Written by Diego Fanara. MSc Finance 2014-15, CEO & Co-Founder at Unibuddy
After graduating from my MSc Finance in 2015, my classmate Maxence and I founded Unibuddy, a startup that develops peer-to-peer communication technology for universities. Our entrepreneurial journey started with a simple business plan, drafted at a table in the Business School’s café, and led us, after more than a year of trial-and-error learning, back to the exact same table where we signed our first licensing contract with the Business School’s recruitment team.
‘…After a few years working as a Business Analyst, studying for an MBA would equip me with the skills and knowledge that are key to rising within the financial sector and eventually becoming Vice-President or Managing Director at a leading hedge fund…’
That is how I answered part of the career planning question of my Master’s application…You can already tell that something went terribly wrong (terribly well, actually), so let me walk you through this very special journey.
Finding my entrepreneurial side
When I arrived at Imperial, I only had one goal in mind: to join one of the top investment banks as an analyst, stay a few years and then move on to a hedge fund or private equity firm. Sounds familiar, right? However, after countless applications, interviews and second-stage interviews throughout the year, the whole idea of working there slowly faded away. Maxence, with whom I did all my weekly coursework, was feeling the exact same way – he had actually confessed right from the start that corporate life was not his thing and that he was determined to start his own business.
With Spring holidays came an idea that would eventually give birth to Unibuddy: observing that most of our classmates were competing for the same investment banks and that the scary interview season was about to start, we imagined a peer-to-peer interview practice platform connecting students applying within the same industries, i.e. help and be helped by other finance students applying for banking jobs. We quickly realised that finding enough students having the same interests, experience and targeting similar jobs would never be scalable enough to make a business out of it. We therefore decided to reorient this peer-to-peer student help towards the similarly-painful university application processes. While we didn’t take the whole idea very seriously at the beginning, brainstorming on it kept our library breaks busy.
Creating a platform
By the end of the exam period in June, the idea had matured. Creating a platform that would allow prospective applicants to connect and chat with current students at their dream universities started to make a lot more sense. Throughout the summer, instead of working on our final dissertation, we started to draft a business plan and ended up identifying potential for a business.
One thing kept holding me back though: engaging on this journey required a huge leap of faith and meant turning my back on the perfect life plan that had once guided all my efforts as a student (remember: analyst – MBA – Hedge fund manager). That same summer, I met the founder of a Nasdaq company who would eventually become our mentor and a significant investor in Unibuddy. He said to me: “The finance job will always be there, starting your company won’t. You’re 22, what do you risk?”. And so we decided to give it a try. Joined by our third founder David, we figured we’d see what could be achieved by the time of our graduation ceremony, scheduled a year later.
“You will see: nothing goes according to plan and everything will change. If not, something’s wrong“, said any entrepreneur we would meet. Well, without really thinking about it, this is exactly what happened: nothing went according to plan and everything changed.
The first business model of Unibuddy was a marketplace leveraging this connection between prospective applicants and current students. We would incentivise current students to be active on the platform and offer quality help and insights to applicants. The first platform was a pretty basic one, we hired external developers in Eastern Europe to build it over September and October 2015. During that time, we ordered t-shirts and posters to go around London campuses and register students as Unibuddy mentors.
We registered over 400 students in the first 10 days and thought we had built the next unicorn…with that enthusiasm and a bit of research, we flew to several countries in Europe to visit high schools that were sending many students to the UK, most of which were kind enough to let us organise talks or set up a stand to present our platform to their students.
After meeting a few college counsellors, there was no doubt that the idea of connecting students had potential. While our initial business model started to show some weaknesses, some counsellors suggested that their school would be happy to pay if their students could get a free access to our platform.
Growth and funding
From January to May 2016, equipped with a simple PowerPoint showing this new concept, we convinced 26 high schools across Europe to join Unibuddy and started to send our first invoices (just in time for the graduation). We then finally convinced a UCL computer science graduate, Kimeshan, to join us and build this brand new platform (Yes, not for the last time, we had already sold something that didn’t fully exist).
Fast forward to September 2016, things accelerate: we secure our first funding round (which feels great) and get accepted into one Europe’s most famous accelerators (TheFamily). Since good news come in threes, UCL’s incubator also provides us free office space in Central London. Our new platform launches and is soon used by 5,000 students spread over 50 universities across 4 countries.
One problem remains though, and it’s a big one: students sign up, start a conversation, but only a handful of them purchase a subscription. At the end of November 2016, a leading UK university – intrigued to see its own students help and inform prospective applicants – asks for a meeting. That’s when we realise that our big problem is in fact our greatest opportunity: universities are all setting up ambassador networks to better inform applicants, and we happen to have a technology that can make this process efficient and scalable. Of course, we could have realised that a year earlier… but where would be all the fun of starting a company then?
A year and a half after launching the very first version of Unibuddy, the solution is finally cracked: Unibuddy will now integrate its technology directly into university websites and make peer-to-peer student communication free and accessible to all.
10 months have passed since we adopted this new business model, and the results are promising: 30 universities got on-board in 8 different countries (we enjoy travelling) among Imperial College Business School, Queen Mary University and Royal Holloway in the UK. We have just hired an 11th team member and are closing a second funding round that will give us the means to double our team, reach more universities and, above all, develop our technology.
All the fun and the sleepless nights have just started, but I can already tell you that these past two years have given us the most nourishing experiences of our lives and we will continue to wake up every single day with a fierce desire to drive lasting and positive change to our industry.
If you are not satisfied with the status quo, if you start asking questions and the answers sound something like “because that’s how the way things work”, then please start digging: you might be in for a great ride. Things don’t always go as planned. That career you once dreamt of might not be perfect for you after all. One of those countless interviews I went to two years ago was with Goldman Sachs. I may not have gone on to work for them, but the partner who interviewed me is now one of our key investors. So follow your gut, take the right opportunities along the way, and you’ll never regret the choices you made.
Diego Fanara studied MSc Finance in the Class of 2014-15.