As a kid in Iran, Martin Basiri was always building things.
At age 10, he constructed a metal detector and sold it to a classmate; by 13, he was running a side hustle repairing computers and undercutting the local electronics store. So, when he applied to study engineering at the University of Waterloo and was confronted with Canada’s tangle of opaque academic requirements, language tests and visas for international students, he sensed an opportunity.
A decade or so later, Basiri and his two brothers run ApplyBoard, an online platform that guides overseas students through the application process for 1,500 schools in English-speaking countries including Canada, the US and Australia. It helps them convert their qualifications into these countries’ equivalents and determine which universities they could be accepted at, as well as schedule language tests and transfer funds for tuition fees.
It may sound niche, but it’s a surprisingly large market. The number of international students in Canada has trebled over the past decade to reach 620,000 last year — and the high fees they pay are keeping some universities afloat. That has helped make ApplyBoard one of Canada’s fastest-growing ventures, with a valuation that hit $2 billion in 2020. Last week, it landed on Communitech’s Team True North list of companies on track to make $1 billion a year in revenues.
Here, Basiri explains how he made a business out of busting bureaucracy — and why he turned down a buyout offer that would have made him $100 million.
Tens of thousands of students come to Canada every year. The application system can’t be that bad, can it?
I came from Iran to University of Waterloo as an international student, so I experienced the hard problem myself. I got lucky because my cousins went to Waterloo. The reality of international education is that students need a lot of information to be able to choose wisely — but you don’t even know the name of the universities let alone what they want. Students rely on counselors in their high school or agencies. But the problem — that actually elevated enormously during the COVID time — is these counselors don’t have the best information. Even (determining qualifications) is crazy. In Iran, the GPA is from zero to 20. When I was applying to Canada, it’s zero to 100 and in the US, it’s zero to four. Every university is different. Even some departments are different — the science department may say it’s equal to this and the engineering department may say it is something else.
With ApplyBoard, you say I want to do computer science in Ontario, and this is my qualification. It does the calculations, and it tells you where you could get accepted.
How did you start the company?
We got started by just helping our friends and then a couple of years later we said let’s do it — let’s build something. We didn’t know what it was then or how big it was going to get. But I always knew this was a big problem from the student side. I never thought of helping tens or thousands of people a year — I think we are actually very small, I want to help millions of people. There is demand, this is something everyone needs — to be able to say my high school education is equivalent to this, that enables you to find global opportunities.
Did universities jump at your solution?
It wasn’t easy. They have a desire and need to find the most diverse qualified students from all over the world. But our solution and business model? Those things didn’t come naturally (to them). Universities don’t necessarily compare themselves with other universities. They just see their own needs. So, it was extremely challenging. It took a lot of hustle and sweat equity. I think one school we called almost 80 times until they agreed to work with us.
You run ApplyBoard with your two brothers. Is entrepreneurship in your family’s DNA?
Both of my parents are actually educators. So, education was a big thing. I never seen someone more excited at helping other people learn than my mom. She was always at her most excited when she was talking about something one of her students achieved. And growing up I was always teaching — I taught coding and circuit design in high school, and I taught a course called How to Invent in university.
But both of my parents were also a little bit entrepreneurial. My mom was a principal running to school. My dad was doing projects to make a buck here and there. Nothing got big scale, but I learned about the hustle and discipline that you need.
One of the perennial grumbles about Canadian startups is that they’re often bought out before they scale. You must have had offers, why didn’t you take them?
We could have sold our business for a couple of hundred million dollars. And we said no to it. The day that I said no to over $100 million personally to me, I had $1,500 in my bank account. But what would I do the day after I sold the company? Should I start another company? But I already like this one. I’ve done so many projects before ApplyBoard but I never had an idea as good as this. So why should I sell my best idea?
There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t have access to higher education. And we want to make sure every single one of them does have access. I don’t know how long it will take — 10 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. But ApplyBoard, we’re definitely going to be a multi-generation company, going with a mission to educate the world and to help people be better versions of themselves. We think it’s very important for the whole world for companies like us to be impactful. And I highly urge other new startups to really solve the serious problems that humanity is dealing with — health care, education, environment.
What is the outlook is like for tech companies that want to grow in Canada?
I think COVID really helped. Because even three years ago, I was going to American venture capitalists, and they wanted us to move to Silicon Valley. Now, no one is asking us to move anywhere because they know it doesn’t matter. So, you’ll see right now there are like five to 10 unicorns in Canada. I think that number is going to grow substantially in the coming years. And I’m very happy about it. Fingers crossed that out of the 20 global apps on your phone a couple of them will soon be Canadian.
Disclaimer This content was produced as part of a partnership and therefore it may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.