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Unlocking the ivory tower: how ApplyBoard makes education accessible to all

Jackie Gill - January 7, 2020 Meti, Martin and Massi Basiri, brother and co-founders of ApplyBoard, came from Iran to Canada to study. Now they want to give others the same opportunity without the hassle.
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What’s it like being an international student? ApplyBoard co-founder Meti Basiri and his brothers can tell you.

It was 2011. He and his twin brother, Massi, were excited about starting a new adventure – and their first year in postsecondary education – abroad. In fact, they were joining their brother Martin who had done exactly the same thing, just a year before.

“[Martin] loved it so much that he’s like, ‘Dad, it’s a waste of [our] time if [we] study in Iran for undergrad. I’ve seen people who finished their undergrad here, and they achieve a lot more,’” Meti remembers.

But there was one thing his eldest brother didn’t love as much: the process of getting into university overseas. It was a year-long nightmare of paperwork and postage. In fact, it was so frustrating that Martin actually flew to Canada and walked into the admissions offices in person before finally landing his spot at the University of Waterloo. Even then, they played mail tag as forms flew back and forth.

For Meti and Massi, things went a little smoother, since their brother had already paved the way. “That advantage of him being here was really nice. And when we got here, a lot of friends and family started asking, ‘Hey, how did you guys go? Can you help us?'” Meti says.

This was proof there was a real problem. And from that problem, the three brothers also founded ApplyBoard, a fast-growing startup that connects students globally with university programs they’re interested in, taking the application process online and streamlining everything from admission to enrollment.

The true cost of international study

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of opening an envelope from a college or university you applied to and finding an acceptance letter inside. But that acceptance is just the first hurdle in international study, Meti says. “It was really a stressful time. And it was really like, no guarantee, nothing. You didn’t know even you’re going to get acceptance there.”

Once you do get in, you’re in the minority. In 2018, Canada issued 572,415 study permits to foreign students, compared to over two million Canadian students. “I think Conestoga College in 2011 had 72 international students. Now they have over 10,000 international students,” Meti says. Back then, “I was the only international student in business marketing.”

“When we got here, a lot of friends and family started asking, ‘Hey, how did you guys go? Can you help us?'”

– Meti Basiri, CMO and co-founder of ApplyBoard

Then, you’re paying a lot more money. This year, the average tuition for international students is expected to hit almost $30,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, compared to about $6,500 a year for a domestic student. For out-of-country folks, that’s a 33 per cent rise over the last five years; for Canadians, it’s just a four per cent hike.

Add to that the stress of leaving family and friends behind, Meti says. What does that feel like? He describes it like this: “When you go home tonight, don’t go to sleep on your bed. Sleep on the ground,” he says. “That’s exactly what it felt like to be an immigrant, because you have your comfortable bed, you have your comfortable life, you have everything comfortable.” Then you leave it all behind.

But studying here is well worth it the time, energy and money, he maintains. After all, there’s a reason why the number of international students has increased by 154 per cent since 2010.

“I think for Canada specifically, it’s a such a great country. The advantage you’re getting, it’s a lot more than just saying, ‘Oh, I get my education,’” Meti says. Sure, education quality here is high, which can make it easier to get a good job after graduation. But so are the standards of living.

The number of international students in Canada has increased by 154 per cent since 2010.

– Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

“Here, you have to be worried about your work, making money and stuff, but there are a lot of things you’re never going to be worried about: the economy, the big picture of your future,” he says.

Even the day-to-day life can seem like another world, he adds. After he first landed in Toronto, driving down a highway, “My first reaction, I’m never going to forget that,” Meti says. “We landed at Toronto Pearson [Airport], and then Martin picked us up and driving to [Kitchener-Waterloo]. It was like the movies for me.”

Research backs that up, too. The top three reasons international students choose Canada? The quality of the education system, cultural inclusivity and tolerance, and the country’s reputation as a safe country, according to the Canadian Bureau of International Education.

Meti, however, puts it more simply. “I always say, my life had changed since becoming an international student.” And for the record, that change was for the better.

Opening doors around the world

So if the biggest pain point is the application process, well… that can be fixed, right? For the Basiri brothers, the answer was a resounding “yes, and more.”

Bringing the application system online, “That was the first day. Let’s make something that everyone can get information and access to,” Meti says. To date, they’ve helped more than 70,000 people find their dream education and 1,200 partner schools find amazing students, but that doesn’t mean it was easy getting there, he adds.

