15 November 2019
When HE met start-up: 4 lessons from 4 years of Unibuddy

In the four years since I started Unibuddy, I’ve learnt a lot about starting and running a successful start-up. By being obsessed with the power of shared human experience and connections, by listening and adapting, and by never restraining ambition.

From just a concept called Unibudy, to the platform we’ve built today – embedded on 200 university sites in over 20 countries. We’ve helped thousands of prospective students to make the right choice about their higher education journey, by facilitating over one million messages. Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.

Lesson 1: Be obsessed with the problem

Planning Unibuddy
First business model canvas from Imperial College Business School Library.

Finishing my Masters’ degree at Imperial College Business School, and applying for roles in banking I began to have doubts. Is this really what I wanted to do?

And then I thought back to how I got here in the first place. I had been led into this by my grades, my friends, my expectations – I didn’t feel like a tool existed to give me control over these decisions.

I became obsessed with life’s path that leads us to landmark decisions. How can you get the information that empowers you to make the right choice for you, that enables you to reach your full potential?

I reached out to people who had gone into banking, and it was those conversations that drove home a revelation: this wasn’t the path for me. It was around this time that I also started getting messages from prospective Imperial students, asking me about my course. Connecting with people prevented me from making the wrong choice of going into banking, and I was shaping my peers’ decision making through our conversations. I realised how powerful this was, and how essential connections are to making empowered decisions.

That’s where the concept for Unibuddy came from. How do we get concrete, real, authentic information and experience to the people who need to make the right decisions in life, to go against what might be expected of them or what is the well-trodden path? That obsession helped me see the simple solution: shared human experience.

Connections were vital for me in setting up Unibuddy. I met Daniel Borel, the co-founder of Logitech. He became my mentor, and he was my peer in a way. He told me the importance of following your gut. It felt so easy to talk to him, I needed someone who had been there and done that when it came to starting a company from nothing.

We contracted the first platform to be built, to see if there was something in this idea.

We launched the website online as Unibudy (that’s not a typo!) in October 2015. It had just one feature: a chat for prospective students to connect with current student ambassadors.

500 people signed up as ambassadors in 2 weeks. Those ambassadors could see the value in what we were doing, and that was the first big relief.

Lesson 2: Know when to change your approach: listen and adapt to overcome

Focus groups researching 'unibudy'
First focus group with A-level students in London

We had the idea, we had the ambassadors, but we needed to find a business model.

So we started visiting High Schools, presenting and advertising this service to students. But they didn’t see the financial value. They’ve grown up in a world where information and connections are free, why should this be any different?

Each meeting gave us ideas for the next one. When one High School said they would be prepared to pay on behalf of their students, at our next meeting this became our proposal. We never used the same presentation twice.

I learned something important during this: you have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Listen two times more than you speak and you will find the opportunities. Never be immovable. Say yes to everything.

Now we were starting to make pace: we had enough people on board to prove that connections were the key to good decision making. We’d sold the concept to a few high schools, so now we had to make it a reality. Kimeshan joined the company as CTO in May 2016. He’d tried to solve the problem himself in South Africa – where he built StudentView, a TripAdvisor for universities. We didn’t have to convince each other of the challenge or the solution, we were on the same page right away.

I was obsessed with the problem (why we were doing this), I believed in the solution (how we would solve it) – but the product (what it would look like) didn’t feel quite right.

It was at a conference when a recruiter from Coventry University spoke to us: “this is genius! You should sell it to universities!”

That was it!

I started looking for a Higher Education contact who could advise us. I messaged many industry figures on LinkedIn – but one stood out. When I met up with Jonathan, his eyes widened when I told him the idea: he was all in. Jonathan brought with him extensive Higher Education experience – having headed up Student Recruitment at Leicester and Imperial College.

Unibudy becomes Unibuddy
Tweet announcing we were finally able to buy the ‘unibuddy’ domain name.

Unibudy became Unibuddy. We decided that universities would be the customer. They loved the idea, and they saw the value. But something was still missing.

We met with loads of universities, we showed them the website, we adapted to every roadblock. But the universities kept asking the same questions: where is your traffic, how many prospects will use it?

Eureka – we should capture the University’s own traffic. When I suggested a link on the university website, Kimeshan told me: “we can put the whole platform on there, they can embed it.”

We first pitched this idea to Queen Mary University London, and to their Head of Recruitment, Emma Froud. “I want this,” she said. We got our first yes.

Then more: Royal Holloway – yes; NCH – yes; Imperial College – yes. The pieces of the puzzle were clicking together.

We had the why, we had the how – and we’d finally conquered the what.

Lesson 3: Never restrain your ambition

We raised $500k from angel investors, including Daniel Borel and the Goldman Sachs executive who interviewed me for a banking role 3 years prior.

I waited at his office, jumped in a cab with him and delivered my pitch on the journey. I had the confidence and belief in what we were doing, and eventually, he did too.

We took the Unibuddy booth across the world and went from 5 universities to 30 in a matter of months. We were ambitious with our results, so it was time to start being ambitious with our hiring.

I went back to Emma at Queen Mary and offered her a role, along with Unibuddy’s first ambassador manager – Amy. I told Jonathan that we wanted him to join full time. I learnt the importance of not restraining your ambition and seeing the big picture.

Eventually, we had a team of 15 amazing people. We raised another $1.5 million in funding. We started looking bigger.

With 50 institutions by Summer 2018, we started taking meetings in the US and Australia, saying yes to any opportunity we could get. We attended a US conference for the first time and realised what a huge market this was, and how much potential we had there. We hired our first Team USA member, Lou. From 50 in June, we had 100 institutions in December 2018. Now, we needed to raise big.

Lesson 4: Keep reapplying what you’ve learnt

2019 has been a monumental year. We opened Unibuddy offices in India and New York. We launched our partnership with UCAS. We held our biggest event to date. It’s been clear that nothing is too big, and there are so many bigger things to come.

I started meeting with investors to raise Series A, and reapplied everything I learned. Keep adapting and improving your pitch until you get a yes every time. Put the pieces together and make it irresistible. Adapt until you don’t need to adapt, and then have the confidence and belief to push forward. We raised $5 million to fund our continued growth.

And now we’re marking 4 years, 200 institutions and over 1 million messages exchanged on the platform. It’s only the beginning, and those key learnings will stay with me as we continue to grow.

Be obsessed with the problem
Listen and adapt to overcome
Don’t hold back your ambition
Keep reapplying what you’ve learnt

I’ve also learnt from our partners in Higher Education: who share so many of our core values: helping every student to realise their potential, with empowered and informed decision making.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us on our journey along the way and shared our belief that connections power decision making. I can’t wait to see Unibuddy continue to grow and achieve its potential across the globe.

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