Interview with IDEALondon Startup, Unibuddy

9 October 2017

Interview with Kimeshan Naidoo, CTO, Unibuddy

Can you tell me a little about what Unibuddy does and how it started? What problem does it solve and how is it unique?

Unibuddy changes the way universities attract, inform and recruit students by embedding peer interactions and instant messaging tools on university websites. We initially started as a marketplace that connected prospective university applicants to current university students, where any applicant could speak to any current student in any university. We are a unique, first-to-market product and no other solutions exist with our capabilities: a single line of code that universities insert on their website that immediately enables their prospects to chat with current students.

What’s the size of your business and the size of the opportunity?

Our team is currently 8 having doubled it in recent months. This is split between product and business/sales. The opportunity lies in the fact that universities spend inefficiently to recruit students, with a cost of £2500 to recruit one student while an even bigger problem is the cost per dropout (£33 000) and a high dropout rate of 15%. With over 6000 universities in just Europe and the US alone, the opportunity is enormous.

Who’s in the team? Who are the co-founders and how did it start?

Our team is made up of four engineers (UCL CS/Machine Learning graduates, former Amazon software engineers etc.), one talented designer, and three sales/business people (which includes 30+ years experience in higher education recruiting).

We are three co-founders: Diego, our CEO (Imperial), Maxence, our Product Manager (Imperial), and myself (CTO, UCL). All three of us arrived in London from foreign countries to study, each with varying expectations. There was no easy way to connect with current students who were studying the exact course at the same university that we were about to enter. Unibuddy was born from essentially trying to solve our own problem. It turns out that it was a universal problem.

What are your connections to UCL and how have you evolved through the UCL and IDEALondon ecosystems?

I graduated with an MSc Computer Science at UCL, and a large part of the course is the dissertation which can be industrial (you can build real world software) instead of purely academic (research oriented). This was extremely valuable as it allowed me to build the first fully-fledged version of Unibuddy complete with online chat, payments, freemium subscriptions and analytics. I could work on this full-time while taking advantage of the software engineering expertise provided by experienced UCL Computer Science professors. By the end of the dissertation, Unibuddy had thousands of users on the marketplace.

After completing the MSc, I knew I wanted to continue working on Unibuddy and we pitched UCL Innovation & Enterprises which endorsed the company. This meant we were accepted into The Hatchery (UCL’s incubator) with access to free office space and business mentorship. The endorsement also meant I was sponsored a Graduate Entrepreneur visa by UCL.

Six months after joining the Hatchery, we completed a £500 000 investment round  – we had outgrown the Hatchery by this point but we still wanted to remain in UCL’s incredible ecosystem and joined IDEALondon with UCL’s championing. This also provided the perfect support to our future roadmap which involves machine learning which many of the companies at IDEALondon are working on.

How important is it for you to be located in London?

London is beneficial for Unibuddy for two main reasons: concentration of universities and concentration of talent. Our first few university customers were all based in London which allowed easy collaboration and interaction with early customers – which is a key to finding the holy grail of SaaS companies: product-market fit. Secondly, the concentration of software and AI talent in London is second to none in Europe which allowed us to double our team and attract talent more easily.

What’s your goal for the business?

The ultimate vision is to democratise access to higher education information. A 17 year old in a village anywhere in the world with dreams to study at UCL, Oxford or Imperial should have instant access to real-time information. Unibuddy aims to inform millions of applicants and answer tens of millions of questions through our unique technology.

What advice would you offer entrepreneurs thinking of starting a business and any pitfalls to avoid?

Care about the problem you’re solving. A lot. If you can’t stop thinking about it or you’re solving a problem experienced by yourself, then you’re on the right track.  Once the novelty and excitement of starting a business wears off, you will find yourself working 80-100 hour weeks non-stop. This is where adrenaline won’t keep you going, what keeps you going is knowing that you’re solving a big problem that you are very interested in and invested in.