During their early calls, he remembers hearing negative feedback. “I remember this one call [where they said], ‘You’re kidding me. You’re going to make this online? Dude, that’s never gonna happen. Hang up the phone.’ We didn’t even finish the call.”

That kind of conversation sums up their first year. But there were good calls, too. “I had those conversations, and then there was a school [that said], ‘I don’t know if it works or not, [but it won’t hurt to try]. I’ll give you a contract,” Meti remembers. “So I really appreciated those schools that trusted us in that.”

“We were thinking, are we going to sell our car for the next month? Are we going to get a line of credit? How are we going to pay people?”

– Meti Basiri

Finding that first school – and the first students – to sign up presented a chicken-and-egg problem as well, he says. “If you don’t have the school, you’re not going to have the students. If you don’t have the students, you’re not going to have the school.”

It took a great deal of persistence to get their early adopters on board, on both sides. In fact, the Basiri brothers followed up with one school 72 times over three years before finally convincing them to sign up for the platform.

As the company grew, the biggest challenge was securing financing to fuel the growth. Their first influx of cash gave ApplyBoard the leeway it needed to experiment, fail, and experiment again, until they got things right.

“Now it’s becoming a more of a global mission for us that, hey, we’re going to make education accessible.”

– Meti Basiri

They built the platform into what it is today. Navigate to their site, fill in your interest, and it’ll direct you to a list of primary, secondary and post-secondary schools that offer programs that fit the bill. They’ll help you apply, from getting the right documents together, reviewing forms to make sure everything’s in order and managing tuition payments. For schools, they get pre-vetted applicants that meet their standards and fully completed applications, every time.

And now, with a total of C$72.6 million raised and 300 people on their team, with representatives all over the world (who speak more than 40 languages collectively, by the way), they’ve set their sights even higher.

Walk into their lobby and you’ll see the evidence literally printed on the wall: Education is a right, not a privilege. “Now it’s becoming a more of a global mission for us that, hey, we’re going to make education accessible. We’re going to put the students first,” Meti says.

When persistence pays off

If anyone can prove just how successful you can be as an immigrant to a new country, it’s the Basiris.

Late last year Deloitte named ApplyBoard the fastest growing company in Canada. Less than a month later, Meti and Massi earned a top spot on three Forbes 30 under 30 lists, for Immigrants, Education and Big Money.

But despite the growing attention on their company, the brothers have never forgotten their roots, or two big pieces of advice they got early on from their mentors: “It’s not about how fast you run. It’s about how consistently you run,” Meti shares, “and it’s not an individual game. It’s a group game.

“People look at it from behind, [like] ‘Wow, ApplyBoard! Amazing!’ [But] the amount of effort people in this company put in, it’s beyond us.”

“I think being successful, or having a good company, is not about luck. It’s about persistence and how hard you’re going to work on it.”

– Meti Basiri

From voluntarily working over statutory holidays to trusting each other to do their best work, the Basiris and their whole team chalk their success up to a level of dedication they never expected. “To be honest, I always say I think being successful, or having a good company, is not about luck. It’s about persistence and how hard you’re going to work on it,” Meti says.

They try to pay forward the success they’ve had, as well, especially to other Canadian businesses just starting out on the startup journey. “I get [a lot] of email. If I know the company’s Canadian and they’re starting, I’ll always allocate time because I think if we do not support our people in Canada and the economy that we’re in, we’re in a bind,” Meti says.

“If we do not support our people in Canada and the economy that we are, we’re in a bind.”

– Meti Basiri

And although they’ve come far since launching the company in 2015, their journey is far from over.

“I don’t even know two years from now. Are we going to be 1,000 people or 4,000? Because I never thought we would be 300 people in four years,” Meti says. “We’re the fraction of where we could be, to be honest. This is five per cent of what we have in our mind to be built out. So 95 per cent is coming.”

Just give them another eight years.

DRAFT CARD

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  • Name: ApplyBoard
  • Solution: An online platform for international student recruitment to North America
  • Owners: Meti and Martin Basiri
  • Employees: 300+
  • Headquarters: Kitchener, Ont.
  • Founded: 2015
  • Initial investment: C$72.6 million total
  • Contact: [email protected]
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