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.”


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.


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