The PIE: Can you tell me about your background and how ApplyBoard got started?
Meti Basiri: My older brother came to Canada as an international student first, and he encouraged my twin brother and I who were back home in Iran to come as well. It took him a year to find a program, apply for a school, convert his grades, apply for a visa… everything. By the time he was enrolled in classes, he was well-versed in the process. With the help of my older brother, my twin and I got our visas and we went to Canada – it took us two months from start to finish. Afterwards, our friends and family asked us “how did you guys go because it is a tough process?”
“In the last three years we have helped thousands of students enter US and Canadian schools”
We agreed there should have been a better solution for it. By the time we finished school, this thought still remained in our minds: why isn’t there a platform for international students to use to assist them in studying abroad? After graduation, around the month of December 2014, my older brother asked if we wanted to start something, to create something to overcome this challenge. I thought to myself and responded, give us six months to wrap up the company [we had at the time] and let’s get to it.
So we started in June 2015. We launched our first product in August 2015 – it was a very simple product – and at the end of 2015 we did a round of raising [$450,000]. In 2016 we were still figuring out what we needed to do. Then in 2017, our numbers began to grow.
In the last three years we have helped thousands of students enter US and Canadian schools. At this time, we are only focusing on Canada and the US and have over 1,000 [partner institutions] that we work with.
We also help a lot of the schools with any diversity issues they face. Some schools have a lot of students from certain countries. We help them because they may have enrolled students from 43 countries which is no easy task.
The PIE: Can you tell me more about your plans for future growth? Are there plans to consider destinations other than the US and Canada?
MB: Hopefully, at the end of next year we may start to consider other countries as destinations. Our latest round of raising was CA$17 million from a Silicon Valley venture capital. We have been growing and growing; last year we had about 41 employees and now we are over 110 employees. We are also moving to a new office after having moved to this one only in March.
Recently, we hosted Canada’s Minister of Immigration, the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, in our office. So, now we are working closely with the Canadian government to see how we will be able to help and make education more accessible.
The PIE: What sort of challenges has the business faced?
MB: The one thing I noticed when we first started, unfortunately, is that a lot of the schools treat the international market as business and forget these students are human.
This was something we always thought, you know what, we will never put that on the side. Our mission is to make education accessible for every single student in the world no matter where they are from. If you belong to any village, in any country you should have the right to study.
“Was it easy? No! Is it easy now? Never!”
Then the other important thing to remember is that when students go abroad, they study, they change, and they contribute to change in that country too. I went from Iran to Canada. Eight years I have been living in Canada, and a lot of things have changed. I had an impact on the economy and continue to have an impact on it, and Canada has impacted who I am today.
So, I think [international students] generally help a lot of countries because right now there are borders in many countries. International students could eventually break these borders and help people understand we all are human at the end of the day.
But when it comes to facing challenges, I think persistence is the key. If you have a good idea just keep persisting, keep working hard and you will get there.
We have amazing people on board. The data and financing team take a lot of credit. We got lucky because we are three brothers that started it so every one of us gets a portion and every one of us focused on something.
Was it easy? No! Is it easy now? Never! It is actually more and more challenging every day. Now we have more responsibility than ever and in turn, more impact and a lot of people are paying attention to us now. It has come with a lot of obstacles.
The PIE: It must help that Canada is such a hugely popular destination for international students, though?
MB: Luckily right now Canada is one of the best [places for international students], and Canada is being very smart; they need more immigrants. Canada will not survive without immigrants. When we consider people who are going to contribute to our society, who would be better to do that than those who are making the effort to start over and become well educated in our system.
The PIE: And how is Canada coping with accommodating the influx of international students?
MB: So far they are surviving. Here is the point though: what happened two years ago was the top schools in Canada reached high numbers [of international students] and there were a lot of tier 2 and 3 schools that had 20 or 30 [international] students. Now they are filling up. So students were not focused just on the top ten universities or top ten colleges, and I think demand and supply are still meeting each other.
In Canada, secondary schools are going to be the next big thing. People now are enrolling into grade 11 and 12, and Canada has more than a thousand secondary schools. We should never forget there are a lot of baby boomers [born between 1945 and 1964] in Canada, so if the secondary schools do not get enough students, they have to close down. In some parts, there are enough domestic students going to these schools. In others, there aren’t.
There is still a lot of room to grow. Right now, there is a lot of full-time programs that are popular across the majority of markets. But, we could see a shift including more niche programs including those which are short-term, high school, part-time, etc.
“In Canada, secondary schools are going to be the next big thing”
The PIE: Having experienced being an international student coming from Iran to Canada, how has that path changed now for students?
MB: It depends. I think every student has their own story. Actually, we have around 20 people in the company that have been international students at some point. But most of the people I have met who have been international students, whether they choose to stay in that country afterwards or go back, have a happy ending.
The PIE: In terms of the US, recent reports suggest that international student numbers in the US overall are increasing. What trends have you seen?
MB: As a destination, the US has never gone away meaning students still aspire to attend a school in the country. Many are aware of the top institutions the country hosts. The US, unfortunately, due to political reasons, is experiencing some lower numbers right now. However, I believe the US will always be the biggest market. The US has over a million international students overall, but now other countries are taking the opportunity to give international students more, such as Canada with its visas, therefore catching up and positioning themselves as competitors the US didn’t think they’d face in previous years.
I think in the next couple of months, hopefully, the US will come up. The US is one of the only countries that has 4,000 universities and colleges, and they have the top-ranked schools, so I think that it is going to stay remain a hot destination for international students aspiring to study abroad.
The PIE: So what is it that makes ApplyBoard such a stand out company? I have heard people in the sector refer to ApplyBoard as the ‘Uber of international education’…
MB: [Laughs] So actually our biggest thing is if you walk into our office there are a lot of young, energetic people there – that is the first thing you will notice. We give people the position of a manager when they were never a manager before because they are going to be hungry, the same as ourselves; we have been in the position where we were going to prove to everyone that we could do it.
“All of these brilliant, like-minded people help us to be that stand out company”
The second thing is we have always wanted to keep a gender balance [team comprises of over 50% women] and I think this balance helped us so much to firm the culture of the company we have. Further, what helps our diverse culture is we have employees speaking 23 languages in just one office. All of this diversity and all of these brilliant, like-minded people help us to be that stand out company.
In terms of ApplyBoard being similar to Uber, what we see ApplyBoard as really, is a platform regardless of where you want to go to study. If it is China, Turkey… if it is the US, UK… the goal is that you will have access to that option. In our view, if you go to a school, whoever you are, the end goal is to be educated. That’s our vision and goal, and that is what we dream of making happen.