Selling tech products to the education sector can be difficult. That sector is a traditional one, which can be a disadvantage. Find out how to sell tech products to the education sector from an expert.
Flavilla is joined by Kimeshan Naidoo, CTO and Co-Founder of Unibuddy.
Tell us about yourself?
I grew up in a small town in South Africa. My journey starts when I started to teach myself how to code at quite a young age. It was around the age of 12 or 13 years old. I read a Python book and started to try writing programmes. I felt really absorbed by it. Ever since, I’ve always loved building stuff through coding, and through software. So, I went on to study computer science. I moved to London to study for a master’s in computer science at UCL. While I was at UCL, I met my co-founder, Diego, who was at Imperial at the time. And that’s where he had this idea to develop a system. It should allow prospective students who were looking to start university to have an online chat with current students at universities. Alongside, my master’s dissertation I developed the first version of Unibuddy. It was a platform that allowed high school students to have an online chat directly with university students. And that was about four years ago and since then, we’ve pivoted a couple of times. Ultimately with the goal to find a product that universities really need.
Have you faced a lot of barriers?
Yes. So, initially, universities are going to be against change, and most organisations and people may be against changes. However, you have to show that you can produce the results that align with their own targets and what they’re looking to do.
Initially, we proved that our product could generate leads. In addition to that, better than other traditional mediums. E.g. advertising online, brochures or email marketing.
Did you have to re-evaluate your business model and your product offering? And if so, how did you do that?
Yes, so we initially developed a product that didn’t work with universities and colleges. We launched our website that allowed a high school student to chat with any other university student in any other country. But we found that in order to find a business model, high school students weren’t going to pay for the service. So, we needed to capture that value somewhere else, and that’s where we perverted and develop a product that we could actually have embedded and inserted into a University’s website with just one line of code. Universities really loved that because it wasn’t taking people away from their websites, but rather allowing them to engage their prospective students on their website using a very modern peer to peer platform.
We offered the initial product as a free trial for three months as a pilot to five universities. And it was really a no brainer because they could use it for free for three months. And if they didn’t like it, or they didn’t see any value in it, they could basically stop, and they wouldn’t have to pay for an annual subscription. we had to make sure that we prove value in those months. That’s what we did and all five of them signed up for an annual subscription. That’s where we knew we had a really good product.
How was the rest of your customer acquisition like?
Yeah, so the first few customers are always, are the most difficult, luckily, in an industry like higher education when you’re starting with one country, like the UK It’s actually quite a close-knit community, all higher education, sort of employees or staff in recruitment. In these universities, they attend the same conferences, they often go to the same events, and they talk to each other a lot. Word of mouth is the best form of marketing. And once you create a product that gets people talking, and is impressive, that spreads, and it’s much easier when people have already heard about you. We have to acknowledge that a key for us, in the beginning, was having that inside knowledge. This is where we had one of our early employees who’s now a CEO, and he was in the university and working in the higher education sector for over 25 years.
Did you find cultural differences from one country to another?
We found that our product works for any type of institution. The only difference is internationalisation from a language perspective. the higher education sector in different countries have different terminologies or languages that they use for certain things.
How do you believe that your product is changing the university system and how do you think is going to change according to the current situation?
What we look for in our product in terms of engagement, is helping students make better decisions, right now those decisions are about what to study and where to study. And it’s the first big decision you make in your life. So, the numbers that we look at is how many students are signing up on our platform because they have questions that they want to ask. Then after that is how many questions are being asked and how many are being answered? So, since we started, we’ve helped around 300,000 prospective students from over 100 different countries, and they’ve sent over 5 million messages on our platform. So that is that is really rewarding for us because we see that every single day. We’re helping students get answers to questions that they would otherwise have struggled to get answers for.
Going back to the present time, and how the current pandemic situation has affected students, it’s definitely created a greater need for peer to peer technology and for being able to communicate with universities, and current students. So, we’ve seen some of our products, over 1,200% increase in usage, for example, we’ve seen a massive increase in live events or webinar style events being created on our live event product because universities don’t really have any other ways to communicate with their prospective Students.
