Unibuddy: A scale-up with big goals for human-centred decision-making

25 Jan 2021

From left: Kimeshan Naidoo and Diego Fanara. Image: Unibuddy

The platform connecting present and prospective university students for advice aims to help guide even more decisions based on human experience in the future.

“Unibuddy helps students make the most important decision in their life.” That’s how co-founder and CTO Kimeshan Naidoo succinctly puts it.

The South African computer scientist moved to the UK in 2015, where he earned a master’s from University College London.

2015 was also the year Unibuddy was born. Five years on, Naidoo and fellow co-founder Diego Fanara appeared on Forbe’s 2020 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurs in Europe.

An edtech company based in Naidoo’s adopted home of London, Unibuddy has developed an online platform that connects university applicants with current university students so that those aspiring to enter into third-level education can get a grounding of what to expect from those who know best.

“The tool empowers applicants to make better decisions about their higher education journey based on human experience and connectivity, rather than only prospectuses and websites,” said Naidoo. “Our mission is to help 10m students to make important decisions through learning from the shared experiences of their peers.”

‘We envision a world where life’s key decisions are never taken alone’

Unibuddy is built to work with any university around the world, and that’s the company’s aim. “We are targeting working with every university and to have the largest market share in every major higher education market in the world,” said Naidoo.

Ultimately, though, the long-term goal is to take Unibuddy beyond higher education and to bring the ability to make decisions based on shared experiences to everyone.

“We envision a world where life’s key decisions are never taken alone. We’re starting with students but our technology will eventually be used to help anyone make any important decision in life, be it ‘Where should I work next?’, or ‘Should I move to this city?’” said Naidoo.

For now, among universities, Unibuddy has accrued more than 400 partners across 37 countries.

The core product is a widget that can be embedded on a university website. “We use dozens of technologies to build our ecosystem including various microservices, event systems, NLP [natural language processing] machine learning models, React and React Native apps, as well as multiple integrations with external APIs,” explained Naidoo.

He leads the technical side of the business while Fanara, who has a background in finance, has taken on the role of CEO.

To date, almost 10m chat messages have been sent across Unibuddy products and more than 500,000 prospective students have availed of the service.

‘Growing rapidly and managing cognitive load is the delicate balancing act that every leadership team in scale-ups must solve’

In terms of funding, the company has raised more than $12m and is currently seeking to raise further investment from a Series B round. This will support new products and expansion into new markets, but the company is expecting some challenges along the way.

“Most challenges can be related to scale – growing our team fast enough, scaling our technical infrastructure and meeting demands in new regions of the world,” said Naidoo.

“Ultimately, though, it comes down to distributing cognitive load effectively – that is what scale is to me. When you’re a tiny start-up, multiple people will wear multiple hats. There’s often an implicit understanding of what needs to be done. As you scale to 100-plus team members and beyond, it’s critical to now be explicit about the various responsibilities that need to be covered and then to ensure that each department and team member isn’t overloaded cognitively.

“If team members are overloaded, inefficiencies will arise, and morale will drop. Growing rapidly and managing cognitive load is the delicate balancing act that every leadership team in scale-ups must solve to keep everything together!”

As part of its scaling plan, Unibuddy has so far opened three offices in three different continents. “London and New York are two of the biggest start-up hubs in the world after Silicon Valley, and Bangalore is growing at a tremendous rate,” said Naidoo of the selected locations.

“The energy, talent, investment and innovation happening in these places are inspiring and critical in supporting our ambitions. Without the sufficient concentration of talent that you find in start-up hubs it would be difficult to grow our team at the rate required,” he added.

One thing Naidoo is not planning for in Unibuddy’s future, however, is a fragmented team dotted all around the world. “While many companies are growing distributed teams, I’m not convinced that the logistical issues result in a net benefit,” he said. “Good luck trying to set up a meeting across 10 different time zones.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.