ApplyBoard’s Martin Basiri: “Access to education is our number one goal”

After raising a recent $55m round, ApplyBoard’s CEO talks about the startup's roadmap and his thoughts on the future of education.


October 5, 2020

Founded in 2015 by three Iranian brothers — Martin, Meti, and Massi Basiri — ApplyBoard is a platform that simplifies the study abroad application process for students and recruiters.

The brothers launched the startup based on their own complicated experience applying to Canadian schools.

To date, ApplyBoard has assisted 120k students from more than a 100 countries with their applications to over 1200 schools. It recently secured an additional $55M investment at a $1.4B valuation. 

We spoke with Martin (Co-Founder and CEO) about the roadmap for the Ontario-based ed-tech firm and the future of education:

Meti (L), Martin (C) and Massi (R) Basiri (ApplyBoard)

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What is ApplyBoard’s plan with the money raised? 

We’ve raised $180M in total. We’ll be using the funds to strengthen our technology platform [which uses AI to help place students with the right schools] and to invest in market expansion.

The majority of our student applicants currently come from Asia, but we want to make a push into the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. On the school side, we’ve expanded from just Canada to include partner post-secondary institutions in the US, UK and Australia. 

How has COVID-19 changed the education landscape? 

The industry needs more help than ever. With few travel or in-person options, high school students, recruiting offices, universities and colleges need technology solutions to facilitate the application process. 

Do you think schools should drop tuition if they are going full digital?

It depends. If schools are taking full tuition this year and investing that money into services and innovations that will improve the student experience moving forward, I think that’s OK to keep tuition as is.

However, if schools aren’t making new investments. If they are taking the same tuition to save a buck or expand margin, they should lower it. 

What do you say to the argument that ‘colleges are over’?

I think people that make this argument don’t understand how bad the problem of access to higher education is globally. There are places where less than 20% of the population have access to post-secondary options.

Take Bangladesh as an example. The country doesn’t have a top 1000 school yet. Just because a Bangladeshi high school student is placed in a US school other than Stanford or Harvard, it doesn’t mean the experience is not worth it. 

What happens to ApplyBoard’s business if colleges do go away?

So, our revenue model is we get paid by the institutions whenever we place a student. Even if a number of colleges went away, our ultimate goal is to build a gateway to global education. 

Let’s say all colleges become [vocational] bootcamps, people will still need a place they trust to vet the options. A place that they can do applications to the new educational programs. A place to find the best fit. A place to provide payments.

ApplyBoard will be the platform for all of that. 

What is the process for adding schools to the platform? 

There are a few things we look at. Of course, quality and popularity matter. But — a major part for us — is the experience itself. 

In the future, we believe that the experience provided by the school will matter as much as the content. Students can already learn some courses online and access all types of information on YouTube. Universities and colleges can differentiate themselves by providing unique experiences, social activities, clubs and events.

Since experience is our key job, we’ll drop a school just based on a very bad admission process because of what that signals to us about their focus on experience. 

What other edtech companies do you admire?

There are a few:

  • BYJU in India is doing amazing things for education access
  • Duolingo has created a great platform for easy language learning 
  • Polyup is a great way to learn coding

What’s the best book you read in the past 12 months?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.  

What’s the best advice you ever received? 

One of our investors told me to “build what you think the world needs, not what the VCs think the world needs.” Access to education is our number one goal. My heart goes to the students. 

Do you have a request for a startup?

Someone needs to create a better assessment tool than the GPA. The current methods don’t capture all the different things a student brings to the table, nor does it capture what skills the world needs. 

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