How did you start your team?
We made a lot of mistakes and you will make mistakes. The key is not to try to avoid them but to correct them really quickly. Experimentation means that making a mistake isn’t really a mistake, because no experiment is a mistake, because you learn something from it. So, the key is really to treat every decision as an experiment and learn really quickly from it.
When it came to growing our team, we’ve tried to model our team growth around the more typical sauce company type of structure. So, we knew we needed things like customer success, and sales and product and engineering, and partnerships and marketing. So, there is some kind of formula you can follow in general. But at the end of the day, you need to figure out what is best for your industry, for your product and for your company.
How do you manage when you look at company culture and make sure people are performing very well?
I think when it comes to productivity, communication, and all of these things can be solved remotely but culture is definitely more difficult to build when you’re all sitting in different places.
So, I think if companies go purely remote, now that they found that it works, they will need to be balanced with some Sort of physical meeting at some point. It is important to have some kind of face to face interaction, even if you are remote 90% of the time because those face to face interactions is where you really build that trust and have that relationship.
What kind of person are you as a CTO and what would you share?
I’m a very strong systems person, what I mean is that I believe that when you’re building a team or a company, you want to build a system that works and doesn’t rely on one person or doesn’t need you or you don’t become the bottleneck in it. So, what I’ve always tried to do is build a system that, if you’re on holiday, and then everything crumbles. I would say you’ve done a bad job. You want to be able to build a system that gives your team the confidence to know what’s going on. You want to have transparency and documentation and everything in place so that things work. The empowerment of people to achieve something whether you’re there or not is great.
As a co-founder, you must set up an environment. So, people can be autonomous, and they can achieve mastery and they can take that ownership because the worst thing to do is that you hire people, and they wait for you to tell them what to do.
So, the way you should think of your role as a founder is really about creating that environment for your team, and that’s how you can build a great company.
How do you keep yourself healthy mentally and physically?
What I found really useful is to block out time in the calendar. It’s very easy for you to keep working. Especially when you’re working from home. You don’t have that division. Okay, I leave the office I commute home and my workday is done, which is something you can’t say. You can keep working until 10 pm or checking your phone. Have dinner. So, I think blocking out time in your calendar is really important, too to do other things. And staying offline for a bit.
Tell us about your personal achievements?
I’m really proud that I managed to be part of the technology industry and the start-up world, also being able to build something and grow it. I would go back to the impact that it’s had on people being able to take something that started off as a Master’s dissertation and grow it to a product that’s helped, you know, nearly half a million students where 5 million messages have been sent on the platform. And it’s made an impact on their lives.
What’s the future for Unibuddy?
we want to help students everywhere. So we currently have over 300 universities using our products, but there are over 10,000 universities across the world and our first goal is to reach 1000 in the next 12 to 18 months.
Secondly, is not just having our platform embedded on university websites, but putting this all together on unibuddy.com, allowing a high school student to speak to or interact with students at any university in the world, without having to go individually to each University website.
How should people remember you?
In my opinion, you do not need to make an impact for people to remember you. So, I think I would like to know personally that I’ve made an impact on a lot of people. And whether that’s behind the scenes or whether people know about it is not something that makes a difference to me.
What’s the best way to reach you?
You can tweet to me or send me a message on LinkedIn and I’m happy to respond.
About the speaker
Kimeshan Naidoo is a South African computer scientist and technology entrepreneur. He is the CTO & Co-Founder of Unibuddy, a London-based EdTech Company. Naidoo graduated from the University of Cape town with a BSc in Electrical Engineering. He moved to the United Kingdom in 2015 and graduated from University College London with an MSc in Computer Science. He was recently listed on the 2020 Forbes 30 under 30 list.
Unibuddy has become one of the fastest-growing education technology startups in the world, to date helping over 250,000 students to decide where and what to study across 300 universities in over 30 countries. Unibuddy has raised $12 million to date and has offices in London, New York and Bangalore.
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