Alumni Stories – Kami and their Velocity Experience

Kami is transitioning classrooms into the paperless world. The idea came from humble beginnings as a way for co-founders Alliv Samson, Jordan Thoms and Hengjie Wang to be able to collaborate on their own university study notes. After taking their venture idea through the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Velocity programme the business has grown exponentially. The company has now expanded to cater for over six million users worldwide. They have won numerous accolades, most recently winning the Company-X Best Emerging Business at the ExportNZ Awards.

Kami’s cloud-based software application allows teachers and students to annotate, view, edit and collaborate on digital documents in their browser and complements existing office suites, cloud platforms and learning management systems.

We sat down with the co-founders to find out more about their journey so far.

Answers by:
Alliv Samson, COO
Jordan Thoms, Chief Technology Officer
Hengjie Wang, CEO

Looking back to when you first started University could you have ever imagined that you would start a company like Kami? What do you think has helped you the most to get to where you are now?

Alliv: I’m not sure if any of us could have imagined the future but our time at the University of Auckland had a direct impact on what we do now. We all met while at uni, recognised the need for better and more collaborative note taking and created a product to meet that need. Now, five years on, we have won awards, employ a number of staff, have great investors and the business is growing rapidly. One of the things that has helped us get to where we are now is our combined focus and determination to enrich the lives of teachers and students around the world.

What has been your biggest challenge moving into the North American market and how have you worked to overcome it?

Hengjie: Surprisingly, launching into New Zealand was a much bigger challenge than North America. We spent our first year struggling to find a product-market fit with the theory that growing in our backyard is the best option for us. Unfortunately, schools in NZ weren’t as mature as the rest of the world when it came to integrating tech into the classroom.

It hasn’t been without its challenges but launching into North America, where schools have more mature software policies and can more easily adopt our product, has made all the difference for Kami. The American schools was faster at integrating tech – something that is crucial for a tech startup. We have really learnt how much the ecosystem you operate in plays a role in business success.

How is Kami changing the face of education in the digital age? And how do you think it can improve the learning process for both students and teachers?

Hengjie: Kami allows teachers and students to engage in a more collaborative and engaging classroom experience – a shift away from the current one-way dialogue from teachers to students.

For example with English teachers, we’re bringing previously static documents to life by making traditional worksheets or readings interactive. We use video, audio, and text to speech tools to help students engage with the content, and help with their comprehension. Typically static documents has meant English language learners, such as myself, have had to struggle with reading. However, Kami has a set of tools to allow us to engage with the text in a way that makes reading easy.

We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers who have recognised the significant time savings and uplift in active, real-time participation in the classroom using Kami.

One area I am particularly passionate about is the impact this is having on students with special needs. Teachers have reported that children with special needs, such as dyslexia, benefit immensely from the tools within Kami that help children improve their reading and comprehension.

What do you think have been the benefits and challenges of building a startup in New Zealand?

Jordan: We’ve had a lot of great support in New Zealand – We got our start with the Velocity $100k Challenge where we met our mentor Bob Drummond – he’s now Kami’s Chairman and Chief Revenue Officer. We also met advisors during the challenge who went on to invest in Kami later.

Running a startup costs a lot less here than in the major cities of the US, which gave us more time to experiment and find the right market for our product. We started off with a horizontal market but we didn’t get the revenue growth we wanted and we realized we would need to focus on a specific customer profile. We’d got so much love from the teachers using Kami in their classrooms in the US that we made the decision to risk focusing on them exclusively. We redirected everything to addressing their needs in the product and a sales team to get their schools to get their schools to upgrade, and we’ve seen great growth in our paid product since then.

What advice would you give to other budding startups around New Zealand?

Hengjie: I wouldn’t go down the normal growth path of NZ, Australia, and USA/UK. I’d start learning about the biggest market for your idea from day one, and focus only on that. I think many entrepreneurs assume that their local market is the easiest way to get started, but in many cases it doesn’t prepare you for the bigger and more lucrative markets overseas.

Jordan: It’s best if you choose an idea which is something you can build yourselves and iterate quickly on. We built the MVP for the successful version of Kami in under a month while working part-time and we published it. The initial product was very rough, but when people are using it for real every day you can learn from what they actually do and improve the product much faster.

Smartcompany: How Kiwi edtech Kami gained six million users without any advertising and secured a $1.4 million investment

Idealog: Day in the Life: Kami’s Alliv Samson

In the video below, key players from the hugely successful start-up Kami, describe what Velocity has done for them and their dream of making the world a paperless society.  

Kami was founded in 2013 by Hengjie Wang, Jordan Thoms, Alliv Samson and Bob Drummond in response to a problem. Today, Kami is backed by Silicon Valley and New Zealand investors including Sam Altman (Y Combinator), Scott Nolan (Founders Fund), Flying Kiwi Angels, and Right Side Capital Management.