington and dump piles of mail into the front; staggered over several hours in the day before the official opening. Letters that arrived too early would be discarded; and of course it wouldn't take long to find 10,000 applicants, so you wouldn't want to be late. But we could mail many letters. "Could I provide a service by flying to Washington, and depositing the applications for others at the appropriate post office," I thought.

"Yes," U.S. consular officials confirmed, and so our "Increase your chances dramatically for a U.S. immigrant visa" business opened. We (a former girlfriend and I) placed ads in the personal columns of newspapers across Canada. We sold the service at $40 for three tries, or $100 for 10. At first I wasn't sure; a few calls trickled in; people were skeptical mostly, but one or two purchased the service.

But then newspaper, radio and TV reporters started calling, and the whole thing changed. One enterprising journalist at the Edmonton Journal, skeptical of our concept, called the U.S. embassy himself -- and received official confirmation that our idea was legitimate. Suddenly, in the press (in Edmonton at least) we had the official stamp of approval. The reporter later told us that the newspaper switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with people wanting our number.

As the day for our Washington trip arrived, our two residential phone lines rang and rang; you could hear the phone crackling. Call after call, order after order, hour after hour. Sleepless, we packed our bags and headed for the airport. U.S. customs cleared us without problems, even when we declared that we had immigrant visa applications for 500 people in our bags.

I had never been to Washington before. My first visit would be very memorable -- shuttling between the hotel and the post office with the applications. It turns out as well we weren't the only people with this idea -- the postal service reported more mail flowed through that post office than any postal station in U.S. history in one day. I returned, exhausted, with a few thousand dollars in my pocket and the exhilarating if fleeting experience of fame and creative achievement.

A few months later, I opened my mail and found a letter from the U.S. Consulate in Montreal. It seems I hadn't made the cut for the first 10,000 visas, but they had opened another 10,000 applications. I received a 'green card'. We truly delivered the service we promised.

Years have passed, and that original immigrant visa has long lapsed. The Free Trade Agreement allows for business transfer visas, the L1A, to facilitate multinational enterprises. With the appropriate paperwork, I can now travel freely for my business in either the U.S. or Canada. Paralegals at Can-Am Immigration help to co-ordinate the renewals for me for a truly reasonable fee.

Since the original visit to Washington, I've been there many times. For about five years, we published Washington Construction News each month -- it now continues on-line at and I anticipate we will resume the printed publication within the next 18 months.

The U.S. visa experience gave me the courage to take the risk to start the publishing business, which I really enjoy, though I admit to longing for the intense high that occurs when hundreds of people all of the sudden decide they really must have, right now, what you are selling.

Then I emerge from the clouds and realize that a much better business is built on a base of fewer, but much larger orders; ones that lead to referrals and repeat business. Fame and mass appeal, no. A truly satisfactory and rewarding business life, yes. And that is where we are now.

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