A REVOLUTION IN THE CLASSROOM
SOMETIMES IT SIMPLY PAYS TO SKIP THE NEW ZEALAND MARKET AND ‘ PIVOT' INTO THE US. TECH COMPANY KAMI IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF THIS STRATEGY.
Sometimes it simply pays to skip the New Zealand market and ‘pivot’ into the US. Tech company Kami is a good example of this strategy.
It’s one of those fantasy moments many people have. You are at university, conscious of your good fortune in being there, but wishing you could produce a great business concept which would take you away from the drudgery. Especially when it comes to taking notes and then trying to make sense of them afterwards at exam time.
That’s the situation Hengjie Wang, Alliv Samson and Jordan Thoms found themselves in at Auckland University in 2013. But, they decided to do something about it.
Today the three co-founders are, respectively, CEO, COO and CTO of Kami (Japanese for ‘paper’) – an app with more than five million users, that’s just passed the half-a-billion annotation mark. They recently exhibited Kami – the app they created to take better notes during class, as well as to annotate and collaborate on documents – with Google at an ed-tech conference in the US.
In a nutshell, Kami helps teachers and students transition to paperless work. The platform assists people previously weighed-down by the time, effort, and cost associated with paper documentation. It’s called “interactive classroom learning”.
In case you think Kami is a one-hit-wonder, the business is backed by Silicon Valley and New Zealand investors, such as Sam Altman (Y Combinator), Scott Nolan (Founders Fund), Flying Kiwi Angels, and Right Side Capital Management.
Add to that, the trio still own most of the company – having had two rounds of seed-funding – and are currently preparing for their next capital raise.
In short, these inspiring co-founders turned a university sideproject into a successful business, all the while maintaining their friendship.
Wang and Samson are now engaged, and she’s been nominated a finalist in the 2018 NZ Women of Influence Awards.
Wang takes up the story: “I believe what sets us apart is our interest in technology and building a product which people need and want. We know our strengths and weaknesses – which helped us to identify ways to improve our skillset – but most importantly, we all have the same passion and drive to innovate, learn and work as a team in each step we take.”
Wang is quick to acknowledge Bob Drummond, their mentor in the early days and Kami’s chairman and chief revenue officer, as being integral to starting and growing the business. Drummond is ‘a seasoned digital executive’ and engineer, expert in lean growth, with 30 years’ experience in the global software industry, building successful digital products and companies.
Were there any early setbacks? Did money ever become a problem? And how did they solve that?
“We spent our first year struggling to find a product market-fit for New Zealand, convinced that growing in our backyard was the best option,” says Wang. “Turns out, going big and targeting the US was our best move, even though we were still resolute on focusing on New Zealand universities.
“Our first seed investment of $10,000 was only enough for a year’s worth of spending,” he adds. “The funding ran out and we had to get part-time jobs and freelance work to pay the bills.
“Still, we remained determined to continue the business and knew we just had to work harder to grasp the bigger picture.
“Our strategy remained to get as many university classes as possible to sign up. However, we discovered that wasn’t scalable. In our first year, we had 5,000 users in total, whereas nowadays we get more than 5,000 new users in a day.”
Bob Drummond guided the co-founders in decision-making. “It came
to a point where we either had to shut down or figure out a way to get our heads above water. We were committed to continuing, and we found the solution – which was to ‘pivot’,” says Wang.
“The silver-lining about this low-point was we had nothing else to lose. So we went big. We took the step and the risk of redirecting our focus to the American market, especially schools.”
Kami HQ remains in Auckland. Competitors in the US include Adobe, Read&Write, and other annotation apps.
Thoms defines what gives them a competitive edge in a tough market: “We are not afraid to try and reinvent our methods. We always think and work ahead of our competitors. Constant reinvention and finding unconventional ways of improving the product to better our users’ experience, and faith in our first product, despite the early setbacks, got us through and continues to sustain our strategy.
“Right now, we’re focusing on education because we can see the impact our product is having in the classroom, as well as the opportunities we still need to win,” says Thoms. “We continue growing in other industries, with Fortune 500 companies and big corporations buying our product. But with our current resources, we can only do so much at this stage.”
IT’S ABOUT RESPECT
Is there another key to Kami’s winning dynamic relationship, spread as the co-founders are across New Zealand and the US? Samson, who is also a graduate of De La Salle University in Manila, believes respect is at the heart of it.
“Respect is very important. Everyone in the team has the same goal and believes in our mission. We are quite proud to have a very diverse team (race, sex, age, location), which contributes a lot to the output we produce.
“We believe we have a great founder relationship and friendship. We always support and respect each other. That has been important, especially during the most challenging days. The founders and even our board have a great balance, which has been a big help in problemsolving and decision-making.”
Samson believes New Zealand is missing a trick when it comes to technology in schools.
“When we tried to grow locally during our first year, we encountered a lot of bureaucracy or inconsistency in the software implementation and buying process in schools and universities. Five years on, I still think it’s the same.
“What’s needed is better tech integration in schools. Some have it, but most do not. The American structure and system are not perfect but cater to fast adoption and implementation. For example, there’re still a lot of schools here where students are required to bring their own device, with no guidelines or suggestion as to which they should bring. Consequently, you have classrooms with varying devices – smartphones, MacBooks, Chromebooks, iPads, tablets, etcetera – which makes it more difficult to manage and implement uniform apps, and the tools they need.
“In the US, they have more consistency. They’re moving more towards 1:1 Chromebooks or other devices which make it easier for the tech integrators to support, repair, and train the teachers on what other software they’ll need.”
Meanwhile, the goal is all about growing Kami. “We almost double our user-growth every year, so we want to challenge ourselves to increase that figure this year,” says Wang.
HENGJIE, ALLIV AND JORDAN.